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"The Meaning of Freedom"

A Paul Robeson Centennial Commemoration
Arranged by LeRoy D. Owens, 1995.

Paul Robeson A single act program commemorating the life of this great American.

Songs in order of presentation:

1. "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"
African American Spiritual—1750–1875
2. "No More Auction Block for Me"
African American Spiritual—1750–1875
3. "Old Man River"
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein
4. "Danny Boy"
Old Irish Air
5. "Deep River"
African American Spiritual

Narrated quotations taken from the book Here I Stand by Paul Robeson, The Whole World in His Hands by Susan Robeson, and Shakespeare's "Othello."

The following narration and musical presentation is intended to be a commemorative celebration of the life of Paul Robeson. It is a one man, one act play based on direct quotes and spiritual songs taken from documented concert dates and speeches of his life.

(Stage note: A single performer delivers the entire program, using piano accompaniment. A podium of stage is the only prop, and a microphone if needed.)

Opening: Bass voice sings "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,

A long ways from home,
A long ways from home, oh my brother,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home.

Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone,
Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone,
Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone.

A long ways from home,
A long ways from home, oh my brother,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home.

Speaker: Paul Robinson was on born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. He was the youngest of five children. His father was a runaway slave at age 15, who went on to graduate from Lincoln University. His mother was from an Abolitionist Quaker family of American Indian and African heritage. She died when Paul was 6 years old, and sometimes felt a personal meaning in this song: "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child."

In 1915 Paul Robinson won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University. He encountered some violence and racism, but nonetheless earned 15 varsity letters in baseball and basketball, and was twice named to the All-American football team, and finally, 13 years after his death, was admitted to the Football Hall of Fame. In later years, his name was removed from the Rutgers football team in reaction to his troubles with the Senator McCarthy hearings and the U.S. State Department's actions against him. This resulted in Rutgers having a football team of only ten players for those past years of Paul Robeson's stardom.

Besides being a sports hero, Paul became his class Valedictorian. He gave this speech upon graduation:

We of the younger generation must feel a sacred call to that which lies before us. I go out to do my little part in helping my untutored brother. We of this less-favored race realize that our future lies chiefly in our own hands. On ourselves alone will depend the preservation of our liberties and the transmission of them in their integrity to those who will come after us. And we are struggling on, attempting to show that knowledge can be obtained under difficulties; that poverty may give place to affluence; that obscurity is not an absolute bar to distinction; and that a way is open to welfare and happiness to all who will follow the way with resolution and wisdom; that neither the old-time slavery, nor continued prejudice need extinguish self-respect, crush manly ambition, or paralyze effort; that no power outside of himself can prevent man from sustaining an honorable character and a useful relation to his day and generation. We know that neither institutions nor friends can make a race stand unless it has strength; that races like individuals must stand or fall by their own merit; that to fully succeed they must practice the virtues of self reliance, self respect, industry, perseverance, and economy.
—Valedictorian speech Rutgers University graduating class, 1919
Paul decided to study law, and graduated from Columbia Law School, the third black man to do so. But when he faced the realities of a Negro practicing law, and could do not get a white secretary to take his dictation, Paul Robeson decided his future might be in other pursuits, and answered requests to make movies and give concerts. This man, who became the most prominent baritone singer of his time, was denied membership in his college choir because of restrictions of campus social life denying Negroes participation.

Robeson later wondered what his father might say to him, if he were still alive:

"What would my father say to me, if he were alive, he would say, it's hard son, but don't forget that I was born in slavery, and that your people were not able to do anything as free people for a long, long while, but they struggled, they fought, they made up their songs, and they struggled ahead, a Harriet Tubman, a Sojourner Truth, a Frederick Douglas, helped by a Henry Lloyd Garrison, and by a John Brown, and I escaped by the underground, and so you stand your ground, you may have to stand a little longer, you know, just keep your courage, and keep your heart."
Singer: "No More Auction Block for Me"
No More Auction block for Me

No more auction block for me, no more, no more,
No more auction block for me; many thousand gone.

