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Paul Robeson was a scholar, an athlete, an artist, and a quintessential drum major for justice. He walked tall, sounded tall, and did tall things, much like the famed iroko of his ancestral land. He spoke multiple languages and sang in them too. In unveiling the commemorative stamp for Paul Robeson, the United States Postal Services said he was being honored for his "tireless and uncompromising commitment to civil rights and social justice." - Dr. Ugorji

In 1777, the small state of Vermont (Howard Dean’s state) became the first state in the United States to abolish the inhumane enterprise of slavery. And today marks the birthday of a young woman, who in the tradition of the Aba Market Women’s Revolt, refused to go to the back of the bus in Alabama. Her name is Rosa Parks.

This is Black History Month in America. It is the month in which particular attention is paid to the history and contributions of African people to the building of America. Yes, America, the only remaining super power, was built on the backs and brains of African people. Other folks helped build this nation too, but they are not the subjects of this piece. Started by the historian Carter G. Woodson, who wrote the classic "The miseducation of the Negro," Black History month evolved from a weeklong celebration to a full month of national observance. In this piece, I remember Paul Robeson, that towering Igbo man, who like his ancestors, refused to bow to mortals.

On January 20, 2004, the United States Postal Service unveiled the commemorative postage stamp in honor of Paul Robeson’s legacy. The event was held at the Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, on the Princeton University campus. The great actor, Avery Brooks, whose one-man play "Paul Robeson," I had gone to see a couple of times, was on hand for the celebration. Politicians were there too, as was Paul Robeson, Jr., who is himself an accomplished author and lecturer.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, at 110 Witherspoon Street, in Princeton, New Jersey. But the Princeton of then was, as one author put it "the northernmost outpost of the confederacy." He was the youngest of five children that made it out of infancy. His father, William, was born a slave, but later became self-educated, ran away at the age of 15, and ended up a Presbyterian minister in Princeton. He later moved his family to Somerville, New Jersey. Paul graduated from Somerville High School and attended Rutgers University with scholarship.

At Rutgers, Paul was harassed and teased to no end by teammates, but that would not stop him from making all-America twice in football (American football, that is). He earned 15 varsity letters, was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated first in the class of 1919. He proceeded to Columbia Law School, where he became one of the first Blacks to graduate in 1923. Faced with racism in his law practice, he left the profession to pursue acting and singing. His is an authoritative baritone voice. If Amadioha has a voice, I would bet it is as divine and masculine as Paul’s. I used his rendition of "We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder" as the procession song for my wedding party. And it was his rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" that ushered Chioma and I to the alter at the same wedding.

Notable moments in his career included singing "Ol’Man River" in "Showboat", playing the title role in O’Neil’s "The Emperor Jones," and starring in "Othello," which set performance records for Shakespeare at Broadway. And as was characteristic of him, he left acting in protest against the way African people were being portrayed in the movies.

His most important legacy was left in the field of activism for causes that were dear to him, even if unpopular. He spoke his mind forcefully, fearlessly, and often, in support of workers’ rights, the civil rights movement, which had began to pick up steam, and against colonialism on the Africa of his ancestors. He was branded a communist (and he was indeed seduced by the stated "ideals" of communism) and exiled in America, with his passport revoked for about eight years. He wept for and spoke against the killing fields of Nigeria as the Nigeria/Biafra war raged on, for apart from his humanity and long history against injustice, he also traced his ancestry to the Igbo who were bearing the brunt of Africa’s now most forgotten nasty war.

Paul Robeson was a scholar, an athlete, an artist, and a quintessential drum major for justice. He walked tall, sounded tall, and did tall things, much like the famed iroko of his ancestral land. He spoke multiple languages and sang in them too. In unveiling the commemorative stamp for Paul Robeson, the United States Postal Services said he was being honored for his "tireless and uncompromising commitment to civil rights and social justice." I hope you ask, as I do, for Paul's stamp or any other stamp on Black History, next time you go to the post office.

Paul Robeson, ome ka nna ya; nwoke oma. Ugorji na ekele!

Ndewo nu. May the labors and sacrifices of our warriors not be in vain.

Ugorji O. Ugorji
Odoziobodo@winning.com

Odozi Obodo Mbaise

 

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