Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (9 April 1898 – 23 January 1976) was an American actor of film and stage, All-American and professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator, lawyer, and basso profondo concert singer who was also known for his social justice activism.
- If the American Negro is to have a culture of his own he will have to leave America to get it.
- As quoted in "Paul Robeson and Negro Music" in The New York Times (5 April 1931)
- I found a special eagerness among the younger, and I am sorry to say, the more intelligent Negroes, to dismiss the spiritual as something beneath their new pride in their race. It is as if they wanted to put it behind them as something to be ashamed of...
- As quoted in "Paul Robeson and Negro Music" in The New York Times (5 April 1931)
- From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot! It is the government's duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand, and I hope they will always do it, for I already regard myself at home here. This is home to me. I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I ever felt anywhere else. It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.
- "'I Am at Home' Says Robeson at Reception in Soviet Union", Daily Worker (15 January 1935)
- If the United States and the United Nations truly want peace and security let them fulfill the hopes of the common people everywhere – let them work together to accomplish on a worldwide scale, precisely the kind of democratic association of free people which characterizes the Soviet Union today.
- Daily Worker (15 November 1945)
- I am truly happy that I am able to travel from time to time to the USSR — the country I love above all. I always have been, I am now and will always be a loyal friend of the Soviet Union.
- "’I Love Above All, Russia,’ Robeson Says," Afro-American, (25 June 1949), p. 7
- Today in Korea—in Southeast Asia—in Latin America and the West Indies, in the Middle East—in Africa, one sees tens of millions of long oppressed colonial peoples surging toward freedom. What courage—what sacrifice—what determination never to rest until victory!...And arrayed against them, the combined powers of the so-called Free West, headed by the greedy, profit-hungry, war-minded industrialists and financial barons of our America. The illusion of an “American Century” blinds them for the immediate present to the clear fact that civilization has passed them by—that we now live in a people’s century—that the star shines brightly in the East of Europe and of the world. Colonial peoples today look to the Soviet Socialist Republics...One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future.
- "To You Beloved Comrade" (April 1953)
- It was deeply fascinating to watch how strikingly contemporary American audiences from coast to coast found Shakespeare's Othello — painfully immediate in its unfolding of evil, innocence, passion, dignity and nobility, and contemporary in its overtones of a clash of cultures, of the partial acceptance of and consequent effect upon one of a minority group. Against this background, the jealousy of the protagonist becomes more credible, the blows to his pride more understandable, the final collapse of his personal, individual world more inevitable. But beyond the personal tragedy, the terrible agony of Othello, the irretrievability of his world, the complete destruction of all his trusted and sacred values — all these suggest the shattering of a universe.
- "Some Reflections on Othello and the Nature of Our Time." in The American Scholar (Autumn 1945); also quoted in Paul Robeson : The Whole World in His Hands (1981) by Susan Robeson, p. 150
- In the early days of my carer as an actor, I shared what was then the prevailing attitude of Negro performers — that the content and form of a play or a film scenario was of little importance to us. What mattered was was the opportunity, which came so seldom to our folks … Later I came to understand that the Negro artist could not view the matter simply in terms of of his individual interests, and that he had a responsibility to his people who rightfully resented the traditional stereotyped portrayals of Negros on stage and screen.
- Paul Robeson : Here I Stand (1958), p. 124
- For the first time since I began acting, I feel that I've found my place in the world, that there's something out of my own culture which i can express and perhaps help others preserve..i have found out now that the African natives had a definite culture a long way beyond the culture of the Stone age...an integrated thing, which is still unspoiled by western influences...I think the Americans will be amazed to find how many of the modern dance steps are relics of African heritage.
- As quoted in Paul Robeson : The Whole World in His Hands (1981) by Susan Robeson, p. 72
- The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people: despoiled of their lands, their true culture destroyed... denied equal protection of the law, and deprived their rightful place in the respect of their fellows.
- As quoted in Paul Robeson, The Whole World in His Hands (1981) by Susan Robeson, p. 60
- Films make me into some cheap turn...You bet they'll never let me play a part in a film where a Negro is on top.
- As quoted in Paul Robeson : The Whole World in His Hands (1981) by Susan Robeson, p. 92
- One does not need a very long racial memory to loose on oneself in such a part … As I act, civilization falls away from me. My plight becomes real, the horrors terrible facts. I feel the terror of the slave mart, the degradation of man bought and sold into slavery. Well, I am the son of an emancipated slave and the stories of old father are vivid on the tablets of my memory.
