Paul Robeson's Here I Stand: The Book They Could Not Ban


2-14-07, 8:39 am

Editor's note: This article originally appeared as the preface to an edition of Here I Stand in 1971.

'Let's see by a show of hands-how many of you have read Paul Robeson's book, Here I Stand?'

The question was directed by Dizzy Gillespie to a large audience that attended a tribute to Robeson sponsored in New York by Local 1199, Drug and Hospital Union. The noted jazz musician, who was one of the many star performers on the program, shook his head reproachfully when only a few hands were raised. 'Now that is one book,' he said, 'that all of you really ought to read.'

But where would they find it? Written and published under the conditions of Robeson's total banishment within this country, his book has been out of print for a decade. When Here I Stand appeared on February 14, 1958, the 'Big White Folks,' whom Robeson had defiantly challenged in its pages, made a concerted effort to boycott the book and thus silence his voice in print as they had silenced him in all other mass media.

In one area the boycott achieved a near-total success: with one insignificant exception, no white commercial newspaper or magazine in the entire country so much as mentioned Robeson's book. Leading papers in the field of literary coverage, like The New York Times and the Herald-Tribune, not only did not review it; they refused even to include its name in their lists of 'books out today.'

Recently, when this writer asked the Times about the matter, the Sunday Editor, Daniel Schwarz, wrote in reply: 'We have tried to find some record of what happened to Paul Robeson's book, 'Here I Stand,' but our files do not go that far back. . . . I am told that Paul Robeson's book doesn't appear in the listings of the Book Review Digest, so apparently it was not only The Times Book Review which decided not to review the book. I just want to assure you that we carefully consider every book we receive and I am certain that any book by Paul Robeson would not have been rejected for review if in the judgment of the editors it merited attention.'

However, even if one could imagine that every one of the editors of the entire American white press, individually and without pressure, came to the same judgment that Robeson's book did not merit attention, there exists an overwhelming fact to prove that their unanimity was not a miraculous coincidence. That fact is this: in two other areas, which were beyond the control of the boycotters, many editors came to an altogether different judgment.

One of these areas was the world beyond the U.S. borders that Robeson was forbidden to cross. Although Here I Stand was addressed primarily to Black Americans, reviewers in all the many lands where the book was republished found that it did merit attention. Nor was this judgment limited to the Soviet Union and other socialist countries where Robeson had long been a legendary hero. Unlike the liberal Times in New York, the Tory Times in London reviewed the book (August 14, 1958). Noting that 'Robeson is a single-minded crusader, his mission is to secure equal social and political rights for the American Negro,' the London reviewer went on to say that his book 'commands attention because he is a great artist, because he is accused of Communism, and because, by refusing him a passport for many years, the American government promoted him to the status of a political martyr.'

Another striking example of that different judgment was the widespread attention that the Japanese edition of Here I Stand received. In a note accompanying a batch of laudatory reviews printed in Japan's leading papers, the translator, Akira Iwasaki, reported to Robeson's U.S. publisher: 'The book got a very good critical appraisal. It was more than I expected, since the 'bourgeois' newspapers and magazines here usually omit to mention the works of progressive artists. But they were impressed by the personal integrity of Mr. Robeson.'

In India, the mass-circulation tabloid, Blitz, published (April 5, 1958) a four-page illustrated supplement which, under the headline 'Black Voice of God,' was devoted entirely to Robeson's book. The editor felt that the book not only merited attention but called for action as well. 'We must take Robeson's slogan, THE TIME IS NOW,' he wrote, 'and arrange mass demonstrations to show that we completely and solidly support the cause of the American Negro.'

