“Paul Robeson and Religion”
September 15, 2011
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Prof. Stuckey’s presentation on Paul Robeson provided an illuminating look at a figure whose life intersects with and is touched upon by the work that we seek to do at the ISS and within the Comparative Scriptures program. Prof. Stuckey noted two aspects of what he referred to as Robeson’s argument about religion. The first was the affirmation of dialect; the second the insight that the “spirituals are the souls of black people made manifest,” and the affirmation of the ring shout, the original ritual context of the spirituals. Stuckey went on to explore Robeson’s life and experiences; insights from this section of the talk allow us to think carefully about the inter-relationship between theory and practice. That is to say, it provides us with a way of thinking about and getting at those arguments about religion, by illuminating a life that was formed in the context of segregation and oppression, and sought not to escape it by becoming white, but rather to overcome it through the affirmation of negro dialect, ritual, and spirituality.
This opens up a wide range of possible lines of inquiry for the student of scripture. First, if we consider Robeson’s carefully chosen and defended use of dialect, we might raise questions about how language which is in some ways different from the language of the hegemony (whether it is a vernacular as opposed to a “sacred” language, or a dialect as opposed to “standard” ) can be revolutionary. Pushing further, it might be worthwhile to raise questions about how the use of vernaculars or dialects transforms relations that were previously defined by exclusive access to power based on knowledge of the language of the hegemony--as has traditionally (and, of course, still is) been the case in the reading/interpretation/use of scriptures.
A second question we might raise concerns the relationship between ritual and scripture, and how the affirmation of the ritual context and performative aspects of scripture provides us with a deeper, more provocative concept of scripture than one that can be reduced to something like “sacred text.” If we read spirituals as making the “souls of black people manifest,” then, following Smith’s understanding of scripture as a relationship between a text (but with a more expansive understanding of “text”) and community, “scripture” seems like a good handle for critical thinking about the role of spirituals. If this is indeed the case, then what becomes important is not merely “what the scripture says,” or “the true meaning,” but rather how it functions within a given community, and how it is given meaning through ritual--and, of course, how that meaning changes and is transformed when ritual contexts differ.
The presentation of professor Sterling Stuckey on Paul Robeson was an eye-opening distilment of the life and accomplishments of Paul Robeson. The exemplification of the understandings of “Black Religion” in the way of the “indispensability of Negro dialect” and the idea that both spirituals and the blues emerged from “ring-shout” circles via the music played by professor Stuckey was crucial to understanding Robeson’s contributions.
What really struck me as unique and truly interesting was the recalling of the interaction between Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson in the 1950s. Einstein barely escaped the attempted extermination of the Jews by the Third Reich and Robeson was a black male in a country where the lynchings of black individuals were taking place en masse. The conversation Stuckey recalled between Einstein and Robeson made light of the current blacklisting of Robeson from performance halls. The sense of humor exemplified in this anecdote and Robeson’s strong call for the “transformation of freedom in the image of G-d” was refreshing but chilling. The chilling aspect comes from the perspective that Robeson and Einstein will always be closer to the non-textual, non-domesticated but lived heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition: that is persecution and suffering at the hands of corrupted human brokerage-systems classified by thorough misunderstandings promoted by in-out group tendencies and layered ignorance from multiple sources in history and still lurking in different manifestations to this day.
This aspect calls the attention of current student of religion to the realization and awareness of inherent biases and privileges that one may (or may not) be instilled with in studying the manifestations of “scripture” and meaning in other religious traditions from an academic perspective. The above-mentioned story delivers one of many shocks that certain students including myself to stay honest and focus in the study of religious traditions.
The presentation by Professor Sterling Stuckey on Paul Robeson was provocative in the sense that he (Robeson) was such a significant and polarizing figure in American history. Professor Stuckey did point formative aspects of Roberson’s life, his minister father, the rituals of the black church in Roberson’s childhood experiences, particularly black folk music (spirituals) and the “ring shout”. Both rituals have distinctively African roots. The spirituals as “sung sermons” were popularized by Robeson in his concerts. I found the distinction made between the spirituals as sung by Roland Hayes and Robeson particularly instructive. Robeson’s singing of “spirituals” retained African American dialect, indicating linguistic patterns peculiar to the appropriation of the English language by people of African ancestry. From the presentation by Professor Stuckey, Roland Hayes versions of the spirituals were more “sanitized”.