- Regarding his work with the playwright Eugene O'Neill, as quoted in Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen (1989) by Charles Musser, "The Troubled relations: Robeson, O'Neil and Micheaux", p. 94
- I found it very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro childlike and innocent and is in the old plantation hallelujah shouter tradition... the same old story, the negro singing his way to glory.
- Regarding the film Tales of Manhattan, as quoted in Paul Robeson (1989) by Martin Duberman, " The Discovery of Africa", p. 259
- Sometimes great injustices may be inflicted on the minority when the majority is in the pursuit of a great and just cause.
- To his son Paul Jr regarding the execution of his friend Ignaty Kazahov, as quoted in "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson" (2001) by Paul Robeson Jr, p. 306
- Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa.
- As quoted in Paul Robeson : I Want to Make Freedom Ring (2008) by Carin T. Ford, p. 97, Ch. 9
“I Am at Home” (January 15, 1935)
- “I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow,” said Robeson. “I was aware that there was no starvation here, but I was not prepared for the bounding life; the feeling of safety and abundance and freedom that I find here, wherever I turn. I was not prepared for the endless friendliness, which surrounded me from the moment I crossed the border. I had a technically irregular passport, but all this was brushed aside by the eager helpfulness of the border authorities. And this joy and happiness and friendliness, this utter absence of any embarrassment over a ‘race question’ is all the more keenly felt by me because of the day I spent in Berlin on the way here, and that was a day of horror—in an atmosphere of hatred, fear and suspicion.”
- Commenting on the recent execution after court-martial of a number of counter-revolutionary terrorists, Robeson declared roundly: “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!
- “It is the government’s duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand,” he continued, “and I hope they will always do it, for I already regard myself at home here. This is home to me. I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I ever felt anywhere else. It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.”
"Thoughts on Winning the Stalin Peace Prize" (January 1953)
- Pablo Neruda of Chile, one of the world’s greatest poets..Martin Anderson Nexo, the greatest modern Danish humanist...Rev. James Endicott, fearless Canadian minister and fighter for peace...
- As Americans, preserving the best of our traditions, we have the right—nay the duty—to fight for participation in the forward march of humanity.
- We must join with the tens of millions all over the world who see in peace our most sacred responsibility. Once we are joined together in the fight for peace we will have to talk to each other and tell the truth about each other. How else can peace be won? I have always insisted—and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea—to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.
- In this framework we can make clear what co-existence means. It means living in peace and friendship with another kind of society—a fully integrated society where the people control their destinies, where poverty and illiteracy have been eliminated and where new kinds of human beings develop in the framework of a new level of social living.
- The telling of these truths is an important part of our work in building a strong and broad peace movement in the United States...at home in the United States we found continued and increased persecution, first of leaders of the Communist Party, and then of all honest anti-fascists.
- But the deep desire for peace remained with the American people. Wallace was hailed by vast throngs when he resigned from Truman’s cabinet in protest against the war-mongering of the then Secretary of State James Byrnes, now the Negro-hating governor of South Carolina. We know how Truman betrayed the American people in their hopes for peace, how he betrayed the Negro people in their thirst for equal rights, how he tore up the Bill of Rights and subjected the whole American people to a reign of FBI-terrorization.
- The Korean war has always been an unpopular war among the American people. We remember the unforgivable trickery in the use of the United Nations to further the purposes of “American century” imperialists in that land—quite comparable to the taking of Texas from Mexico, the rape of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Hawaii...today the Negro people watch Africa and Asia and closely follow the liberation struggles of the rising peoples in these lands. We watch the United Nations and see the U.S.A. join with the western imperialist nations to stifle the liberation struggles. We cannot help but see that it is Vishinsky and the spokesman of the Eastern European Peoples Democracies who defend and vote for the interests of the African and Asian peoples. Yes, peace can and must be won, to save the world from the terrible destruction of World War III.
- Testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (12 June 1956), quoted in Paul Robeson Speaks
- You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too.
- In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington.
- My father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
- I am here because I am opposing the Neo-Fascist cause, which I see arising here in these committees.
- Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union.… You are responsible, and your forebears, for 60 million to 100 million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about anybody, please.
