Back in September, Cindy Peltier and Doug Sturm had lunch with Carmen Gillespie and her staff as a celebration of a gift from CARE to the Griot Institute on BU campus: a historical poster featuring Paul Robeson and a biography of his life.
The Traveling Poster: A CARE-ing Gift to the Griot Institute for Africana Studies
We ask for nothing that is not right, and herein lies the great power of our demand.
This is the story of a traveling poster. And it’s one of those stories—the kind that is a single story, inside a different story, attached to another story.
On May 17 2013, the Griot Institute of Africana Studies at Bucknell University received a unique gift from the Community Alliance for Respect and Equality (CARE)—a framed poster of Paul Robeson and an accompanying biography for the institute’s growing library. The poster features a black and white photo of a man whose presence and power are palpable even though his eyes are downcast and his posture’s contemplative. Paul Robeson: Bearer Of A Culture is spelled out above the iconic figure, and clearly he was.
Born in New Jersey in 1898, Paul Robeson became a star of stage and film, a superior athlete, an intellectual powerhouse, and a celebrity of international renown. But Robeson was not content merely to enjoy the advantages his myriad talents provided, instead he used his position to promote his belief in human equality. Risking both career and personal freedom (Robeson was blacklisted and lost his passport) Robeson continued his “‘extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa,” 1 and “his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States” which, according to the US State Department of the time “should not be aired in foreign countries.”2
Given Robeson’s diverse career and unfailing efforts to end racial injustice, it’s not difficult to see the appropriateness of his image and legacy gracing the walls of an office that not only serves as home to the Griot, but also to the University’s Presidential Arts Initiative. But as I said, this is the story of a traveling poster, and as such, the relevancy of the gift increases exponentially.
Since the May afternoon when the poster first arrived at the Griot, I have learned that the original photograph was taken during a 1928 production of Showboat at Drury Lane in London, that the poster was produced and sold by the New-York Historical Society and that Paul Robeson: Bearer Of A Culture is the title of a book commemorating what would have been his 100th birthday in 1998. I have also learned that the Griot’s new poster first hung in the home of long-time Lewisburg resident, Beatrice Spielman.
Mrs. Spielman’s life could easily be described as one dedicated to the service of others. Despite her roles as faculty wife (her husband, Ralph, was a professor of sociology at Bucknell for twenty years), mother and working-woman, Mrs. Spielman was well-known for her extensive community service and devotion to causes promoting social justice. Over the years, she was appointed by Governor Rendell to the Union County Board of Assistance and had places on the boards of Union County Citizens for Diversity and the Lewisburg Prison Project. Additionally, Mrs. Spielman volunteered at Susquehanna Valley Women in Transition, Prison Visitors Service, The American Red Cross and many others. At age 70 she joined the Peace Corps and was sent to the Micronesian Island of Yap where she taught English to middle school children for nearly two years.
When the time came for Mrs. Spielman to “downsize” from her long time family residence to something smaller, she donated many things to family, friends and the community at large. One of those pieces was the Paul Robeson poster, which she entrusted to her friend Douglas Sturm. Sturm is a retired professor of religion and political science at Bucknell University and a life-long campaigner for human equality. In support of this mission, in 1994 he co-founded the Community Alliance for Respect and Equality or CARE, an organization committed to increasing “awareness of and respect for people of all races, ethnicity, gender, religions and sexual orientation.” CARE provides diverse services to the Central Susquehanna River Valley including: community education programs and sensitivity workshops, resources for local schools, advocacy and consultancy, and representation of social justice in the media. Once again, the Robeson poster had found a fitting home.
But true to CARE’s mission statement to provide “resources to local schools that will promote positive relations, increase respect, and improve cultural understanding,” Doug Sturm decided to present the poster (along with a Robeson biography and a detailed history of the poster’s past) to the Griot Institute on behalf of CARE. The Griot is delighted to have received this wonderful gift and to have the opportunity to promote the missions common to our traveling poster’s many stories–education, arts, equality, and social justice.
1. Von Eschen, Penny M. (1994). Race Against Empire: African Americans and Anti-colonialism, 1937–1957. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
2. Duberman, Martin Bauml (1988). Paul Robeson. New York: New Press.