Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 September 2020
On December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted by a panel of notables chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration is framed in the language of dignity from its first sentence. Four months later, black singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson’s invocation of dignity fatally damaged his career. Robeson asserted that the Soviet Union guaranteed the dignity of blacks. On first glance, Robeson would seem to be echoing the UN language, but in fact, Robeson had been speaking and writing about dignity continuously since his 1919 graduation speech from Rutgers. Black Americans, led by Robeson, would use the language of dignity in their petitions imploring the UN to investigate the oppression of African Americans as well as informally, in black social spaces. This chapter tracks the efforts of Robeson (himself often described as personifying dignity in his artistic performances) to advance a notion of dignity that subversively mimicked regnant liberal and Christian understandings of the concept. In doing so, he recovers a vernacular sense of dignity with a quite different provenance than the European Christian tradition – but closely connected with the instincts of African American Christians such as Robeson’s preacher father.