Review of “Here I Stand” by Paul Robeson

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).

Paul Robeson, a 1919 Rutgers graduate and distinguished student, in his yearbook photo. Photo: Rutgers University

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?

b-here-i-stand

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.”

Paul Robeson in Oakland, September 1942 (Credit: National Archives)

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,
The doll-maker,
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.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Othello Associates, 1958, and reissued many times since

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14 Responses to Review of “Here I Stand” by Paul Robeson

  1. bermudaonion says:

    Wow, he sounds like a very intelligent man. The sad thing is I think we’re still guilty of some of the same crimes he pointed out.

  2. Jenny says:

    You know, I have a CD of his (which I may have stolen from my aunt actually), and I love it, but I didn’t know anything about him personally. This book sounds really interesting; I look forward to reading it!

  3. Nymeth says:

    This sounds like a must read. Thank you for bringing it to my attention! My knowledge of American history is limited, so I actually hadn’t heard of Paul Robeson before. He sounds like a remarkable man.

  4. susan says:

    He was amazing. Thanks for the review. I was here earlier but went over to Alyce’s and have been sidetracked since.

  5. Very good review of a good book about a great man.

  6. elliottzetta says:

    Your respect and admiration for Robeson is evident in this review; I hope folks who have only seen him in those problematic Hollywood films will read this to know the true man…

  7. Staci says:

    What a fantastic review on a man who shouldn’t have been treated like that in the first place. Social injustice makes me furious. Sounds like an excellent read!

  8. BooksPlease says:

    I knew nothing about Paul Robeson other than he was a singer, with the most beautiful voice – Ol Man River in Show Boat and an actor – Othello in the title role etc. Thanks for your review.

    • Margaret,
      Actually Paul Robeson was quite an amazing man. At Rutgers he was the class valedictorian and also earned altogether fifteen varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. He went to Columbia Law School, and although he became a lawyer, no whites would work with him. Thus he went into singing. But he was able to sing all over the world since he could speak at least twelve languages. He was a truly remarkable individual!

  9. Belle says:

    He really was a remarkable individual. Thank you for writing this review. I loved what he had to say about “gradualism”.

  10. Celia says:

    This book sounds so powerful! Thank you for featuring it…I’m definitely going to find and read it. And as an avid fan of Pablo Neruda, I can say that you definitely caught my interest by quoting that poem!

    You can find my My Favorite Reads post here.

  11. Ti says:

    I saw a documentary on Robeson here at the university. One of the Pan African Studies professors put it in my hand one day and it was pretty powerful. Of course I cannot remember what it was called but I do recall it staying with me long after I viewed it.

  12. Jenners says:

    What an amazing and brave person! I wish he had lived in a time when he could have had a better life … but I guess he lived when he had to in order to make some strides for aall people. Great post!

  13. Alyce says:

    I haven’t heard of him before, but Robeson sounds like he was an amazing man! It takes great courage and conviction to stand up for your beliefs like that. The Pablo Neruda poem is beautiful!

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