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White Society


Read the following excerpts from Paul Robeson's book Here I Stand (Paul Robeson, Here I Stand. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.) and reflect on the following questions:

  • As a youth, how does Paul Robeson react to white society?
  • What are Robeson's thoughts on white society?


  • "Rich Princeton was white: the Negroes were there to do the work. An aristocracy must have its retainers, and so the people of our small Negro community were, for the most part, a servant class-domestics in the homes of the wealthy, serving as cooks, waiters and caretakers at the university, coachmen for the town and laborers at the nearby farms and brickyards. I had the closest ties with these workers since many of my father's relatives ... had found employment at such jobs." p.10
  • "Princeton was Jim Crow: the grade school that I attended was segregated and Negroes were not permitted in any high school. My oldest brother, Bill, had to travel to Trenton- eleven miles away- to attend high school, and I would have had to do the same had we not moved to another town. No Negro students were admitted to the university, although one or two were allowed to attend the divinity school." p.10
  • "Under the caste system in Princeton the Negro, restricted to menial jobs at low pay and lacking any semblance of political rights or bargaining power, could hope not for justice but for charity. The stern hearts and tight purses of the master class could on occasion be opened by appeals from the 'deserving poor,' and then philanthropy, in the form of donations, small loans or cast-off clothing might be looked for. The Negro church, center of community life, was the main avenue through which such boons were sought and received, and, in fact, the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church was itself largely built by white philanthropy. The pastor was a sort of bridge between the Have-nots and the Haves, and he served his flock in many worldly ways-seeking work for the jobless, money for the needy, mercy from the Law."pp. 10-11.
  • "Westfield, and later Somerville, were quite unlike Princeton. Barriers between Negro and white existed, of course, but they were not so rigid: and in the ordinary way of small-town life there were more friendly connections between the two groups. And here there were white workingmen, too, many of them foreign-born, who, unlike the Princeton blue-bloods, could see in a workingman of a darker skin a fellow human being (a lower-paid worker of course, and perhaps a competitor for a job, but not a person of a totally different caste)." p.17
  • "In these towns I came to know more white people. I frequently visited the homes of my schoolmates and always received a friendly welcome. I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but now I realize that my easy moving between the two racial communities was rather exceptional. For one thing, I was the respected preacher's son, and then, too, I was popular with the other boys and girls because of my skill at sports and studies and because I was always ready to share in their larks and fun-making. Observing my manner of respectful politeness and courtesy, in which Pop had trained us, some of the white parents encouraged their children's friendship with me hoping, I suppose, that I might have a favorable influence on them. A good boy studied hard, helped with the chores, gladly ran errands, tipped his hat to ladies, always said 'No thank you' when offered a piece of cake (at the first offer, that is), never puffed a cigarette or said bad words, would never in all is years touch a drop of hard liquor, never told lies, never played hookey, (sic) never missed Sunday School, and got nothing but A's on his report card. Well, I was a good boy, sure enough-but I wasn't that good! Not all the time, at any rate." p. 17

Questions for Discussion

  1. In what ways has society changed from the time of Robeson's youth in Princeton and Somerville?
  2. Describe a situation when you were the minority in a group.
    1. How did you feel?
    2. What was this experience like for you?
    3. Relate it to Paul Robeson's experience.