- You are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
Paul Robeson Speaks (1978)
- Quotes from Paul Robeson Speaks : The Negro and The Soviet Union (1978) by Phillip S. Foner
- Yes, all Africa remembers that it was Litvinov who stood alone beside Haile Selassie in Geneva, when Mussolini's sons flew with the blessings of the Pope to drop bombs on Ethiopian women and children. Africa remembers that it was the Soviet Union which fought the attempts of the Smuts to annex Southwest Africa to the slave reservation of the Union of South Africa... if the peoples of the Congo refuse to mine the uranium for the atom bombs made in Jim Crow factories in the United States; if all these peoples demand an end to floggings, an end to the farce of 'trusteeship' in the former Italian colonies.... The Soviet Union is the friend of the African and the West Indian peoples.
- p. 238
- Vast quantities of U.S. bombers, tanks and guns have been sent against Ho Chi Minh and his freedom-fighters; and now we are told that soon it will be 'advisable' to send America GI's into Indo-China in order that the tin, rubber and tungsten of Southeast Asia be kept by the "free world"-meaning white Imperialism.
- p. 378
Quotes about Robeson
- I met Paul Robeson and Alpheus Hunton. Absolute giants. One could not help but be impressed. Minds were pried open by their keen insight, the manner in which they explained things. One had to join the struggle for the oppressed.
- 1988 interview in Conversations with Maya Angelou (1989)
- my first childhood memory of the name Moses came from hearing Paul Robeson singing of him, in the unmistakable deep bass that was his voice alone: "Go down Moses/Way down in Egypt land/Tell ol' Pharaoh/To let my people go"
- Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)
- Robeson studied several African languages and planned to undertake a thorough study of West African folk song and folklore. As he wrote in a 1934 article in the London Spectator, his goal was to introduce the world to the beauty, power, and dignity of African and African-descended art. "I hope to be able to interpret this original and unpolluted [African] folk song to the Western world and I am convinced that there lies a wealth of uncharted musical material in that source which I hope, one day, will evoke the response in English and American audiences which my Negro spirituals have done." He even understood himself to be "African," both culturally and spiritually, and he saw in black cultural values the foundation for a new vision of a new society, one that could emancipate not only black people but the entire West...Whereas for Claudia Jones the structural position of black people-black women in particular-in the political economy placed them in the vanguard of the revolution, for Paul Robeson it was their culture that gave the black movement its special insight and character...Unfortunately, neither Du Bois nor Robeson nor anyone else with a continuing commitment to the Left had anything to say about Stalin's atrocities-the political assassinations, the gulags, the Soviet state's hidden war against political dissidents and Russian Jews. Although it is not clear who knew what before Khruschev unveiled these crimes to the world in 1956, the silence that followed these revelations is one of the great tragedies in the history of the Communist movement. The other great tragedy, for the black freedom movement in particular, was the silencing of radical leadership. Robeson, Du Bois, and Claudia Jones were among the many victims of statesponsored anticommunist witch hunts.
- Robin Kelley Freedom Dreams (2002)
- Paul Robeson stood/on the northern border/of the USA/and sang into Canada/where a vast audience/sat on folding chairs/waiting to hear him./He sang into Canada./His voice left the USA/when his body was/not allowed to cross that line…
- Naomi Shihab Nye “Cross That Line”
- “Cross That Line” is an important poem to me because I loved Paul Robeson so much as a child. I loved his voice. We had a record of him singing. And I wouldn’t read his biography till I was an adult, and know about what he suffered as a so-called communist and how his passport was taken away from him and he was not allowed to leave the nation, though he had a huge fan club in Europe and elsewhere. So I thought this was so funny when he did this, and I now own a CD of this concert.
- "There is this... that must be admired about Du Bois, Robeson, Ben Davis and others. They are not taking it lying down. Ben Davis is in prison... Robeson has sacrificed... DuBois has fought without let up for over half a century and at 85 be is determined as ever. Some day when truth gets a hearing, America, regardless of colour, we will honour them."
Why I Left America and Other Essays, Ollie Harrington (1993)
- Downtown they were still mournfully talking about the good, solid white folks who had walked into space from Wall Street's many windows. Uptown we were talking about Paul Robeson, who was singing songs which gripped some inner fibres in us that had been dozing. And he was saying things which widened black eyes and sharpened black ears, things which sounded elusively familiar.