What I did not hear (unfortunately I did not hear the first part of the presentation) was the spiritual and intellectual formation that crystallized in Paul Robeson later in his life. This transformation is expressed in Robeson’s grave maker epitaph which states, “The Artist Must Choose Freedom or Slavery. I Made My Choice. I Had No Alternative”. The existential self-affirmation made by Paul Robeson seems to me informed by the struggle of freedom in the black experience in America; the affirmation of his own humanity in the face of negation in specific contexts, i.e. Rutgers University, as a clerk in a law office in New York City; as a stage performer denied food service at a restaurant down the street from the theater; and most publicly, as an dangerous person according to the United States government during the Cold War.
The question of Paul Robeson as a “liminal figure” was not quite addressed by Professor Stuckey. The question as I understood it, did not reference physical place but “thresholds” and “worlds”. Paul Robeson did occupy a position at the boundary”. His “worlds” were black/white in America, artist/activist, black American/international citizen, specific cultural context/cross cultural experiences, socialist/ capitalist, Civil Rights/Pan Africanist, etc. I found Laurie Patton’s discussion of Mark C. Taylor's “Templum” useful in thinking about Robeson as a liminal figure. According to Patton, Taylor engages in a critical reading of Derrida critique of negative theology which Derrida says “extends domination”. Taylor responds that “domination requires repression and that the repressed never go away, always returns to disrupt, interrupt, and dislocate”. The place is more than “no place” (Derrida) but “a place cut off” (Taylor). Robeson’s life was a “place cut off”. His searing critique of American capitalism and politics of domination was “disruption, interruption and dislocation” was at the boundary of progressive social thought. His own existential commitment to be fully human and not a caricature, give self-definition rather than be defined by stereotypes led him to the “place cut off.” This is the liminal place, the threshold where Paul Robeson lived his life.
The presentation on Robeson was a valuable discussion of a historical figure that embodies the cross cultural, critical historical reading of the Critical Comparative Project.
In an attempt to bend the discussion toward ISS concerns, my thoughts were in terms of our readings of J.Z. Smith and his view of canon/scriptures. Dr. Stuckey enlightened us about the 'Negro Spirituals' in the context of the 'Ring-shout' ritual that inspired the participants to sing and possible create these powerful expressions of struggle/resistance. He also mentioned the fact that Paul Robeson was indeed the first person to 'theatricize' these spirituals, removing them from their original context of the Ring-shout into the broader, public context. One other point that Dr. Stuckey made was that he said something to the effect that for Robeson these songs were sermons that were sung. Using these points, I would like to ask a couple of questions: Is it possible to conceive of the spirituals in terms of a type of scriptural category/form/structure? Is it possible that part of the power of the Ring-shout rituals was not only the singing/performance of these spirituals, but also that there was a creative element involved? This category of song had an historical context and hence, I assume, there would be a certain limited period of creation of these songs? Brian Smith, in L. Patton's book, defines canon as "a finite set of 'texts,' oral or written, which are regarded as foundational and absolutely authoritative." It seems that this could describe spirituals. J.Z. Smith's concept of canon that includes the idea of delimitation and interpretability seems fruitful here also. Is it possible that a small part of Robeson's agenda of theaticizing the spirituals included an aspect of him playing the hermeneute. If I heard Dr. Stuckey correctly, he said that many times Robeson would sing these songs in their Black dialect, but he would also embed dialectical phrases in Anglicanized translation (or the other way around). This was a way of helping his audience with the act of translation. There are other questions that this raises for me, but one more in case I am completely out of the ball park. This would mean that the canon of 'Negro spiritual' was closed by the time that Robeson began his public career, wouldn't it? It is possible to see all the creative activity coming out of the African American slave community of the 19th century as such a powerful experience that it led to a formation of structures, rituals, scripturalizing practices that brought identity, meaning, resistance and healing to their communities, but one where the formative period had a shelf-life, with a beginning and an end. So one more title I would add to such a polymath as Paul Robeson would be cultural/scriptural hermeneute.
