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People choose heroes with whom they have something in common, whose lives are relevant to and hold lessons for their own. In this, my final column for the DP, I pay my respects to my hero, the African-American athlete, musician, actor and political activist Paul Robeson. Born in Princeton, N.J. in 1898, Robeson grew up in central New Jersey. At Rutgers, he excelled in his studies and became an All-American football star. Some still consider him the greatest collegiate scholar-athlete in U.S. history. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Robeson decided to take up acting and singing. For the next 15 years, he spent most of his time in Europe, winning critical acclaim for his roles in plays such as Othello and musicals like Show Boat, in which he was immortalized for his performance of "Old Man River." With his wife, Eslande Goode, he moved in the highest artistic circles of prewar London and Berlin. But the growing menace of Nazism and the threat of war forced Robeson to confront politics. During the Spanish Civil War, he performed for the defenders of the Republic. After returning to New York, he became increasingly active, speaking out against the segregation and lynching of African Americans, participating in labor movements and campaigning in 1948 on behalf of the Progressive Party -- the Green Party of the day. Abroad, he continued to perform for adoring audiences. Unfortunately for Robeson, the postwar McCarthyites set their sights on this internationally admired figure. After making controversial statements at the 1948 Paris Peace Conference, a mob of locals attacked him during an outdoor performance in Peekskill, N.Y. the next year. And then in 1950, the government decided to revoke his passport. For the next eight years, Robeson languished under domestic arrest, cut off from his greatest supporters in Europe, the Soviet Union and the Third World. By the time he was allowed to travel again, in 1958, Robeson had only a few years left in his productive career. He attempted to kill himself at least twice. As his family alleges, and FBI files suggest, poisoning may have contributed to his mental breakdown. In 1965, his health broken, Robeson retired to his sister's home at 4951 Walnut Street, where he died, nearly forgotten, in 1976. So what legacy has Robeson bequeathed to me? First of all, he reminds me that people from my little part of the world have done good things for humanity. As I like to say, Robeson was born in Princeton, went to school in New Brunswick and died in West Philadelphia. I was born in New Brunswick, went to school in Princeton and live in West Philadelphia. Robeson's artistic career took him to Europe, where he met young African students and was welcomed by Stalin's Soviet Union. This international perspective on the African-American condition distinguished Robeson, along with the aging W.E.B. DuBois, from their contemporaries. He praised socialism and excoriated the Western powers for their colonial oppression and greed. Robeson never hesitated to speak for the oppressed; whether striking English coal miners, anti-apartheid activists or African American women facing the combined burdens of racism and sexism. As one of his friends put it, this was a man who had gone beyond black and white -- all the peoples of the world were his own. For this internationalism, Robeson paid the ultimate price. Not death, which came much later, but historical oblivion. A friend of mine, who runs the Greenfield Intercultural Center, told me sadly how a young African-American girl in Princeton -- the town of Robeson's birth -- had come up to her, pointed at a pin she was wearing with Big Paul's smiling face, and asked, "Who's that?" Then, as now, those who dared to "speak the truth to power" exposed themselves to personal danger, public ostracization and government persecution. For me, committed to a life as a dissident intellectual, Robeson's life could easily serve as a warning, an admonishment to silence. Instead, I am inspired by his selfless example. Over Thanksgiving break, I visited Robeson's childhood house, just three blocks from Princeton University. I reflected on my fellow central New Jerseyan, who willingly accepted the responsibilities of being a great public figure -- responsibilities so many artists, athletes and academics shun today. In Spain, he had declared: "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." Thanks, Paul. Thanks for everything.

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