No more pint of salt for me, no more, no more,
No more pint of salt for me, many thousands gone.
No more drivers' lash for me, no more, no more,
No more drivers' lash for me, many thousands gone.

 

Speaker: Paul Robeson discovered his rich, bass voice could earn him recognition and personal power to advance the cause of the American Negro. Film offers came in, and a career as an artist became his life. He was asked to sing in the musical "Showboat," making his debut in that great show performing both in England and the United States. Robeson was cast in the 1936 version of "Showboat." The song, "Old Man River" was written with him in mind. Over the years Paul changed the words to reflect his attitudes about the place of the Negro in American life.

Singer: "Old Man River"

Old Man River

There's an man called the Mississippi,
That's the old man don't like to be,
What does he care if the world's got troubles,
What does he care if the land ain't free?

That Old Man River, that Old Man River,
He must know something, but don't say nothing,
He just keeps rolling, he keeps on rolling along;
He don't plant taters, he don't plant cotton,
And them that plants ‘em am soon forgotten,
But Old Man River, he just keep rolling along.

You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all aching and wracked with pain
Tote that barge, and lift that bale,
You show a little grit and you land in jail,
But I keep laughing, instead of crying,
I must keep fighting, until I'm dying,
And old man river, he'll just keep rolling along.

Speaker: As the war in Europe heated up, Paul Robeson became increasingly agitated about the plight of the common man and woman, and produced concerts in many countries, and eventually learned to speak, to write, and to sing in twenty different languages. His rendition of this old favorite was popular everywhere, but particularly in Ireland.

Singer: "Danny Boy"

Danny Boy

Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside,
The summer's gone, and all the roses falling,
It's you, it's you, must go, and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow,
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow,
It's I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh, Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so!

But when ye come, and all the flow'rs are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye'll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an ave there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave, shall warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

 

Speaker: Fear gripped the United States following World War II. Concern for Communist aggression brought the Cold War policies that drove to the core of politics, and Paul Robeson found his travels to Russia particularly distressing to the U.S. State Department and to Congress. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and other hearing groups put many artists in direct collision with "witch hunts" and "fishing expeditions" of powerful groups intent on discovering and punishing any Communist sympathizers that could be rounded up.

Paul Robeson, among many others, was required to testify. His defiance of this activity is demonstrated in this, his reaction to the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee:

"It was unthinkable to me that any people would take up arms in the name of an Eastland to go against anybody, and gentlemen, I still say that I thought it was healthy for Americans to consider whether or not Negroes should fight for people who kick them around.

"What should happen, would be that this U.S. Government should go down to Mississippi and protect my people. That is what should happen.

"Chairman Walter, co-author of the racist Walter-McCarran Immigration Act, did not like what I was saying and he started banging his gavel for me to stop. But I wasn't quite finished and I went on to say:

‘I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. They are not—in Mississippi. They are not—in Montgomery. That is why I am here today. . . . You want to shut up every colored person who wants to fight for the rights of his people!'"

And another Paul Robeson statement infuriated the committee:

 

"In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being—no color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. One of the committee members angrily demanded: ‘Why did you not stay in Russia?'

"‘Because my father was a slave,' I retorted, ‘and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?'"

Paul Robeson had his passport revoked, and was unable to travel abroad. Concerts were held across borders such as the Peace Arch Park in Washington State, on the border with Canada. And a telephone concert to London was attended there by 600,000 people. Paul was blacklisted, as a Communists sympathizer, resulting in banning him from practicing his art. In one year alone, 85 concerts were canceled. Finally, after 8 years, the Supreme Court dismissed the reasons for his passport denial, and he could again travel. He faced much animosity with American crowds, but was heralded greatly in Europe, and around the world. He traveled and performed for five years, returning to the U.S., and a brief few years of renewed acceptance.

Paul Robeson was ill most of the last ten years of his life.

Othello, the role that brought much pain to Robeson, contains this last speech of the play. It was repeated by Robeson many times, perhaps a metaphor for his own life.