However, far more significant than the response abroad was the response in the second large area where the anti-Robeson ban was broken -- in the Black communities of America. The breakthrough began in Harlem where Othello Associates, an independent Negro publishing company, brought out Robeson's book. (It might be noted that among the many meaningful misstatements in Edwin P. Hoyt's biography of Robeson was that author's assertion that Here I Stand was published abroad by a white publisher. The fact is, the British edition Hoyt cites, and all the other foreign editions, were produced by arrangement with the Black U.S. publisher.) What followed the publication of Robeson's book was a development altogether unprecedented in the period of McCarthyite repression: an important section of the Afro-American press moved with speed and energy to publicize and promote the sale of a book that expressed the ideas of a man considered by the dominant class to be Enemy Number One. The fact that the Negro editors were well aware of the source of the anti-Robeson ban was indicated by a Chicago Crusader editorial (March 8, 1958) that referred scornfully to certain 'other Negro editors [who], scared that Washington might send the F.B.I. to check on them, took to their heels whenever the name of Robeson was mentioned.'

The Baltimore Afro-American (with editions in several other cities) took the lead in the widespread defiance of the ban. As soon as Here I Stand was off the press, the Afro began its forceful campaign to get a hearing for it. That effort started with an editorial (February 22, 1958) that hailed Robeson's 'remarkable book,' and announced that the Afro's magazine section would serialize several of its chapters. Then came the five-part series, starting with the March 15 issue, which also featured a notable review of Here I Stand by Saunders Redding. (Later, in his annual year-end roundup for the paper, on January 10, 1959, Redding listed Robeson's book among the ten works that 'impressed this reviewer most strongly in 1958.')

The Afro followed up (May 3) with a second editorial, titled 'The Paul Robeson Story,' that deservedly took 'some pardonable pride' in the fact that the first printing of Here I Stand was sold out in the first six weeks. The editorial noted that Robeson had chosen a 'different technique from that of more orthodox leaders,' and justified the paper's support of him by asserting: 'In fighting slavery, John Brown and Frederick Douglass resorted to different methods, but they were both on the same side.'

The late Carl Murphy, who as the Afro-American's president directed this campaign, was joined by the parallel efforts made by another leading Black journalist, P. L. Prattis, then chief editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. The fact that the influential Courier was a close second to the Afro in defying the ban against Robeson was largely due to the integrity of Prattis, who, along with Murphy, had earlier dared to condemn the frame-up of Dr. Du Bois when few others would do so.

The main front-page headline in the Courier of February 22, 1958, was: 'PAUL ROBESON STATES HIS CASE,' and the cover story of its magazine section of that date dramatized the news that Robeson had written an important book. Though the Courier published no review of the book (probably a friendly act, since the book editor was the arch-conservative George S. Schuyler), Prattis devoted his column (March 29, 1958) to a discussion of Here I Stand. His paper printed numerous news stories about the successful campaign to sell the book, as well as many enthusiastic letters from Robeson's readers.

The only negative review of Here I Stand that this writer knows about appeared in the March, 1958, issue of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, and was written by its editor, James W. Ivy. The book was deemed to be 'disorderly and confusing' and its author was described as a man whom 'Negroes. . . never regarded as a leader,' and who 'imagines his misfortunes to stem, not from his own bungling, but from the persecution of 'the white folks on top.''' (The founding editor of The Crisis and eminent historian, W. E. B. Du Bois, evidently shared Robeson's alleged delusion, since he said at the time: 'The persecution of Paul Robeson by the government . . . has been one of the most contemptible happenings -in modern history.' Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois, p. 396.)

An opposite view to that of The Crisis on Robeson's persecution and his status as a leader was given by the Chicago Crusader, which devoted most of its editorial page (March 8, 1958) to a lengthy statement titled 'Paul Robeson: A Man.' Welcoming his book, the editorial said: 'We have thought all along that the great singer, athlete and lawyer, as well as freedom fighter, has been persecuted because he wouldn't bow down to the white folks.' On the subject of his leadership, the Crusader asserted: 'Paul Robeson has been one of the mightiest of all Negro voices raised against world oppression of people based on race, color, nationality and religion. He is known wherever there are people as a champion of the rights of man.'

