Here I Stand

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 2 (Fall 1998)

Paul Robeson Beacon Press, 1988 (second edition), 144 pages Review by Marina Drummer, LEF Foundation

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth, a review of the re-issue of Here I Stand seems in order. Paul Robeson was a great singer, an exceptional actor, and a fearless champion of the artist's right to freedom of expression. The NEA wars can be put in a new perspective by reading this heroic man's struggle for the simple right to travel freely and speak his mind openly in public. How ironic that he is better known abroad than in the land of his birth. Here I Stand speaks not only to the repression and oppression Robeson faced, but also to the strength of his artistry and the power of his voice.

This book strikes a tone of deep conviction and unswerving courage. The famous Robeson baritone is all but audible in pages that record, with no apologies and with total integrity, his positions on global understanding through cultural sharing, on peace and social justice, and, first and foremost, on equality and freedom for African Americans. Words such as heroic, genius, gigantic, tireless, and crusader fill the pages of the two introductions to this volume. Robeson inspired all he met, and his enormous magnanimity of spirit kindled in countries around the world a worshipful audience. Interestingly enough, it is in France, Spain, Germany, Scotland, Russia, and various Asian and African nations that Robeson is still recognized and feted for his awesome talent as a singer and an actor, and for his unending labor for the rights of workers around the world.

In the U.S., it seems, a black man of Robeson's great talent and intellect is still seen more as a threat than a prideful accomplishment. Why else would his achievements and tribulations have been written out of history and never given their proper acknowledgement? While being questioned during the McCarthy hearings as to why he did not stay in Russia, Robeson replied, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” A first amendment freedom fighter, to be sure.

As powerful as his voice could be in fighting for his rights, his words wax ecstatic when discussing the communal power of music. Robeson spoke of the kinship that comes with mutual respect and brotherly love. He wrote of how this concept came to him through song. This is appropriate, he said, since “songs have lived through the years and have always been the purest expressions of the heart of humanity.” Though he spoke some thirty languages and endeared himself to audiences around the world by singing their songs in their own languages, he worked from the belief that “music of African and American derivation was in the tradition of the world's great folk music.” It provided the basis for all that followed in his career. Even as he addressed the fact that an “appreciation of another people's art cannot by itself bridge the gulf which separates one people from another,” he acknowledged that it is music that drew him close to the peoples of other countries while history brought him to stand among them.

The subject of this book is a man of such varied talents and interests that it is difficult to cover the whole in one short review. For anyone who is concerned about censorship and the rights of artists, this is an important treatise to examine. At a time when the question was not about the use of public funds to support art, but rather the wider disapprobation of the right to use one's voice and one's talents as a performer to make a living, Robeson utilized clear and concise rhetoric in stating his position that sets a standard for artists and activists everywhere. At a time when the First Amendment is again being challenged on all fronts, the power of Robeson's defiance and his refusal to compromise himself or his ideals even when it meant great personal hardship are an example to all who would stand on their rights as free U.S. citizens to express themselves fully.

In a radio broadcast made for a London rally in defense of Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Robeson stated:

Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. �The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I had no alternative.

Further…

To achieve the right of full citizenship which is our just demand, we must ever speak and act like free men. When we criticize the treatment of Negroes in America and tell our fellow citizens at home and the peoples abroad what is wrong with our country, each of us can say with Frederick Douglass: “In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of this country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.”

Amen. As it was it sometimes seems it shall ever be. To get a sense of the context for abuses of power against the artistic voice and to hear a reasoned response to that abuse, Here I Stand is an epic in spite of its slim size.

Marina Drummer, LEF Foundation