OAKLAND, Calif. — African American Renaissance man Paul Robeson would have turned 110 on April 9. To celebrate, the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee presented “A Hero For All Time,” an exhibition from its holdings, illustrating Robeson’s legacy as a “world-renowned scholar, athlete, singer, actor and fighter for freedom, peace and social justice for all.” The exhibition is installed at Oakland’s City Hall, One Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, through April 30, and is open for public viewing weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On the occasion of Robeson’s birth, the committee held a special reception for the exhibit. The crowd enjoyed food, wine, coffee and desserts donated by local businesses as they admired the displays. Ben Hazard curated the exihibit.
In opening remarks, Oakland Mayor Ronald Dellums — himself a lifelong fighter for peace and human dignity — acknowledged the many achievements of Robeson that inspired him, including his refusal to be powered by red baiting.
The committee, in turn, presented the mayor with a certificate of appreciation for his many accomplishments for working people. As a member of Congress, Dellums was instrumental in authorizing the Paul Robeson commemorative postage stamp.
Keynote speaker Clarence Thomas of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 remembered Robeson’s close relationship with the labor movement, and how he often stood up for unions and working people. Thomas asked the crowd, “Who here would have had the courage to stand with Robeson?”
Thomas urged the gathering to support the local’s plans for a stop-work meeting May 1 to protest the Iraq war. (See related item on page 3).
Tayo Aluko of Liverpool, England entertained and educated the crowd with a musical re-enactment of a remarkable speech given by Robeson. In the spirit of Robeson, Mr. Aluko mixed art and politics and excerpted scenes from his one-man play, “Call Mr. Robeson.” The entire performance was presented the next evening in San Francisco.
The event concluded with several songs by Vukani Mawethu, a local multiracial choir that sings freedom songs of South Africa. Songs were performed in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and English. The choir also draws its repertoire from American gospel, spirituals, labor and civil rights traditions, linking the struggles of people in the U.S., South Africa and around the world. Their voices highlighted all those traditions, including “Old Man River,” a signature Robeson song. A later version of the song by Robeson that reflected his working class consciousness was also performed (“ I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin”). The choir’s stunning performance left the audience wanting more.
There’s still time to catch the exhibit, so stop by and check it out.