The editorial had more to say on that subject: 'There are times in our struggle for full equality when stalwart men like Robeson, carved in the heroic mould of Cudjo, Fred Douglass, Jack Johnson, Dr. Ossian Sweet of Detroit, and Oscar DePriest of Chicago, are needed for the physical example. This is the kind of leadership that Paul Robeson lives and sings about that will get Negroes off their knees where they are being executed daily before the firing squad of racial prejudice, discrimination, Jim Crow and anti-Negro terrorism, onto their own two legs on which they must stand like men and fight this thing out toe to toe. White folks are scared of this type of leadership. They feared it in Edward H. Wright in Chicago, Wright Cuney in Texas and Ben Davis in Georgia. They were enraged at Jack Johnson who could look a white man in the eye in such a way as to make him cringe. In Paul Robeson they have met their match again.'

Not all reviewers could be that outspoken, and in some cases they quoted at length Robeson's most militant statements without making any comment. In one case, the reviewer (Buddy Lonesome in the St. Louis Argus, April 25, 1958) quoted various paragraphs from Chapter 4 ('The Time Is Now'), and Chapter 5 ('The Power of Negro Action'), which he saw as 'particularly pertinent.' Then he came to a key point in the latter chapter where he felt that Robeson had gone too far. However, in stating his disagreement, the reviewer strongly hinted that he had in fact got the message:

'He [the author] gives an example of a Negro family huddling in their newly purchased home while a mob of howling bigots mills around the house. Robeson then candidly asks, 'Where are the other Negroes?' There I differ with him, for it certainly wouldn't be right for Negroes to rush to arms, thereby creating another mob, to still the howls of the indignant white bigots. But then I remember the indulgent smirks of Americans around the country when Indians in Lumbee, N.C., grabbed rifles to rout a klavern of white-sheeted ku kluxers, and I pause for deep reflection.'

The most analytical assessment of Robeson's ideas on the Black liberation struggle that appeared in the Negro press was the review in the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch (May 8, 1958). The reviewer, William C. Taylor, focused attention on Chapter 5, which, he said, 'by itself makes this book a 'must' on every reading list.' He noted that, 'While strongly advocating unity of Negro and white, Robeson warns of a 'rising resentment against the control of our affairs by white people, regardless of whether that domination is expressed by the blunt orders of political bosses or more discreetly by the advice of white liberals which must be heeded or else.' '

Along with his insistence that the liberation movement must be led by an independent Black leadership, Robeson had stressed that another quality was also needed: 'To live in freedom one must be prepared to die to achieve it. . . . He who is not prepared to face the trials of battle will never lead to a triumph.' (Here I Stand, pp. 110-11.) To the Los Angeles reviewer Robeson’s ideas on this subject were 'right down the alley,' and he quoted the following passage on page 110 as being especially meaningful: 'The primary quality that Negro leadership must possess, as I see it, is a single-minded dedication to their people's welfare. . . for the true leader all else must be subordinated to the interests of those whom he is leading.' (Emphasis in original.)

In addition to much of the Black press, the left-wing newspapers and magazines of the country also considered that Robeson's book merited attention. Among the reviewing publications in this area and their respective writers were: National Guardian, Cedric Belfrage (3/10/58); New World Review, Louis E. Burnham (May, '58); Mainstream, Shirley Graham (March, '58); and The Worker, Phillip Bonosky (5/4/58). The principal Marxist response to Here I Stand appeared in Political Affairs (April, 1958, pp. 1-8). The reviewer was the late Benjamin J. Davis, a noted Black militant, Communist Party leader, and son of the Ben Davis of Georgia whose leadership was praised in the above quoted Chicago Crusader.

Davis asserted that with the publication of Here I Stand 'a new dimension is added to the massive array of Robeson's contributions to the goal of human dignity,' and he described the book as 'beautifully, simply and movingly written, bold in conception, sound in content, broad in approach.' Noting that there was a 'conspiracy of muteness on the part of the monopoly press' regarding the book, Davis said that the reason for the boycott was that Robeson's book 'brings forward a people's program of action which, if seized upon by the Negro people and their allies, could not fail to have the most profound positive effects upon the present struggles of the Negro for dignity and full citizenship.'