It was truly exceptional to hear about such a champion for equality and testament to the human spirit. I am very interested in how Robeson saw himself as Christian. Martin Duberman, biographer of Robeson, wrote that Robeson was “not a religious man in any formalistic sense; nonetheless an intensely spiritual one, convinced that some higher force watched over him.” Did Robeson ever concern himself over questions of salvation, theology, Christology or any other matters of the Church?
I have also read that Robeson “personified the spirituals in his music,” did Robeson share this feeling of divine connection when singing the spirituals? Or was his personification much more about presence and a connection with the emotions and spirit of praise?
Robeson was surely a figure who made bold statements through simple actions, did he appreciate the importance and gravity of how much rode on his examples and responses to situations? Or was Robeson’s story simpler in his own eyes? By this, I mean, did Robeson not see the gravity of the situations because for him, this was just life, and he was trying to live it how he believed he should be able to? I am fascinated by which historical figures gave weight to wanting to set an example vs. simply being an example.
In conclusion, (to Professor Sterling) if you had one message to carry on for Robeson, what would it be?
One idea that I left Stuckey's presentation with was that of slave songs as canon. It seems that most people would not argue that slave songs are canonical in the traditional sense of the word. But I think that they do display the marks of a set canon; in order to be part of the accepted corpus, a song must have “legitimate” authorship, dating, and etc., and legitimacy is decided by a known, self-identified group.
Beyond this, I wonder if an application of J.Z. Smith's suggestion of canon as limitation and ingenuity might not be fruitful. As mentioned above, the songs are generally transmitted and maintained along traditional lines, but they also have a specific performance context, which Robeson transgressed. Robeson's ingenuity would be to place the songs in a new ritual context. The performance stage comes with its own values, rituals and history. His performance of slave songs in that context seems almost akin to appropriating a section of the Bible for use in a Zoroastrian ritual.
Part of the problem for many of Robeson critics was that he not only performed the songs in a new context, but he also performed them for audiences that stood outside the originating group. Within the Christian tradition, we can find examples of psalms and ancient hymns being updated and reworked for new contexts from sources as varied as John Calvin and Hillsong. But it seems easier for people to accept that kind of change when it is “us changing our music for ourselves,” and not making it more accessible to outsiders.
Professor Sterling Stuckey’s prefatory statement is testimony to the weightiness and delicateness of the subject of Robeson, “a never-ending project,” he called it. His profound statement: “students were my salvation for a long time” helped me to see his lecture as a personal battle, a grappling with the accompanying significations which perpetually thrive on the erasures and reinventing of memories. He also helps me see through the popular religiosities of Robeson’s time that “the heart of Robeson arguments about religion was his [Robeson’s] contribution to black religion as the first important artist to express the indispensability of the black dialect in performance of black music”
I take the passion with which Stuckey spoke about Robeson’s imaginary very seriously. The latter’s formations and the rise and his description of Princeton, which would subsequently fall in the Ivy League category only reminds me that “the final version of history is only the survivor (Norman Klein);” a most paradoxical celebratory migratory story. Even more compelling is the fact of how beneficiaries from violence of discriminatory racial practices often exhibit naïve shock feelings as they witness the rise of the defensive power of rage over against and the hegemony which they continue.
Stuckey uses the framework of blues music to hone home his argument stating that “if blues music was invented between the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century,” that means it was invented after the iconic slavery of the blacks, to which he vehemently says “no.” To him: “slavery did not give black the blues.” And as Frederick Douglas did encourage his audience to “keep your courage; keep your heart” which in fact is a way of self-empowerment against systemic alluring.
