African American Studies


Robert Robinson (b. 8/11/1943) is a former public health specialist for the Center for Disease Control. The son of a bartender father from West Virginia and a mother from Massachusetts, Robinson was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, on Stebbins Ave. During this time, the Stebbins Ave neighborhood was inhabited mostly by blacks and Puerto Ricans, and the two cultures remained relatively aloof from one another. Robinson recalls that there was some limited gang activity in the area: some local toughs from the surrounding areas would sometimes rough up the young people on Stebbins Ave, which did not have a reputation for toughness. Nevertheless, Robinson insists that his living situation was very safe, since this state of affairs fostered survival skills and street smarts that led one to avoid dangerous situations. He attended junior high school at Nolton, PS 52. Initially he had aspirations to be an engineer, since he had an affinity for math and science, but there was a tacit but prevalent assumption in force that blacks could not become engineers or doctors. Robinson says that such assumptions did not even count as “racist” practices, since in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s many blacks accepted the status quo as the way things were, and they lacked the social and political vocabulary to articulate what did and did not count as unequal practice. It was only when the civil rights movement picked up that the delineations between racist unequal practices and non-racist practices became more clear.

Robinson attended Morris high school, where he continued to excel as a student. He became especially interested in literature at Morris, and he received a good background in the “hard” sciences as well. He had no guidance on what colleges to pursue after high school, so he decided to attend Michigan State basically because he liked the look of the brochures they sent out. He spent a year and a half at Michigan State, studying pre-med in a 30,000 member student body which included fewer than 100 African-American students. Struggling academically, socially, and financially, he decided to return to the Bronx. He finished his undergraduate degree at City College by attending night school. Subsequently, he held several jobs, working as a mail boy, a nursery school teacher, and as an interviewer for a research project in sociology. At the same time he got involved in civil rights activism, and was a supporter of several non-violent groups as well as the Black Panthers. He went to Adelphi University to get a degree in social work from 1967-1969, and subsequently taught at Adelphi’s African-American Studies department. As chair of the department, he was able to get even more involved in activism, and he organized protests, sit-ins, and boycotts of local businesses and institutions. He was also instrumental in bolstering Adelphi’s Black Student Union and Latino Student Union.

Robinson got his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983. He first joined the National Cancer Center, where he obtained a solid background in public health. His specialty became tobacco prevention and control. As part of the Center for Disease Control, he lobbied against tobacco advertising campaigns which targeted African-American populations. He especially went after Uptown cigarettes, a cheap, highly addictive and highly cancerous cigarette whose advertisements were meant to appeal to African-Americans in Harlem and the Bronx. The campaign was successful, and the cigarettes were pulled off the shelves. In addition, Robinson has written a report which remains the best of its kind—it is a guide to combat nicotine and alcohol dependence in lower-income African-American communities called “Pathways to Freedom.”

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