The Marxist reviewer discussed one aspect of the author's stand that had been skipped over by the non-left reviewers, namely, that 'Robeson makes no bones about his friendship with the Soviet Union' and the other socialist countries. He quoted the passage where Robeson wrote of 'my deep conviction that for all mankind a socialist society represents an advance to a higher stage of life -- that it is a form of society which is economically, socially, culturally, and ethically superior to a system based upon production for private profit.'

Perhaps the core of Davis's assessment was this: 'Communists, in particular,' he wrote, 'should learn from the opinion of others, especially those outside their ranks, who, like Robeson, are participants in, fighters for, and students of the struggle for a better life. . . . A strong partisan of socialism, he, nevertheless, recognizes that the attainment of the Negro's full citizenship is a massive struggle requiring the unity of people of diverse views and parties on a common program of action. . . . Robeson's book introduces into the market place of ideas the basic question of how one who believes in the principles of scientific socialism can project a program broader and more effective than any yet advanced on the American scene by any people's leader.'

In concluding this survey of the response to Here I Stand, a few words from the present writer may be in order. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to serve as Robeson's collaborator in the writing of Here I Stand, and to be one of the 'Othello Associates' who published the book despite the ban. It has been gratifying to see that many of Robeson's militant ideas have been taken up by today's liberation movement, and that many young people are finding their way along paths blazed by this great man of whom most of them have never heard.

Unfortunately, however, when young people do hear of him they usually hear only the testimony of his enemies. For example, students are often directed to Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, with its thoroughly false treatment of Robeson. Cruse's book contains many of the big lies being told to make young Black militants scorn a man they would honor if they knew the truth. For instance, on page 297 Cruse writes: 'As I have pointed out, the Negro actor-performer-singer has always developed an ambivalent communion (or none at all) with the Negro creative artist-upon whom the interpreters seldom depend for their artistic accomplishments or financial status.' Incredibly, the prime-indeed the only -- example Cruse gives to illustrate his dubious generalization is -- Paul Robeson!

On the other hand, students have not been directed to the primary source, Robeson himself, where they would learn the truth (which Cruse knows but conceals from them), as in this passage from Here I Stand: 'Early in my professional musical career I had the great good fortune to become associated with Lawrence Brown, an extraordinarily gifted Negro composer and arranger, and over the years this association grew into a successful partnership and personal friendship. It was this musician who clarified my instinctive feeling that the simple, beautiful songs of my childhood, heard every Sunday in church and every day at home and in the community -- the great poetic song-sermons of the Negro preacher and the congregation, the work songs and blues of my father's folk from the plantation of North Carolina -- should also become important concert material. Lawrence Brown, who also knew and played the folk music of other peoples, as well as the great classics of Western song literature (many of which are based on folk themes), was firm in his conviction that our music -- Negro music of African and American derivation -- was in the tradition of the world's great folk music. And so for my first five years as a singer my repertoire consisted entirely of my people's songs.' (p. 57, emphasis added.)

Any honest appraisal would show that Robeson's internationalism, his all-embracing humanism, developed through his deep communion with the Afro-American heritage. Indeed, twenty years ago the present writer, arguing that the Negro creative writer could best reach the goal of universality by basing his work on the cultural heritage of his own people, cited Robeson as a living example of that achievement. I wrote: 'A giant figure in our country exemplifies this concept in another field of the arts -- Paul Robeson. Here is a man who is the foremost people's artist of America and a world artist. He sings the songs of the peoples of the world in the languages of those peoples and touches their hearts; they call him brother, son. And what is the primary source of his universal art? His people. His art is great for it has a great foundation-the rich national culture and psychology of the Negro people: sorrow song and jubilee, work song and dance song.' (Masses & Mainstream, April, 1951, p. 54.)

In the face of Cruse's falsification, some lines of an old, familiar song from the Black-culture repertoire of Robeson come to mind:

You call that a brother? No! No! Scandalize my name.

It may be expected, however, that the inquiring minds of the new generation will break through to the truth. Inevitably, like a mountain peak that becomes visible as the mist is blown away, the towering figure of Paul Robeson will emerge as the thick white fog of lies and slanders is dispelled. Then he will be recognized and honored here in his homeland, as he is throughout the world, as Robeson the Great Forerunner.