The emphasis on “the spirituals [as being] the souls of black people made manifest; the most sacred of African ritual” forces me to ask: what exactly does spirituality mean for the black man in bounds? And indeed Stuckey did not conclude without demonstrating how he is not only a scholar par excellence, but also he is standing as a Robeson who radically, but subversively compares the greatness of the literary genius of William Shakespeare and Robeson, Fredrick Douglas and John Milton. Again, how do African Americans and Africans in the diaspora view each other in light of the history which both groups have come to embrace— the essentializing of western Christianity.
The figure of Robeson personifies protests, counterculture and recalibration (reinvention of culture). Robeson helps me further to see the significance of presence. And to even know about the man who sang songs which were used in my earlier religious communities—without recognizing or excavating the history behind the history of these songs is even more cataclysmic and shocking for me. This also brings out the subject of actionable agency (empowerment) of/in/by scripture. Interpretations of spirituality and the experience arising therefrom become moving entities, not neutral, inactive elements. “Gospel songs are sermons that are sung.” On the question whether there was anything lost in the process of concertizing the sermons through his songs, Stuckey asserts that even though Robeson is considered radical and crude, “it’s not an easy question.”
Finally, to complicate the subjects of religious founders’ history, I would like to question the psychology of which facilitates the enslaved in their learning of slavery to perfectly become slave-makers.
The presentation made by Prof. Stuckey was deep enough to reveal details of the life and achievements of Paul Robeson as he grew up in segregated America. Whereas the liberties I take for granted today may seem guaranteed by the state and celebrated by many, it was a stark reminder to me that things have not always been the way I perceive them. Prof. Stuckey’s captivating exploration of Robeson’s life spoke to me of how every step that we make in life is equivalent to a life altering choice that will accompany one throughout their existence. I gained much insight into how much I can accomplish if only I have the will to stand. Prof. Stuckey is a true scholar and cultural commentator who believes that for anyone to be a true contributor to his/her society, he/she must first of all understand who they are. Then and only then will one be able to bring an authentic experience on the table as one among equals. I was especially touched by his explanation of how Robeson responded in the midst of all the persecution at Rutgers by saying in his speech that all races are equal. Significant in this is the fact that he was not unnecessarily radicalized to think of himself arrogantly as though he was better than others. Robeson understood his true measure and estimated himself properly as being capable of delivering on his tasks as well as being worth of esteem from his peers and society at large. Sometimes I think of myself as being incapable of doing what want to do because of being “other” in the society around me. Paul Robeson’s life has emboldened me to believe that no adversity can stop me if there is life left in me. I will respect others and show others how I want to be treated. I can do things like other people if only I have equal opportunities. The difference is not how I look, but if I can rise up and take those opportunities. This was very insightful.
Dr. Stuckey’s presentation explored two of Paul Robeson’s major contributions to black religion—Robeson affirmed the richness of black dialect by performing concerts that consisted of mostly slave music and he affirmed one of the most sacred of African rituals practiced during and after slavery, the ring shout. Quoting Robeson Dr. Stuckey stated: “‘The Negro community in New Jersey, where I grew up, was made up of Negros from the South, particularly from the rural sections of North Carolina. Although living in New Jersey they clung to their old habits of speech. Their customs and traditions also persisted, and in fact persists to this day.’ This was 1944.” The New Jersey town Robeson was referring to was Princeton. According to Dr. Stuckey, the student body of Princeton consisted primarily of white Southerns at the time. Robeson commented that “‘Princeton was spiritually located in Dixie’” and that the university was like a plantation in Georgia.
This prompted me to reflect upon the migrations of peoples. In this particular instance, blacks from North Carolina fled to Princeton in an attempt to escape the system of signification that subjugated them, only to find that they had not escaped the system after all. In light of this, the fact that this group of blacks transplanted their customs, traditions, and dialect in the North is not surprising. This group of individuals may have moved in the geographical sense but found themselves in the same psycho-socio location. It appears that these individuals used language, tradition, and culture to navigate this psycho-socio space. Dr. Stuckey’s presentation left me with the question, besides language, culture, and tradition, are there other means individuals use to navigate the psycho-socio space they inhabit? If so, what are these means?