Between the Lines

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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

April 8, 1998. All rights reserved.

Paul Robeson: Up Close

April’s special Paul Robeson centennial events offer

a once-in-a-century opportunity to learn first-hand about Princeton’s

native son from archival materials and from those that knew him. Yet

when this commemorative moment has passed, video will remain a ready

resource, for children and adults, when and where ever it is wanted.

"Speak of Me as I Am," a new television documentary that examines

Paul Robeson’s remarkable life and achievements, airs on NJN public

television on Robeson’s 100th birthday, Thursday, April 9, at 9 p.m.

It marks the first time in NJN’s 27-year history, that it has partnered

with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

"Robeson was a remarkable individual, whose passion for the stage

and screen was matched by his dedication to human rights and social

justice," says NJN executive director Elizabeth Christopherson.

"It was important for NJN to tell his story and to introduce a

new generation of young people to a forgotten American hero. Working

with the BBC and expanding our reach to an international audience

makes this innovative co-production even more meaningful."

"Speak of Me as I Am" traces Robeson’s journey from his early

years as a boy growing up in Princeton to his college years at Rutgers

University where he graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 1919.

The documentary includes archival footage of Robeson in performance

and his rise to international stardom, as well as his fall from grace

with the American public when his forthright political views and his

outspoken defense of communism was criminalized by the House Committee

on Un-American Activities.

"Understanding Robeson’s political beliefs are central to examining

who he was both as a man and an artist," explains BBC producer

Rachel Hermer. "Politics and social justice were always at the

forefront — from the songs he sang, to his refusing to perform

in segregated theaters, and choosing roles, although not always successfully,

in which blacks were portrayed with humanity and dignity."

The producers and camera crews spent time in Princeton and New Brunswick,

as well as in London, Moscow, Chicago, and Washington, to paint a

vivid picture of Robeson the artist and the man. Expert accounts are

given on camera by Lloyd L. Brown, author of "The Young Paul Robeson,"

and Martin Duberman, author of the biography "Paul Robeson."

Also featured are interviews with Robeson’s close friend Helen Rosen,

folk singer Pete Seeger, and writer Studs Terkel.

In Britain, the country where many of Robeson’s political views were

formed and matured, interviews with activists and fans reveal the

great warmth and regard in which he is still held. And in Russia,

interviews with Robeson’s interpreter, as well as the producer of

a 1958 Russian documentary, reveal the Robeson who the Soviet Union

came to know well and continues to adore. Among the unexpected gems

of the program is rare footage from Russia featuring Robeson improvising

political statements for the camera and his meeting with Kruschev

at the premier’s holiday home.

The NJN producer of "Speak of Me as I Am" is Jill Hargrave

of Lambertville who was reintroduced to Robeson only recently. Hargrave

accompanied a friend to a play that happened to be on Robeson’s life.

She says Robeson’s strong determination and sense of justice, which

caused him to be blacklisted and to have his passport revoked by the

U.S. government, inspired her to want to produce a television documentary

on his life.

Approaching NJN with her idea, Hargrave discovered the station was

already in the process of creating a program on Robeson, so she joined

that effort. She started her career in broadcasting as a member of

the WCBS "Eye On New York" team, and has produced shows that

include "The Lost Kingdom," a chronicle a New Jersey team

of archaeologists excavating in the Golan Heights.

"I had always known of Robeson as a singer and actor and had no

idea there were so many aspects to this exceptional man," says

Hargrave.

— Nicole Plett

Speak of Me as I Am, a documentary on the life and times

of Paul Robeson, NJN Television, Thursday, April 9, at 9 p.m.

Funding for the documentary was provided by Allen and Joan Bildner

and the Bildner Family Foundation and the Prudential Foundation.

Other events commemorating the 100th birthday include Susan

Robeson , Robeson’s granddaughter, speaking at the Witherspoon

Presbyterian Church, 124 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-6748, Wednesday,

April 8, at 7:30 p.m. Music by the WSPC Chancel Choir. Free.

Also Robeson’s 100th Birthday Party, Arts Council of

Princeton , 102 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-6748. Thursday, April

9, Free. 4 p.m.

Also on Thursday, April 9, a one-hour radio interview with Robeson

colleague and biographer Lloyd L. Brown, at 7 p.m. on WGBO 88.3

FM Newark.

Top Of Page
Between the Lines

Celebration of Paul Robeson’s 100th birthday continues.

Lloyd Brown, the author of "The Young Paul Robeson," called

to thank U.S. 1 for the story we printed last week and to add (with

a smile and a reference to April Fool’s Day, the date our story was

printed) that he is an astute 85 years old, not 75, as we stated.

Brown has just learned that the City of Toronto has named Thursday,

April 9, as Paul Robeson Day. The Canada connection: In the early

1950s, when he was denied a passport, Robeson gave annual concerts

at Peace Arch Park, on the border between Washington state and British

Columbia, sponsored by the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. On these

occasions Brown served as the page-turner for Robeson’s accompanist.

Nicole Plett contributed 3,400 words to the Robeson litany last week

and Ron Czajkowski, vice president of the New Jersey Hospital

Association,

called to add some information. Czajkowski has a particular interest

because both he and Robeson graduated from Somerville

High School. Czajkowski believes the Robeson family might have left

Princeton because of its segregated high school; Paul’s older brother

Bill had to travel 11 miles to Trenton High and in 1899 was the first

member of his community to finish high school, graduating with high

honors.

In contrast to Princeton, says Czajkowski, Somerville’s high school

was integrated even then. He asked if we knew the story of how, during

Paul’s junior year, the Somerville school choir was invited to perform

in Washington, D.C. When the hotel would not allow Paul to stay there

with the group, the choir decided to turn around and come home.

In spite of all today’s words about Paul Robeson, they are not

sufficient

to counteract the deliberate eradication of his life story and the

sheer volume of the tale. Beginning with Robeson’s post-World War

II campaign against race violence and in favor of workers’ rights,

he was attacked, black-listed, and silenced. This was a man who

defended

his very presence in the United States to the House Committee in 1956

with the words, "Because my father was a slave, and my people

died to build this country, I am going to stay here and have a part

of it just like you."

The new 330-page anthology, "Paul Robeson: Artist and

Citizen,"

published by Rutgers University Press, that accompanies the Robeson

centennial exhibition at Rutgers’ Zimmerli Museum, promises new

insight.

One chapter is devoted to his athletic accomplishments, including

his four-sport college career. Few All-Americans have managed to shed

their athletic reputations and move on to so many accomplishments

outside the sports world. One who comes close to matching Robeson’s

transformation also has a Princeton connection: Bill Bradley.

Robeson’s granddaughter, Susan Robeson, shares her recollections at

Witherspoon Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, April 8, at 7:30 p.m.,

and the Arts Council of Princeton hosts Robeson’s centennial community

birthday party on the actual day, Thursday, April 9, at 4 p.m. Words,

songs, images, and more words — the celebration continues.


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