Appropriately, the sonorous voice of Paul Robeson singing a “Balm in Gilead” opened the celebration of the life of his son, Paul, Jr., last Friday at Salem United Methodist Church in Harlem, and it was Robeson’s voice that closed the evening with “Deep River.” Between the two songs, Paul, Jr. was extolled by former Mayor David Dinkins, Harry Belafonte, and Paula Robison’s comforting flute.
The Rev. Dr. Gregory Robeson Smith, the grandson of Ben Robeson, Paul, Sr.’s brother, officiated and informed the modest-sized gathering that his words from Corinthians were the same one’s he recited at Paul, Jr.’s son David’s funeral in 1998—“If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.”
But to Mayor Dinkins, the Pauls—senior and junior—were a powerful tandem of “critical thinkers, multilingual, and fighters against injustice,” he said. “Paul junior learned how to be his own man.”
The Robesons’ longtime friend and comrade, Henry Foner, wasn’t able to attend but sent his best wishers and warm regards for the family that included Marilyn, Paul, Jr.’s wife, his daughter Susan, and grandson, Emanuel Quintero.
“I had the privilege to work by his side,” Foner said of Paul, Jr.
Interwoven between the fond memories was a lovely bouquet of songs by Nicole Elaine Phifer, accompanied by pianist of great skill and invention.
Paula Robison, who was named after Paul Robeson, performed Bach’s “Sarabande from the Partita in A Minor” that was soft and carried all the warmth and majesty of the Pauls.
Belafonte was typically generous and thoughtful in his reflections on one man for whom he had patterned his life and the other who he came to love and respect. But Paul, Jr. he said was “angry…angry that the things his father stood for had not been appreciated and emulated.” Both men, he insisted, were fighters for justice, and that will be their legacy.
Susan Robeson spoke for the family and recalled a few of the unforgettable lessons she learned from her father, including how to dive into a wave and recover. “And that’s the way he dove into the ocean of life,” she said, “and go back again and again despite the waves.” She remembered grabbing the pinkie on his hand “and it felt like a tree trunk.” Like his father, Paul, Jr. had large hands and a very firm grip.
“And he had the loudest and the longest laugh,” she concluded, and then surrendered the podium to her Emanuel who read from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. “Death changes nothing but the masks that cover our faces,” he read. “The woodsman shall still be a woodsman, the ploughman, a ploughman, and he who sang his song to the wind shall sing it also to the moving spheres.”