- My first real job was as art editor of the People's Voice. Adam Powell, Charlie Buchanan and Ben Davis published that great sheet and one day Adam called me into his office. "Ollie," he said, "there's someone I want you to meet." A beaming giant of a man left his chair, thumped me on the back with a hand as powerful as John Henry's sledgehammer and boomed, "Feller, I just wanted you to know that those cartoons of yours are great."Of course it was Paul Robeson. I can't remember doing much more than gulping. What can one say to a mountain? But it was the beginning of a treasured friendship.
- Paul Robeson was holding forth on the wizardry of old w:Josh Gibson, w:Satchel Paige and other black ballplayers jimcrowed out of what was euphemistically called the national pastime..."One day," said Paul, "our boys are going to bust right into the Yankee Stadium dugout and teach 'em the fine points of the game."
- And then there was Robeson and the heart-filling voice singing WHAT IS AMERICA TO ME.
- We helped plow the fields, build the dams, write the poems and sing the music of America. Are not all Americans proud, of Doree Miller, of Frederick Douglass, of Paul Robeson, of Joe Louis, of Marian Anderson.
- Not very long ago I was invited by the satirical Krokodile to see the Soviet Union. In Tashkent I sat on a parkbench where I could drink in the breathtaking oriental beauty of the opera house. I was thinking of coming back the next day with my sketch pad when a little Uzbek girl came to me holding out a flower. Her oval face was so lovely, even with the tooth missing from in front. Of course I couldn't understand what she was saying but Yuri, my interpreter explained, "She asks if you are Paul Robeson?" Her mother appeared and suddenly it seemed there were hundreds of Uzbek children with their mothers, all carrying hastily picked flowers. I was terribly flustered but I managed to explain that I wasn't Paul Robeson but that he was my friend. And then one Uzbek mother, proud of her English said, "Here, he is our beloved Pauli."
June Jordan, "Tribute to Paul Robeson"
In Affirmative Acts (1998)
- Today I wish to pay tribute to an astonishing, powerful forefather of all of us, an exemplary Black man, an unparalleled role model who studied, and mastered, twenty-five languages, including Chinese and Arabic, as well as East and West coast African languages. A great human being, an exemplary Black man who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University, a huge hero who twice made All-America in football, and who earned fifteen Varsity letters in six or seven other sports, besides. An exemplary Black man who sang like a God and comported himself like a king.
- I want to remember and to praise his compassion and his defiance and the ever enlarging scope of his moral concern. Today, as the United States insists upon punishing the Arab peoples of Iraq, I want to embrace the lucid, principled commitment of his amazing life. I want to respect and fathom his declaration of himself as African. I want to follow him to the workers of England, whose cause he so passionately espoused. I want to watch him rushing again and again to the side of the miners of Wales. I want to intervene and shield him from the atrocious insults he endured at restaurants, concert halls, hotels, and the actual and the political attempts to lynch him. I want to join his studies of Marx and track his on-site inspection of Soviet efforts at equality for minority peoples. I want to cheer him on as he founded, just one year after I was born, the Council on African Affairs, which, for almost twenty years, was the sole United States organization devoted to assistance of African liberation struggles. I want to enjoy his twenty minutes of standing ovation triumphs onstage as Othello, or as himself, singing Negro Spirituals and Russian and Spanish folksongs. I want to understand and copy his devotion to the eradication of racist everything and his rejection and exposure of economic inequities everywhere. I need to honor his resistance to the stupidity of Harry Truman's Cold War and Joe McCarthy's un-American witch-hunt. I want to cheer as he becomes an honorary member of the C.I.O. and the International Longshoremen's Union. I want to shout when W.E.B. DuBois presents him with the 1952 Stalin Peace Prize.
- I am thrilled to think about the visionary, loving excellence of his life, symbolized by his painstaking fluency in twenty-five languages-a life and a fluency that ignorant, hateful, totally wrong men, here, in America, sought to cancel with one word! And that one word was "communist"!
- For the sake of our future collective history I ask that we never forget this one great forefather who, regardless of his glory, never forgot to claim our suffering as his own; that son of a slave who never bowed down to tyranny; That compassionate king who went all over the world singing our own best song in solidarity with the best hopes of people everywhere longing for justice and equality and peace.