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“Yet I’ll Speak” – The Life of Paul Robeson

Writer: Marta Perez-Fernandez, BA Economics and Development Studies

1898, a cool spring day in New Jersey. He was born, to a mother and father.

1901, it’s about his father, and whispered conversations while he is sleeping. Them at Princeton, they want him to stop preaching. The very air in the house seems to change; soon the house itself will have to go. He’s learning about his lifelong battle already, as he sleeps.

1904, his mother dies. She was already blind, there was a house fire. He was only six, but he remembers her when he sings.

1912, high school, his canvas to explore. He sings (he always sings), but he knows more secrets about words and how they sound together; he knows about Othello and Julius Caesar, about standing and crouching and letting your world be cut up on a stage. He knows about the field; about holding breaths, and running, letting your body become an extension of thought. He excels; they all say it. He gets the university scholarship. He will be the only black person there.

1915 smells bitter; the looks he gets from debate team members and the guys at the Glee Club. It smells like the iodine he uses when the Scarlet Knights football team takes his brilliance too personally; like the twisting smile from the football coach announcing that he has, of course, made the team. He fights on the most important front still: it’s World War One, black people are dying for America and their names are nowhere to be seen. It’s Rutgers; excitement, indignance, a diploma and a head held high, and whispers still carrying his name.

1921, he’s at Columbia Law, singing in Harlem, hearing his voice meet and mingle with others. He meets her, Essie; she brings shine to his doubts, his mistrusts. Thanks to her, he experiences the wildest happiness: his theatrical debut. Thanks to her, he experiences the wildest happiness: a chapel, vows he memorizes, she dressed in white. He’s still playing football, for the NFL; that stops, and he graduates once more.

1923, he will not be a lawyer: he’s seen the way they look at him, he knows his calling is elsewhere. His acting is a thing that defies; he speaks truths with his body, with his voice. Success becomes a sharp thing, a thing that elevates. There are tours. She will soon become pregnant. He will soon have a son, named after him. It will redefine success.

1928, in London. The Theatre Royal opens its doors to him: he will star in its most profitable show for 80 years. His “Ol’ Man River” becomes the basis for all future performances for generations to come. He performs at Buckingham Palace, surrounded by ivories and gold. The excitable MPs want him to know their names. They buy a home in London. When they go out, he is sometimes refused seating.

1930 is Othello, and the highest grace. He is the first Black actor to play the lead since Ira Aldridge. He meets her there; she is beautiful and talented, perhaps a genius; and when Essie finds out, it stands out as a scar, it haunts; it never again leaves him.

1934, he is in London, at a School of Oriental and African Studies. He studies African dialects and writes an essay among many, “I Want To Be African”. He becomes an international movie star. He becomes even more sharply aware of the political meaning of his roles. He visits Nazi Germany, and hates it. He visits the Soviet Union, and loves it.

1938, he knows that whatever role he plays on stage will come second to his role of activist. He aids the Republicans in the fight against fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He is taught the Chinese song “Arise” by a progressive activist; he knows it in Mandarin. It becomes the Chinese National Anthem after 1949, owing to the reputation he gives it. Grace, the highest, in a different form.

1946, he meets with U.S. President Truman. Four black men have just been lynched. He founds the American Crusade Against Lynching, and is deemed violent for it. He is willing to risk his life for them; he will do it time and time again.

1950, blacklist. Stop-at-all-ports. He is no longer allowed to travel outside the United States. He presents a petition to the United Nations, that lynching is genocide. The President and State Department spread falsehoods about him in Africa. They believe they can stop him. They are why he fights.

1957, still wading through Cold War America like concrete. He says his political ideology ought not be at odds with his constitutional rights; those inherited with his being an American. His passport is revoked. In London, St Pancras Town Hall, 1,000 tickets have sold out in an hour to hear him sing. He does it over the telephone.

1958, he is allowed to travel free. They are still spreading lies about him; his singing breaks records as it always did. He is the first black man to sing at a service in St Paul’s Cathedral. He plays Othello again, at Stratford-upon-Avon.

1961, he becomes disjointed. They’ve been after him all this time. He tried to kill himself because they were going to do it anyway. It was the CIA, MI5. His recovery is a lengthy, mistrustful, and fragile thing. It’s their hands he doesn’t trust.

1963, he is back in the United States. He cannot assume a place in the mainstream civil rights movement: he watches instead as it unfolds. He thinks of his voice all these years, how it spelled hope.

1976, he dies. He lives, still, in every stubbornness and every truth, in wrongs and rights. He is remembered in dreams and realities, for making magic with his voice, his body, his hands. For letting little black boys dream. He lives, still, in that stubborn little school that helped him find his truth; he is our footsteps.

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