The last speech of Othello, that he makes as they take him away to Venice, he speaks as one conscious of his own dignity and his own heritage, a culture rich as that of ancient Venice, and he feels that he has committed his error for his human dignity, not for any wild savage passions, and so he speaks:

Soft you! A word or two before you go. I have done the state some service, and they know it!—No more of that! I pray you, in your letters, when you shall me some lucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate, nor set down ought in malice. Then, must you speak of one that loves full wisely, but too well, of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme, one whose hand, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes, albeit, unused to the melting mood dropped tears as fast as the Arabian trees, there met some able doubt. Set you down thus, and say besides that in Aleppo once, where malignant turbaned Turk beat a Venetian and transduced the state, I took by the throat the damned heathen dog, and smote him—thus. I kiss thee, er I kill thee, no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.
Paul Robeson died in 1976, finally recognized as arguably the finest baritone-bass singer, and the greatest Othello of this nation.

He truly was a Renaissance man and a model for others to follow.

His son selected this spiritual for the closing of his father's memorial service.

Singer: "Deep River"

Deep River

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Deep river, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?
Oh deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

END

Addenda:

Singer: "Every Time I Feel the Spirit"

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Chorus: Every time I feel the spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray.
Every time I feel the spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray.

Verse 1:
On the mountain, my Lord spoke, out of his mouth, came fire and smoke,
In the valley, on my knees, ask my Lord, "Have mercy, please."

Repeat Chorus
Verse 2:
Jordan River, chilly and cold, chills the body, but not the soul,
All around me, looks so shine, asked my Lord, if all was mine.

Repeat Chorus

Speaker: I learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind. . . . Even as I grew to feel more Negro in spirit, or African as I put it then, I also came to feel a sense of oneness with the white working people whom I came to know and love.

This belief in the oneness of humankind. . . has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race. Some people have seen a contradiction in this duality. . . . I do not think, however, that my sentiments are contradictory.


I can think of no better way to honor the greatness of Paul Robeson than to try to walk in his shoes and to sing his music. When Paul Robeson fought for human rights, and the right of personal dignity, he stood up for all of us. And when he sang, he demonstrated the importance of culture and art.

He remains a true patriot and hero of the American Dream. I am proud to help honor his memory.
—LeRoy Owens: "The Meaning of Freedom: Paul Robeson"


LeRoy Owens is a resident of Ashland, Oregon.
He sings with several local groups.
His play "The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll" was presented in 1987.
He is married to Mary Jo Owens. The couple has four grown children, and, to date, two grandchildren.
LeRoy is a former educator, state elected politician, infantry captain, and Futurist.


PAUL ROBESON, a brief biography

Paul Robeson was an African-American athlete, singer, actor, and advocate for the civil rights of people around the world. He rose to prominence in a time when segregation was legal in the United States, and Black people were being lynched by white mobs.

Born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Robeson was the youngest of five children. His father had been a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family. Robeson's family knew both hardship and the determination to rise above it. His own life was no less challenging.

In 1915, Paul Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University. Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won fifteen varsity letters in sports. He received the Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society, and graduated as Valedictorian.

At Columbia Law School (1919-1923), Robeson met and married Eslanda Cordoza Goode, who was to become the first Black woman to head a pathology laboratory. He studied law, but left the practice of law to use his artistic talents in theater and music.

In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in "Othello"; he also performed in Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" and "All God's Chillun Got Wings." He is known for changing the lines of the Showboat song "Old Man River" from the meek "I'm tired of livin' and 'feared of dyin'" to a declaration of resistance, ". . . I must keep fightin' until I'm dying." He starred in eleven films.

Paul Robeson used his deep baritone voice to promote Black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time in the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. Robeson became known as a citizen of the world. At a 1934 anti-fascist rally, he declared, "The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

During the 1940s, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the US and the USSR. Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism. He was accused of being a Communist, which nearly ended his career. The US revoked Robeson's passport, leading to an eight-year battle to resecure it and to travel again.

Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.

Read more about Paul Robeson on wikipedia.


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