Here I Stand, by Paul Robeson, was first published in 1958, and reissued in 1971 and 1988. It sets out his thoughts about the pressing issues of race in the 1950s, and about the accusations that had been made against him.
Paul Robeson, one of the greatest intellects and talents of modern times, was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to a father who was an escaped slave and who later became a Presbyterian minister. At seventeen, Robeson was given a scholarship to Rutgers University (called Rutgers College at that time), where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in sports in four years and was also his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School, and, in the early 1920s, took a job with a New York law firm. No white secretary would assist a black man, however, so he turned to performing arts, a field in which blacks were more accepted. He attained international fame as an actor and singer, and traveled the world performing benefits for causes of social justice (he spoke fifteen languages).
In 1950, Robeson attempted to renew his passport so that he could travel abroad to fulfill contracts for singing and acting performances. The State Department insisted that Robeson sign an affidavit declaring that he was not a member of the Communist Party and that he was loyal to the United States. Robeson refused and filed suit in federal court. In August 1955, a federal judge ruled that the State Department was within its legal rights to refuse Robeson a passport.
Robeson was then denied the opportunity to earn his own living as hundreds of white-owned venues refused him the right to perform. (His salary plummeted from over $100,000 a year to less than $6,000 a year and remained at that level for nearly a decade.) Robeson was never charged with any illegal activity, and never arrested. What, you may well ask, was his crime?
The crime Paul Robeson committed was to expose the hypocrisy of U.S. policies at home and abroad about the treatment of blacks by its people and its government. He spoke out forthrightly and without apology about the persistence of Jim Crow in the 1950s. How, he asked, can we insist on freedom abroad if we do not grant freedom in our own country? He also defended the vision of racial equality he saw in socialist societies. He opposed U.S. military forays as “imperialistic” and opined that it was “unthinkable” for American Negroes to “go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations.” (my emphasis)
Robeson (and many others) were blackballed for their sentiments, and even the “newspaper of record” – The New York Times – refused to print Robeson’s side of the issue. Therefore, he decided to write a book outlining his positions and why he was now a persona non grata in the United States.
Here I Stand touches on many aspects of inequality affecting blacks in 1958. Two of the points he makes in this slim volume stand out.
Robeson writes about the resistance by southerners in Congress to giving up Jim Crow (as evidenced most saliently by Mississippi Senator James Eastland who remarked ten days after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation: “Let me make this clear! The South will retain segregation!”). He notes that friends of Negroes, both black and white, urged “gradualism” – waiting “until the hearts of those who persecute us has softened – until Jim Crow dies of old age.” Robeson roars back at them:
“. . . the idea itself is but another form of race discrimination: in no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of law. There is nothing in the 14th and 15th Amendments, the legal guarantees of our full citizenship rights, which says that the Constitution is to be enforced “gradually” where Negroes are concerned. . . . The viewpoint that progress must be slow is rooted in the idea that democratic rights, as far as Negroes are concerned, are not inalienable and self-evident as they are for white Americans. Any improvement of our status as second-class citizens is seen as a matter of charity and tolerance. The Negro must rely upon the good will of those in places of power and hope that friendly persuasion can somehow and some day make blind prejudice see the light.”
There’s another line of thought in Robeson’s book I found particularly noteworthy. Robeson spent time in Africa, studying culture and languages, the richness of which proved to be a great surprise to him. For example, he wrote, “It is astonishing and to me, fascinating to find a flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius, for example … these qualities and attainments of Negro languages are entirely unknown to the general public of the Western world and, astonishingly enough, even to Negroes themselves.”
What he discovered was that Western colonizers of Africa had a vested interest in portraying Africans as uncultured savages – an image that persists even today! – to justify their rape and plunder of the rich natural resources of this great continent. (For a horrifying account of what the Belgians did in the Congo in their rubber-extraction mania, a great source is King Leopold’s Ghost – see my review here). And in fact, after generations of exploitation, the great potential that Africa exhibited when seen by Robeson may not exist any longer. But it was there, and it was denied, and it was largely eradicated.
He ends this gem of a book with a poem by Chilean Pablo Neruda, a prayer for all people:
“Let us think of the entire earth
And pound the table with love.
I don’t want blood again
To saturate bread, beans, music:
I wish they would come with me:
The miner, the little girl,
The lawyer, the seaman,
To go to a movie and come out
To drink the reddest wine . . .
I came here to sing
And for you to sing with me.
From Pablo Neruda’s “Let the Rail-Splitter Awake”
Robeson was taught by his father two important precepts on which he based his life: loyalty to one’s convictions, and the pursuit of personal integrity (which was inseparable for him from the idea of maximum human fulfillment). He lived out these precepts to the best of his ability, and in fact is still admired long past his death in 1976. I love Paul Robeson.
Published by Othello Associates, 1958, and reissued many times since