Grandpa Stops a War: A Paul Robeson Story

Throughout Black History Month, I’ll be recommending new books on noteworthy African Americans. Today’s book features Paul Robeson, whose incredibly rich baritone voice rang out not only across the stage but eventually the fields of battle in the Spanish Civil War, both to great effect (if you are not familiar with his voice, please seek out a recording – WOW). Robeson’s father had taught him the spirituals sung by slaves (he had been one himself) in the American South, and Robeson believed if he were to sing these songs somewhere on the front line, he could bring honor to the memory of those soldiers who had died and hope to those who were still fighting. It was an incredibly dangerous mission – he was driven past a crater where not too long before, a bomb had exploded – but when his voice soared out over the men’s heads and into their hearts, through speakers aimed at both sides of the battlefield, fighting ceased. As Robeson’s granddaughter, Susan, writes, “While Grandpa Paul sang there was peace.” The text is spare and straightforward, allowing illustrator Rod Brown’s stunning oil paintings to truly carry Robeson’s powerful story. I’d suggest this as a jumping-off point for cross-curricular activities tying together English, history, art, and choir: students could study the lyrics of spirituals, write original spiritual lyrics or poems for peace; study Robeson’s life as an activist, specifically in the context of McCarthyism, because he endured the attempted derailing of his musical career by the government after he refused to be silenced; create their own artwork interpreting the ravages of war and conveying the message of peace; and perform spirituals. It’s also an example of how an individual can use his or her specific talent to help others, especially and even when that talent may not be immediately obvious as a means for achieving such a goal.

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