The Undiscovered Life of Paul Robeson

The Undiscovered Life of Paul Robeson

Students discuss the legacy of Rutgers’ most famous alumnus after semester-long Byrne Seminar, cotaught by Robeson’s granddaughter

Susan Robeson coteaches a Byrne Seminar for first-year students in anticipation of #Robeson100, a commemoration of Robeson’s 1919 graduation.
Photo by Nick Romanenko

This semester, a group of students explored the life and legacy of Paul Robeson, Rutgers’ third African-American graduate and most famous alumnus, in a seminar cotaught by the human rights activist’s granddaughter.

“It has been rewarding to see the lights go on in the younger generation of students who haven’t experienced the hardships of my grandfather’s time, but got a grasp of global issues and the importance of his position, not just in America, but in the world,” said Susan Robeson. “There is a river to the freedom struggle and so much of that flow comes from Paul Robeson.”

This week, students presented the findings of their research about Robeson’s life in the Byrne Seminar called “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Celebrating the 100 Year Anniversary of Paul Robeson’s Graduation from Rutgers,” part of a series of classes to introduce first-year students to research.

They explored Robeson’s fights for social justice in the United States, South Africa and beyond; his career as a singer and actor; and his blacklisting and other struggles in the age of McCarthyism.

The seminar marks the beginning of Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s Robeson Centennial, a commemoration of Robeson’s 1919 graduation from Rutgers College – and his achievements as a scholar, athlete, artist, activist and global citizen.

Beginning in January, the yearlong celebration will feature lectures, performances, art exhibitions and more, including the dedication of the Paul Robeson Plaza on the College Avenue campus this spring. Upcoming events and additional information can be found here.

“It has been rewarding to see the lights go on in the younger generation of students who haven’t experienced the hardships of my grandfather’s time . . .'' – Susan Robeson

Edward Ramsamy, the chair of Africana Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick, who cotaught the Byrne Seminar with Susan Robeson and James Whitney III, assistant vice chancellor for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, said the students will help the campus community make Robeson’s memory and legacy a living part of the university’s culture.

Paul Robeson was a member of Cap and Skull, a senior-year honor society at Rutgers College.
Students examined how Robeson in 1938 made tweaks to his iconic “Ol’ Man River” – a song that helped make him famous a decade earlier – turning it from a song of black suffering to one of black empowerment, according to first-year Rutgers-New Brunswick students Jordan Davis and Olukubola Lana.

Among other changes, Robeson replaced “I get weary and sick of tryin’; I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’” with “But I keep laughin’ instead of cryin’; I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin.”

Classmates Kevin Carolina and Alexandra Sankoh read excerpts of Robeson’s valedictory address, titled “The New Idealism,” which called upon post-World War I America to “expect a greater openness of mind, a greater willingness to try new lines of advancement, a greater desire to do the right things, and to serve social ends.”

“In my lifetime, I witnessed the first black president, the legalization of same-sex marriage and changes in how we handle sexual assault. We have Robeson to thank for showing us how to be brave and fight for what we believe in,” Carolina said.