By Caroline Harvey
Spring, 1947 in Albany,
the small but bustling capital of New York State,
smack dab in the middle of the Red Scare.
We got Commies
and Party line members
on every corner.
So picture it:
my grandfather walks from Albany City Hall
to his office at 82 State Street
and those who know his face
cross to the other sidewalk
rather than risk looking him in the eye.
Arthur J. Harvey, attorney at law.
A pitbull of an intellect flushed upstate
wearing a Brooklyn accent like a bullseye,
sporting the unmistakable hooked nose of
a Russian Jew.
In high school they called him
I’m-a knock your teeth in, Jew.
And as a civil rights defense attorney
they called him
Before the world will call you a hero
you have to prove you’re willing to bleed.
So Pops spent his first day at Troy High School
beating the holy shit out of the biggest,
whitest, most Irish Catholic looking kid he could find,
just to prove
Jew or no Jew,
he was the toughest sonofabitch in the room.
And as a lawyer
his tactics were the same.
Find the biggest bully,
call his bluff,
and then knock his fucking head in.
May 9, 1947:
Paul Robeson was
almost prohibited from performing
at a local high school auditorium
because the Board of Education suspected
“Possible communist leanings.”
My grandfather took the case.
Supreme Court of New York is now in session
The honorable Judge I. Bookstein presiding.
The Carver Cultural Society for Paul Robeson
vs. The Board of Education of the City of Albany.
What Say You?
I say that in 1947 it was still perfectly acceptable
to call a black man a Negro.
To whisper the word, like naming a disease.
And back then, when you labeled someone
it was the kind of insult
you slipped swiftly into ribs
like a prison shank.
It aimed to kill.
So for Paul Robeson,
being black, being an activist,
and being an artist
didn’t qualify him for the kind of grants, awards and accolades
my black American artist friends get nominated for today.
In Mr. Robeson’s time it meant
he endured the kind of blacklisting
censorship, and death threats
we are lucky as hell we only have to write about.
So what Say You?
I say that this court case
was one in a long line of court cases
that made my grandfather
and other lawyers like him
than a doctor at an abortion clinic in the middle of the Bible Belt.
I say he represented Jews, ex-cons and women
when no one else would.
I say he bought white houses in white neighborhoods
and then moved his black clients in,
box by brown, cardboard box.
And I say he did it for free.
And I say he did it because it was the right thing to do.
And I say he did it because he was a tough sonofabitch,
and he’d be damned if any bully,
be it from high school, the Board of Education
or goddamn Senator McCarthy,
was gonna beat his ethics out of him.
When they tried to cancel Mr. Robeson’s concert,
my grandfather stood lonely
on the side of the true American dream.
He argued political affiliations and skin color
weren’t sufficient grounds for a breach of contract.
And Judge Bookie knew my grandfather was right.
So Mr. Robeson got his stage,
despite rumors of riots.
Despite detailed death threats.
Despite warnings from the Albany State Police
that they would not protect him
should the shit hit the fan.
Despite all that doubt,
Mr. Robeson sang.
He sang the way God had always intended him to sing.
So picture it:
My grandparents sitting in that auditorium.
My grandmother white knuckle gripping her man’s hand.
Both of them holding their breath,
waiting for gun shots or the sound of sirens.
But the only sound that broke the windless air that night
was Paul Robeson’s baritone
busting out of his throat like
the last prayer of a drowning man
who has no choice but to
throw his whole heart upward.
Throughout all of history
the world has always tried
to silence its most powerful voices.
But sounds like Mr. Robeson’s
like my grandfather’s,
Once they’re set in motion
their energy keeps revolving
the way a wave finds a way to roll
no matter the shape of the rock in its path.
So even though my Gramps
has long since hung up his hat,
even though Paul Robeson
is long gone from this realm,
I know they are not silent.
Their two great voices are still
full and resonant
in the fresh, spring air
Caroline Harvey, granddaughter of famed human and civil rights attorney Arthur J. Harvey, has been featured in print and in film, including the national poetry slam anthology High Desert Voices, Harvard’s The Charles River Review, and on Season 5 of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. Currently an Artist in Residence at Berklee College of Music, Caroline is honored to have been featured at schools and organizations nationwide such as YouthSpeaks, The Esalen Institute, Northeastern University, Lesley University, UC Berkeley and UCLA. A past member and coach of multiple award-winning poetry slam teams, Caroline also works in conjunction with The Attleboro Arts Museum to facilitate writing projects for teens in foster care. She is especially committed to working with at-risk youth and survivors of trauma.
Thankyou! I really enjoyed the poem. Images and the language are striking, the story a part of this country’s history.