Last week, Grant Cooper and I finished our tour of middle schools in NYC with our program on Paul Robeson. It was quite a special journey! As students and teachers were filing out of the auditorium at our last show, one teacher turned around and thanked us. As she walked away she waved and exclaimed with a serious smile, “Important life lessons from Paul Robeson!” That statement sums up our motivation for bringing Robeson’s story to these young scholars.
At each school, there were students who really grasped our points about using Robeson’s story to be inspired, and to take home his entreaty to always reach for one’s highest potential. At each school, students asked about why I wrote the book. This is an especially meaningful question because it shows a deeper level of curiosity. Answering this question so many times pushed me to really reflect upon the reasons that I wrote the book. I always tell the students that I didn’t learn about Robeson until I was in graduate school, and the compelling narrative of his life really motivated me. I wondered why his narrative wasn’t more widely known, and I wanted to help disseminate his story more broadly. To me, his story is so powerful not only because of his unique charisma and talents, but also Robeson’s devotion to telling the truth about American society while not shying from the sacrifices necessary for pursuing justice.
A highlight of our final programs was the performance in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The school there purchased copies of the biography for all of the students. Many of the students had their books with them at the show, and they proudly held them up for all to see! Seeing those books in the hands of the young scholars was thrilling. It made me realize that the message of the program – to reach one’s highest potential – was meant not only for the students but for myself as well. Reaching out to these students has challenged me new ways, and I am very glad for all we are learning from each other on this road.