Global Blackness in Exile - Debates and Controversy
Weeks 11 and 12 of the course “Blacklisted: African American Writers and the Cold War Politics of Integration, Surveillance, Censorship and Publication” was centered around the theme of "Global Blackness in Exile: Debates and Controversy" and was led in discussion by Arelle Zephyr, Charles Greene, and Pedro Sepulveda. We were building upon the material laid out by our fellow classmates in previous weeks and pinpointing moments during the Cold War era wherein Black artists, performers, activists, authors, and intellectuals (and so on) were being forced into exile in order to write, perform, create, and, for some, exist.
For the first week, we wanted to provide enough historical context for this troubling time while also zeroing in on the lives of one such performer - Paul Robeson - deeply impacted by the Blacklist and so we assigned the following "texts":
Text: Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957
- Chapter 8 - No Exit: From Bandung to Ghana
Song: The Manic Street Preachers, Let Robeson Sing (song)
Film: St. Claire Bourne, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand
We wanted our classmates to fully engage with Paul Robeson's life and experience during the blacklist and we felt that written text alone would not suffice in this regard. We therefore chose to incorporate auditory and visual pieces that we hoped would engage our classmates and help provide a more comprehensive "feel" for the blacklist and its ramifications.
In addition, group member Arelle quilted together (timeline below and file attached at bottom of post), so to speak, Paul Robeson's life both through an actual timeline of his life and images (all obtained from the internet) that aimed to depict Paul Robeson's various contributions to culture and society as well as his own turbulent life.
In class, we began by passing around Arelle's quilt of Paul Robeson's life (attached were the lyrics to Let Robeson Sing). We briefly engaged with the material and commented on it. We then proceeded to watch the following Youtube video of the Manic Street Preachers performing "Let Robeson Sing."
After which, we asked the class to write a verse to the song and then share the lyrics and/or the meaning behind the lyric they wrote. Some of us even sang which added a deeper feeling to the song, Robeson's life, and even our own experiences within the context of the world in which we live now.
We proceeded to dive right into St. Claire Bourne's documentary on Paul Robeson's life. The added visual aspect of the film provided for many a deeper experience of Robeson's life as well as his own works and words. To hear him speak and sing and decry the injustices of the blacklist in America reeled the past right into the present.
Lastly, we ended the class by discussing the historical context within which Paul Robeson existed. Penny Von Eschen's Race Against Empire enabled us to discuss the international conferences (specifically the 1955 Bandung and 1956 Congress of Colored Writers and Artists in Paris conferences) that were occurring at a time when the likes of Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois were denied the right to travel by the U.S. government's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
For the second week, we wanted to fully engage with the life of one of our blacklisted authors and so we delved into some of the written works of Richard Wright. Primarily, we looked at the following two texts:
Text: Richard Wright, I Choose Exile (unpublished)
Text: Richard Wright, Tradition and Industrialization (in White Man, Listen!)
We began the class again by sharing a material object. This time, we shared a brochure of a Parisian tour that led one through some of Richard Wright's known "spots" in Paris. We marveled at the ease with which one could have access to this information as well as to the cast of "characters" who appeared, such as James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and a few others.
Experience was on our minds and so, having read both pieces (incantatory in all their respects) by Richard Wright, we had our classmates write a letter, at the beginning of class. The requirements of the letter were that they had to be written as if they were written by Richard Wright, that they were being written to a Black American Richard Wright may have known, and that it had to convince the reader to move to Paris. Our classmates were creative and evocative in their writings and provided us all insight into what we each felt having read Richard Wright's letters. This letter writing exercise opened the gates to what proceeded to be a fruitful and enlivening discussion of Richard Wright's opinions and their transformation (if any) between the years in which I Choose Exile and Tradition and Industrialization were written. Whether or not Richard Wright was the same person with the same thoughts at the time he wrote both pieces was hot topic for the night and the discussion that ensued was certainly lively and revealing.