This is a letter that I sent to the New York Review of Books in response to Simon Callow’s article in the February 8th issue “The Emperor Robeson.”
I’d like to add here that I have a great deal of respect for Gerald Horne’s work as an activist and author. His book Black and Red (SUNY, 1985) is a seminal study on the intersections between left-wing politics and African American civil rights activism during the Cold War and it had an important influence on me as I began my years of research on Robeson.
To the Editor:
In his article “The Emperor Robeson” Simon Callow’s observation that “it is hard to find anyone under fifty who has the slightest idea who he is” felt like a gut punch to me. Not only are there new books coming out about Robeson regularly, as evidenced in Callow’s essay, but there is an emerging generation of writers and performers who has taken on the mission of spreading Robeson’s story.
I first encountered Robeson at age twenty-five, and (while still under fifty) have written a dissertation and two books on Robeson as well as a book on the Council on African Affairs, which he co-founded. Additionally, there have been several one man shows on Robeson produced in recent years that have toured in the U.S. and internationally. These include plays by Daniel Beaty, Stogie Kenyatta, and Tayo Aluko. Artist/ film director Steve McQueen has announced plans to make a film on Robeson, and the Whitney Museum in NYC mounted a fascinating exhibit of McQueen’s on Robeson’s FBI file in 2016.
I work with actor Grant Cooper and Winfield Artists, LLC taking a program on Robeson based on my biography of him into community centers, colleges, high schools, and middle schools. Since 2015, we have visited dozens of groups introducing hundreds of young people to Robeson some of whom attend the Paul Robeson School in Bronx, NY. And I am sure there are many others (who are under fifty) around the world doing similar work on Robeson.
An eighteen-year-old student in a seminar I taught on Robeson in 2016 summed up this spirit in a handwritten note, “It has been a pleasure taking your class,” he reflected. “Learning about Paul Robeson was valuable information for me.” Maybe we have to lift the veil that shrouds Robeson’s legacy one heart at a time, but there are a number of us in this and the next generation who are up for the task of spreading Robeson’s valuable story.
Lindsey R. Swindall, Ph.D.