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The On Being Project

“Cross That Line”

“Cross That Line” is an important poem to me because I loved Paul Robeson so much as a child. I loved his voice. We had a record of him singing. And you know, I wouldn’t read his biography until I was an adult and know about what he suffered as a so-called communist — and how his passport was taken away from him, and he was not allowed to leave the nation, though he had a huge fan club in Europe and elsewhere.

So I thought this was so funny when he did this:

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.

He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.

Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?

And I now own a CD of this concert, some archival recording. Pretty amazing.

American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist, and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976), rehearses at the piano. ( / Keystone Features / Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

This poem is excerpted with permission from Naomi Shihab Nye’s collection of poetry, You & Yours. For more poetry, visit our Poetry Radio Project.

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