Film-maker continues the legacy of civil rights activist

Published: Tuesday | January 31, 2012 Comments 0
Paul Robeson - Contributed
Paul Robeson - Contributed
Susan Robeson - Photo by Marcia Rowe
Susan Robeson - Photo by Marcia Rowe

Marcia Rowe, Gleaner Writer

Approximately 61 years after her grandfather's visit to Jamaica, film-maker Susan Robeson has repeated the journey, albeit for contrasting reasons and under contrasting circumstances.

Paul Robeson, a noted civil rights activist, was also made famous in the United States as a concert singer (bass), recording artiste, actor, athlete and scholar.

His ability to earn from those talents was severely diminished in the 1950s after the United States Government at the time put him under scrutiny because of his stance on the Civil Rights Movement and his alleged sympathies with the Soviet Union.

After a brief recovery of fortunes in the '60s, Robeson left public life after failing health.

His legacy was marked last month with the naming of a plaque in the United States Embassy's research centre in his honour.

The naming ceremony took place on the anniversary of Paul Robeson's passing, January 23.

Jamaica became even more connected to the issue after one of its students won an essay competition after writing about Robeson's efforts during the Civil Rights Movement.

Cathy Smith of Manchester High school, with her essay 'Paul Robeson as the Soul of the Continent', was the winner.

Paul Robeson Jr was unable to attend the naming ceremony, paving the way for the civil rights activist's granddaughter, Susan, chair of the Paul Robeson Foundation, to make the trip in his place.

Ja feels like home

In an exclusive interview with The Gleaner, Susan Robeson gave some insight into her life and that of her civil-rights activist grandfather.

"I feel at home among friends and family. That's the feelings I got when I arrived," was how, in part, the almost three quarters of an hour interview began in the foyer of the Courtleigh Hotel and Suites in New Kingston.

"[I am] thrilled and amazed to see how much things have changed as this is something that never would have happened in my grandfather's lifetime," was how Susan described her feelings on what was a momentous occasion.

For the naming to be at the Kingston embassy is very significant. She was 23 when her grandfather passed away. She remembered that during the 1950s and '60s, he could not travel because his passport was revoked.

However, prior to his passport being revoked, the elder Robeson did visit Jamaica.

"Jamaica was like a rest place for him. He's coming from an embattled situation in the US. The pressures of what life was like in the '40s was not that far from apartheid in terms of the formality of the situation. Of course, he felt like he was in a siege. And part of the attack was on his right to speak his mind and how he expressed his opinion. When he came to Jamaica, he felt embraced, as he said, he was embraced not because he was a star but because people saw him as someone struggling for freedom. So people embraced him as a man fighting for his freedom. He felt the strength and dignity of the Jamaicans then, even though they were still a colony."

Granddaughter Robeson did not have to pay the price her grandfather did but his values have influenced and impacted her life. She explained that she "lived a privileged life in those days".

She grew up in Harlem, New York, and was the product of an interracial marriage - a white mother and black father. Harlem was the only place they could live safely.

But it was her grandfather who influenced her career path into media. "He had a deep impact. I am guided by his values: Strive to be the best that you can be, not better than someone else, but to be the best that you can be ... use your skills and knowledge, not just for your benefits but to better your community, your people."

Another reason was her personal experience. She remembered as a child, picking up the New York Times and reading "what I knew to be lies".

"It was a time when what the media said was considered to be true, and that had a deep impact on me. And looking back, I realised that made me want to work in a medium that reach out and be able to present alternative ideas to what was the mainstream press."

Susan started making documentaries when she was 18 years old. Working at mainstream television stations she was carrying out her mission "as I call it, in the belly of the beast".

Many awards

Many years later, she is the recipient of many awards, but she said she never focuses on the awards so much but on the work that got them.

She described her most rewarding work as one that she is still developing. It grew out of works that she did managing a public television station in Minneapolis. She uses media and video production to give people a voice. Susan used the station's second channel to empower communities of colour, along with young men and women who were at risk as well as immigrant communities, and street gangs, allowing them to express themselves the way they wanted to.

Out of that experience, Susan did some work in South Africa. Her latest project is in East Timor, one of the first new nations of the 21st century. She is working in partnership with the president of the country to train and equip people to produce video stories about their lives, issues and what is important to them and to create a way for people within the nation to talk about themselves and share their histories.

She believed that her programme could be used wherever there is much conflict.

But Susan was also quick to point out that she is "not an 'ism' person, but was guided by her grandfather's values.

"I would call myself a progressive person," she said.

As a teenager, she was heavily influenced by Malcolm X.

Susan Robeson is also an author and CEO of the Paul Robeson Foundation. She said that presently, the foundation is digitising her entire collection at the foundation to make it available for scholars all over the world. They have also developed a Paul Robeson curriculum.

She is the author of a pictorial bio of Paul Robeson titled The Whole World in His Hands. She is also working on a children's book How Grand Pa Stopped the War.

The book is based on stories she grew up with. Though she admits that writing does not come easily, she still wants to write more, children's books in particular.

And one of her desires is to participate in recording the history and traditions of the Maroons in the form of a children's picture book.

"I am always fascinated with and by the history of slavery and the resistance to slavery; as well as the rebellions in Jamaica, South. America and Cuba," She explained.

"I hope when I come back to Jamaica, I get a chance to learn about the Maroons."

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