The Many Faces of Paul Robeson
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 9 -Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
- Standard 1B -Demonstrate understanding of how the social changes of the postwar period affected various Americans.
This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard II.D. 4. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues in which fundamental values and principles may be in conflict.
- Standard IV.C.1. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions about the effects of significant international political developments on the United States and other nations.
- Standard V.B.4. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on the relationships among personal, political, and economic rights.
This lesson relates to Article I, Section 9 , of the Constitution, which states the migration of people should not be prohibited by Congress, and to the First Amendment right of free speech, press, and assembly.
Share this exercise with your colleagues who teach United States history, African-American history, world cultures, music, and art. .
Analyzing the Document
- Ask students: "What characteristics are essential for a successful activist?" Compile a list of important characteristics on the board. Inquire if they can name anyone who demonstrates these characteristics? Record their responses on the board as well. Provide students with the following list of accomplishments and ask them to provide the name of one or two individuals who have realized each achievement. Instruct students that individuals who fit into more than one category can be listed wherever appropriate. The achievement categories are All-American football player, linguist who speaks more than five languages, author of books, Shakespearean actor, human rights activist, civil rights leader, concert artist known worldwide, scholar and researcher of global cultures and issues, internationally known recording star, and world-famous film actor. Provide students with time to brainstorm names and share ideas. Review the list with the class and ask if anyone fit into more than one category. Did they have anyone who fit into every category? Inform them that there is one man who achieved every one of these accomplishments. Do they know or can they guess who it is? Has anyone heard of Paul Robeson? How can it be that an American citizen could accomplish so much, and yet remain so unknown? Is Robeson mentioned in your United States history textbook? If yes, what does it say? If no, why do you think he is not mentioned?
- Print out and photocopy Documents 1
and 2. Distribute the first document to
half the class and the second to the other half. Tell them that they are each
receiving an image of the same man, Paul Robeson. Instruct each student to complete
Analysis Worksheet for his or her document. After students have completed
their analysis, lead a class discussion on the documents. You may want to write
down one group's responses on one large piece of paper and the other group's
responses on another piece of paper. Ask: Who is this man? What does he look
like? How is he portrayed? What is he doing? Ask students to point out similarities
and differences between the findings of the two groups. How can they account
for the differences, if they are both images of the same man?
After the discussion, provide all students with a copy of Document 3 and a Document Analysis Worksheet. How does this document compare to Documents 1 and 2? Instruct students to complete the analysis worksheet. What can you learn about the same man from this document? Record student feedback on a third piece of paper. How can we explain the three different findings?
Inform students that this document was drawn by artist Charles H. Alston. During WWII, Alston worked for the Office of War Information and furnished editorial drawings to weekly black newspapers. His drawings for OWI included 35 portraits of African Americans who had made or were making valuable contributions to the nation--Robeson was the subject of one of them.
Comparing Time Periods
- Divide students into groups of three and instruct them to put the three
documents into historical context. Can they tell which event/document happened
first, second, third? After students have put them into "order" instruct
each group to defend its reasoning. Lead a class discussion on the clues found
in the documents and the historical context generalizations that they have made.
Explain to them that Paul Robeson's life span was from 1898 to 1976. Divide the
class into three groups and assign each group one of three topics: Paul Robeson's
life; United States history; and world history. Each group should research events
from the period 1898-1976 for its assigned topic and construct a time line to
reflect its findings. Provide a sample time line with specific spacing requirements
so that all time lines will be the same length and an equal amount of space is
available for each year. Require that students include the date, summary of event,
and a photograph or image for each important event on their time line. The group
should work together to decide which events are important, but divide the research
equally among its members in the interest of efficiency.
After the groups have completed their time lines, hang them up (or lay them out on the floor) so that the years align and students can see what was going on in each of the areas during a specific time. Lead a class discussion asking: How did Paul Robeson affect United States history? Vice versa? What world events impacted Paul Robeson's life? What world events impacted United States history? Discuss the interconnectedness of these three time lines.
Assign individual students to create a time line of their own life and compare it with world or national news. Can they see any effects or impacts? Why or why not? Do they see any parallels to Robeson's life?
- After examining Document 3 and providing the background information, ask the class what different roles did Paul Robeson play during his life? List and discuss each role the students come up with. Possible roles are family man, youth, scholar-athlete, performer, activist, politician, etc. Divide the class into at least four groups (or as many roles as you would like them to research). Each group will research an aspect of Paul Robeson's life and create a skit based on the obstacles, achievements, and controversy that surrounded him in that role. Require students to use a variety of sources, particularly the ones listed in the resources section of this lesson. Encourage students to bring in or create props and to dress appropriately for the scene.
- Ask students if they have ever been prohibited from doing something they've
wanted to do. Ask if something has been taken away from them. Discuss the circumstances
under which these things happened and their feelings about their experience.
Ask: Did you do something bad? How did it make you feel? Were you punished? Was
it a just punishment? What were the reasons for the prohibition or denial? After
examining the documents and reading the Historical Background, ask students why
they think the State Department denied Paul Robeson a passport. Instruct them
to research postwar America to find the explanation for this decision. As a class,
read and study the Constitution to locate the rights Robeson thought were being
For homework, instruct students to find current (within the last year) articles from newspapers, magazines, the Internet, TV news reports, etc. that provide examples of where rights listed in the Constitution are being protected or challenged. Display these on a bulletin board along with a copy of the Constitution.
- Paul Robeson was the highest paid performer of his time. Not only could he sing in more than 25 different languages, but also his voice lent power to a variety of stage and screen characters during an era when minorities were not typically listened to. Assign students to view or listen to some of his work--you can choose from a variety of his films and recordings. Some are listed in the resources section. Direct them to complete the appropriate document analysis (either a Motion Picture Analysis or a Sound Recording Analysis Worksheet .) What does the work tell you about Paul Robeson? Identify the character or message of the song. Why do you think Robeson chose to be a part of this piece? Assign students to choose a song or film that they can identify with--that represents their beliefs and aspirations. Students should present their choices and explain why they chose what they did.
- Since the centennial of Robeson's birth, there has been a movement to issue
a postage stamp commemorating his influence. Brainstorm ways in which we commemorate
people and their accomplishments. You may want to ask students to bring in artifacts
or photographs of how we pay tribute to influential people. Examples include
monuments, posters, postage stamps, memorabilia, T-shirts, shopping bags, and
After examining and discussing the three documents and the various characters/roles Robeson played during his life, assign each student to design a memorial (in whatever medium they choose) that would accurately portray how they see Robeson's place in history. Students should decide for themselves what Paul Robeson's legacy for the 21st century is. Ask students to create a piece of art that would depict Robeson as they see fit and also to write an explanation as to why they chose the image that they did. Display the students' work in your library or media center.
The documents included in this project are from Record Group 200, Donated Collections; and Record group 208, Records of the Office of War Information. They are available online through the National Archives Catalog National Archives Identifiers:
The National Archives Catalog replaces its prototypes, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.
The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the National Archives Catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.
Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the National Archives Catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the National Archives Catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the National Archives Catalog will grow continually.
This article was written by Kerry C. Kelly, a teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ.