Harry Belafonte

Three-time Grammy Award-winning musician, actor and activist Harry Belafonte is one of the most successful Jamaican-American artists of all time, renowned for bringing the Caribbean sound to the international mainstream. Just as he is an advocate of world music, Belafonte is acclaimed for his lifelong commitment to political and humanitarian activism. A close friend and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Belafonte was at the forefront of the civil rights movement and continued to campaign for racial equality and global peace long after Dr. King's death.

In this public conversation at the historic Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture, presented by Red Bull Music and Jill Newman Productions, Harry Belafonte spoke with writer and curator Kimberly Drew about balancing art and activism, legacy and the power of folk art.

Hosted by Kimberly Drew Transcript:

Kimberly Drew

All right, I am so excited.

Harry Belafonte

Oh, Kimberly you look so spiffy.

Kimberly Drew

Thank you. So, let’s start from the start. I want to begin our conversation talking about [the] Sankofa organization, so that everyone can get a little bit familiar with the work that you do. Why did it seem important to build your own organization? And, specifically, could you talk to us about some of the mission and why the mission was designed in the way that it was.

Harry Belafonte

On many occasions, I’ve had artists – very high-profile artists – come to me and express their desire to be more engaged in social activities, social-conscience work. They asked for guidance as to what’s the best destination. And I thought that perhaps one of the easiest things to do would be to create an organization that would be committed to helping attach high-profile – or not necessarily so high-profile – artists to social activism…

Sankofa… the name Sankofa comes from a bit of West African mythology. Sankofa is a bird, and it is a bird whose title, whose mythology, suggests we must not let the past die. We should retrieve our young and educate them to the ways of the world and hook up artists with politics. And, so, this started Sankofa. It is now run by a group of young people, my daughter being one of them. I am particularly grateful to a lot of artists, like John Legend and Alicia Keys and others, who have been most supportive of the work that Sankofa does. It’s just bringing heart and politics together in a room and let them understand how much in need of each other they are. [Applause]

Kimberly Drew

Thank you. So, I’d like to continue on this theme of Sankofa and the virtues of looking back to look forward. In the beginning of your career, it seems like you may have been the unlikely hero of the story. Could you talk to us a little bit about your upbringing in New York, between New York and Jamaica, and some of the values that were instilled in you at a young age that still resonate with you today?

Harry Belafonte

I was born in Harlem and one of the joys of my life. But my mother was an immigrant woman who came from the island of Jamaica, and she was a domestic worker, and she raised her children as best she could because, by and large, she was a single parent.

I learned from her most of the things that shaped my life and shape my behavior. She gave me my values and made me a tenacious rebel on the issues of poverty. I’ve never understood the cruelty of the system. Why anybody has to be poor has always eluded me, when looking at human conduct and human behavior.

This country is governed by a lot of racist principles and I think people of color have been victimized to the extreme. And, as a young kid, I just always said to myself I’m not too sure how much I can do about all this, but I’ll not let it go unchallenged. And very early on... thanks for the applause, but I didn’t know that I had much alternative. You either give in or give out, and I wasn’t going to give in. So, I decided that wherever I met poverty and injustices of poverty I’d make it my business to do everything I could to take care of it.

Fortunately, I… very young, I became an artist and that life in the arts gave me a platform, because I was quite taken with the fact, so early on in my life, [that] so many people should have felt what I had to offer as an artist [was] something that delighted them. Having a constituency that came to hear me bring joy to their day was a good place for me to start bringing information to the day, and I decided to make arts and activism a necessary combination.

I find that now today a lot of artists, like a couple I’ve just mentioned and others, there’s a consciousness that’s taking place among young people in relationship to social activism. And we meet with some regularity and discuss objectives and things to do, and use our collective power to make a difference in how America does business. We try to change the rules of the game.

Kimberly Drew

I’d like to keep talking about the early days in New York and specifically about your career as a musician. There is an incredible story about your start, where you were playing with Max Roach?

Harry Belafonte

When I was what?

Kimberly Drew

When you were playing with Charlie Parker and Max Roach. A lot of us in the audience know them as these huge jazz legends, but I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about what that experience was like and how it shaped you in your career.

Harry Belafonte

I was quite surprised with the way in which my efforts as an artist had been received so early on in my life. When Charlie Parker and Max Roach and Miles Davis stepped to the plate. They were most supportive and most generous with the way in which they encouraged me to continue my work in the arts. I took that seriously.

I also looked at the fact that having a constituency as large as mine was beginning to display, that just having an audience that delighted in what you sang, what you acted doing, was not enough – that this was a platform to spread the word. I decided to use my platform as an artist to be an activist.

And in that context, I was rewarded with a relationship with a man by the name of Paul Robeson… Probably one of the greatest of our history. A man of great dignity. A great scholar. He had impeccable power with his voice and his art, and I watched him very carefully, and what he did. And he would tolerate no injustice and he was always in the thick of the battle, and this nation crucified him for that fact. I looked at him and I said [that] whatever he has left behind for those of us to inherit, it was a worthy mission to pick up his mantle and to run with it.

I think that my life has been more than rewarded with the fact that… to be an activist was rewarded with the fact that a lot of people sought my services… Dr. King being one of the principal players, and people like Paul Robeson himself and others… Malcolm X… people I worked with and served. And ultimately leading with the Kennedy family and digging in deeply into that period of our political history, helping to stay the course and to shape some of the things the Kennedys did… They appointed me to become a member of the Peace Corps. And I found that an excellent opportunity to get to know more about the world. I became deeply immersed in Africa and African affairs, mostly with all the young men and rebels whom I met who were fighting tenaciously for African independence.

One of the people who was critical to that relationship with Africa was Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a remarkable woman. She came to me one day to ask me if I would help her with a program she was initiating in the black community in Harlem called... [taps head] mental moment… Anyway, I joined her. She then led me to meet all these various Africans. She was at the United Nations at the time and... Wiltwyck, that’s it… Wiltwyck School for Boys was the name of the organization, and it took care of young people who had come against the law, and they were too young to be jailed and to be incarcerated. So, she created this space called Wiltwyck for these young men, primarily young men of color, to be housed and guided in life of responsibility.

In that work with her and with the work she did at the United Nations I began to meet all the young Africans who were coming to this country to participate in the work of the UN, and I made some very, very close friends – one of them being Nelson Mandela. With that kind of relationships and people, my work was pretty well declared and cut out for me.

I have no regrets. The life I’ve lived has been amply rewarded, primarily with the number of people who called on me. I’m not always sure they did the right thing, but I sure took advantage of them to make my voice heard on issues of social oppression. And that reward has led me here to be sitting with and with this audience. I can’t think of a better way to be rewarded for a lifetime of anguish.

Kimberly Drew

I’m sure that we have many artists here in the audience. One of the things that I find the most profound about your legacy is how you brought culture to so many different audiences. Thinking about your work in the civil rights movement, you coordinated with musicians to come and sing to the people who were marching, and I was curious about what that research process looked like. Were you taking Dr. King or Malcolm X to go to concerts? What was the process for introducing culture to some of the people that were organizers in the movement?

Harry Belafonte

Long before I became an artist, I was an activist. I don’t think one can be born into poverty and not find a lot of room to find things to do. I saw the inhumanity of poverty, and I decided that whatever my life would become, I would commit myself to try to make change with all the ingredients that go to make up poverty.

My mother was a great example of that. I saw her dignity and her wisdom in dealing with the issues of the day. And my mother, she took no prisoners. She was quite aggressive in her attitude towards injustice and that passed on to her children. And I just said if ever I have the opportunity to make a difference, I would seize on those opportunities to do that.

The popularity I found with the audiences that I performed to around the world not only supported the art that I participated in… my films, my records, etc. But I also found a great community of respondents to the issues of poverty. I think Paul Robeson and Dr. King and Eleanor Roosevelt, who sought my services… [that] was based on my popularity as an artist. They saw that I commanded a constituency that they would like to have me influence with their cause. And I found great honor in the work that they did and felt that making such an alliance was the worthy thing to do. I’ve never regretted a moment of it. I’ve from time to time paid a price because the opposition, [the] reactionary forces in this country are tenacious in their behavior of cruelty.

This nation was conceived in violence. It was conceived in the oppression of people of color. When the Europeans came here and discovered Native Americans their greatest practice was to oppress the indigenous and eventually practice genocide. They then replaced that, when there were no longer Native Americans to exploit, they went out and got a hundred years of slavery – hence my relationship to this nation – and when slavery was no longer fashionable they created a hundred years of segregation, which gave me all the tools to work with in opposing the acts of segregation.

I think when I discovered a constituency that was ready to hear what I had to say that I should utilize that space by bringing information that was very definitely in opposition to poverty, and that led me to a lot of things and a lot of places. I was rewarded by the company that sought my services. I was always aware of the fact that such an anointing, such a blessing, was worthy of behavior that carried dignity and carried anger.

Dr. King always said, “A good dose of anger is necessary for our movement.” Do not deny anger. Anger isn’t the problem. As a matter of fact, we should attract anger. It’s not being angry, it’s what you do with the anger, and I decided to change the canvas, to be a part of a mission of noble men and women who sought to make a difference every day in their lives.

I think a lot of the young people that I’m talking with today, I made it my business to become very involved with the Bloods and the Crips… young gangs that are made up of the community of color, and Latino as well. Starting in California, I got very much involved with the Bloods and the Crips and became appointed by them to negotiate a peace between African-Americans and Latinos and Chicanos.

In Northern California a young Latino by the name of Nane Alejandrez and a young man by the name of Bo Taylor, a Blood and a Crip and the Latin gangs. I brought them together for the first major peace conference that they had, and successfully negotiated that they stop shooting one another. Once they stopped shooting one another, that meant that they had work to do. So, I just stepped in here began to do all of the things that I do.

It has cost me from time to time, because of the opposition. There are a lot of people out here who are quite angry when the oppressed speak out against their oppression. They find that [to be] an act of ungraciousness… that we should be thankful that they let us breathe. I said, “As long as I draw a breath, you going to hear from me.”

I am very grateful for the life that I’ve been given. Particularly for the people I’ve come to meet that are so incredible in the things they did. I mean to know Nelson Mandela is no small gift.

Kimberly Drew

Or to welcome him to New York.

Harry Belafonte

That was the least I could have done. He wanted very much to see what America was like. He studied the civil rights movement very carefully during 27-and-a-half years he was imprisoned. He watched our movement very carefully… what Dr. King and Malcolm X and others had achieved and molded his own – the ANC, the African National Congress – molded their path in terms of what he would do if he ever had the opportunity to be released.

None of us had ever thought we’d ever see him alive, but he did prevail. And when he was released he decided that he would adapt many of the tenets of the civil rights movement. He was most admiring of Dr. King and Malcolm. When I met Mandela, he gave me an opportunity to become very much involved with Africa. I met so many of the young African leaders and became very much engaged in African history and African need. As much as they thought they may have been punishing me, what I was was truly rewarded to be put into a position to make these relationships and to be embraced by so many.

I think the most important thing is that I’ve seen change. I am somewhat disappointed in the outcome, because for young people like yourself my mission was to make sure that I left this world a better place than the way I found it. That meant commitment to ending injustice. To end injustice is a fierce fight. Those who saw us working to that end crucified us in many ways. But the reward was in the act itself, and with the many noble men and women that I met along the way, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I learned a lot from them and we did a lot to change the world.

I regret that the… the outcome of things is not exactly the way we thought it would end. Now, well over 90 years of age, and I always felt the use of life in the service of making America a place of joy and to make it a place of promise was very much in the cards. To do that, you receive the animosity of the ruling class. You receive the animosity of Wall Street. You receive the animosity of bankers and people who yielded a lot of power. I said, “Well, if that’s what I got to do, I will make an attempt at doing it and doing it in a way that will make me worthy of the life and the gifts I’ve given.”

I think Donald Trump was not in my history, was not in my DNA. I figured that by the time I’ve reached 91 years of age we would have found America a more joyous place. Instead, we find America in a place of a great dilemma. I’m not too sure this nation is going to survive. I think the cruelty that is expressed by Donald Trump is just the villainy of a personality. What is infinitely more important is not that he exists, but that he’s supported by so many, and if this nation is to be governed by that ilk I don’t think America will survive.

We’ve done much as a nation to destroy this planet. We have exploited the land. We’ve destroyed the mountains. We’ve destroyed life. Many species are on their way to extinction, because of how we’ve polluted the air with our greed, because that one factor is central to the American identity. The fact of greed has somewhat diminished us as a people and a nation. But as long as I live I shall continue to attack that fact and try to make a difference.

Those who oppose you have power, and my task is to bring truth to power.

Kimberly Drew

On the note of truth, I’m curious if you could talk to us, and this is a question that actually was handed to me by my cousin, who was the first person to play me Carmen Jones… how would you say, in your life, [that] your relationship to truth has changed? Is your relationship to truth any different than it was, say, 60 years ago?

Harry Belafonte

Well, I was deeply concerned that the black community had turned its back itself. I think that we inherited from Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, and from Dr. King, and from Malcolm and all the rest was a huge gift. During our time, we met the enemy and we defeated him. We were responsible in our time for ending segregation. We were responsible in our time for ending the fact that we didn’t have the right to vote. We won that. We changed the space.

I think that the black community was so caught up in the new-found joys of freedom – the right to vote, the right to employment, many of us went off to become captains of industry, we went on to become bankers and very wealthy. And you began to be accommodated in the opportunities that America had to offer. We found ourselves as school teachers and firemen and people just doing ordinary everyday work that black people were denied. Having successfully campaigned against that fact and being successful, [we] got very heady going off. We forgot the community. We forgot that there was still this grievous entity in our midst. Everybody became preoccupied with themselves. And as a consequence, we turned our back on what was going on in our communities.

I think that we have become somewhat complacent. I don’t understand why the black community has become so voiceless in its response to Donald Trump. Not just that he’s an evil man, but his racial attitudes, the things that he says are absolutely unacceptable. And I think this community should make this nation ungovernable as long as that’s the President’s speech. As long as he’s in office. And I think that the absence of a powerful black voice has been very, very evident. Everyday I’m thankful for people like Brian Stevenson and a lot of young people who are emerging.

I am rewarded by the fact that for a long time, when it looked like we were being indifferent, that now these young people are emerging and that a lot of artists, in particular, are making it necessary for their journey to reveal a commitment to black liberation and to the liberation of people caught in poverty. That’s a joyous journey. I met some of the most noble people in my life in the course of that pursuit. They have replenished and re-nourished my courage and have made me a great player… a joyous player I should say, not a great one, but a joyous one in this process.

To meet the enemy on the battlefield and to defeat him puts a smile on my face every day, because I meet the enemy with great regularity, and I’m just very thankful that this generation of young people are beginning to reveal a commitment to Black Lives Matter, all these campaigns that have emerged. And I think that is the heartbeat of struggle is beginning to find new disciplines. I think we will see a major difference in the not too distant future. I’m glad I have lived long enough to see young people like yourself and others who have taken on the responsibility to make that change sustainable.

Kimberly Drew


Harry Belafonte

Thank you.

Kimberly Drew

And on the note of art. One of the things that I came across in my research for this conversation was that you had a relationship with the artist Charles White… and for all of you guys who are based here in New York you should know that MoMA is doing a retrospective of his work this fall. I was wondering if you could talk about your relationship with Charles White, what it was like to meet him and to collaborate together.

Harry Belafonte

Charles White was not to be ignored. He was an enormous force in our community, and his paintings are now to be seen everywhere. He was a product of the WPA and growing up in his early life through the WPA projects he was given a chance to take advantage of what Roosevelt had offered – the right for young people within the black community to be able to study art, be able to participate in theater, to go off and become who many of us became. He was, I think, perhaps the greatest single influence in the world of fine arts.

As was the case during my youth, those of us who were very closely knit as friends came together first in struggle, because we resisted the way in which we were treated as members of the race of color. But also, we found in each other nourishment and we stuck very close to one another. We made a difference and, in that camaraderie, we took care of each other.

As a consequence, Charlie White, every time I made a buck he got 50 cents. I made sure that I bought all of his paintings, gave most of them to institutions. A lot of them sit in universities of color. A lot of them sit in public space. A lot of them sit in my house.

I think the way in which Charles painted African-American life was always a tableau, a canvas filled with dignity. The way in which he honored the black presence and the dignity with which he painted the faces and the strength of the black personality was really quite stunning, and I thought that he should be heard as much as possible.

I used his paintings in a number of films I made and introduced him to the Hollywood community which indulged in buying his art. I think about it, from beyond everything else his paintings reveal a lot, but his commitment to fighting everyday against injustice, his activism, the things that he said, the things that he did inspired our community and our country.

If any of you had never heard of him I would suggest that you get your computer and tap on the devices at your disposal… just tap in Charlie White and you’ll see an abundance of art about African-Americans… they’re perhaps the most beautiful… he and a couple of other painters of the day are very close with one another.

As a matter of fact, so powerful was his art that he was commissioned by the US government to do murals in some of our most important public libraries and some of our transportation stations and airports. Right here in New York, at LaGuardia, there’s a mosaic from Charlie White that’s absolutely fantastic. Charlie made a difference in inspiring people.

There’s a small group of us – not so small upon reflection – but there was a number of us who understood in our art we had a mission. And that mission was to make sure that everything we did changed the plight of black people and changed the destination of America. We were successful for a while. Now we’re in a place of retreat. And I think as long as everybody, black and white, are comfortable with the poisoning of our rivers, the destruction of life, we’re comfortable with violence in our streets…

I am fascinated at that fact that the black community hasn’t a much more dynamic voice in the denunciation of the National Rifle Association. The guns that are produced by this institution of evil, it amazes me that, as a community that has suffered so much from the presence of guns in our daily lives and with our young people and whatnot, we have not been a more tenacious set of players in getting rid of guns in the American theme.

I think black people alone could make a difference in what happens with the gun law if we decided to rebel against that law and made nothing moveable or doable as long as there is a gun. We should just shut the system down. We have the power to do that. And shutting down the system may affect us, but there’s a price to be paid for striking a blow against villainy. But it’s a price worth paying.

Kimberly Drew

Thank you. So, in the book Civil Wars... would you like water? So, in the book Civil Wars...

Harry Belafonte

Damn that’s good.

Kimberly Drew

In the book Civil Wars the writer June Jordan writes, “In the context of tragedy all polite behavior is a form of self-denial.” In your life you’ve remained relatively optimistic and proactive in the face of some of the world’s greatest tragedies. How do you keep up the momentum of this work and, especially, how would you encourage us in this audience and in the world to keep up that fight?

Harry Belafonte

Well one is led to believe ... excuse me. One is led to believe that in the world of struggle, to be a player is to be unrewarded. Well there’s a lot of joy in struggle. Most of the worthwhile beings that I have embraced and, more importantly, have sought to embrace me, were reason enough to be an activist. The rewards were incredible. I would have not met Dr. King had I not been who I was, doing the things that I did. I was in my home, the telephone rang, I answered it, and on the other end was Dr. King. He said, “Mr Belafonte, I got your telephone number from a mutual friend named Stan Levison. I would just like to take a few minutes of your time. I’m coming to New York to be at the Abyssinia Baptist Church, speaking to the ecumenical community and to all the ministers that are coming, and I would like to have about 20 minutes of your time after that meeting.” Excuse me. And I said, “Gladly. But I would ask one thing of you… May I come and hear you speak to the ministers.”

So, I went up to Abyssinia and I listened to him and I was absolutely deeply touched by Dr. King’s intellectual power, his gift of language… He was someone I wanted to know, I wanted in my life. So, what he said would take 20 minutes… we met in the basement of the Abyssinia church and what he said would take 20 minutes took four hours. At the end of that time, I was deeply committed to Dr. King and to the mission that he was on. I was struck by his youth. I was 26 years old when we met – he was 24. And I looked at him and I listened to this cranium of knowledge unfold, so many beautiful things that he said… When I agreed to join the movement that he was starting, I had said to myself, “I will spend two years of my life doing the best thing I could do.” Well, there was one thing wrong with that. Two years was just the beginning. I’ve now since been for most of my life involved with social and political activism.

The reward in that life, meeting Malcolm X, meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, meeting Bobby Kennedy, who ultimately turned out to be a remarkable individual – there were a lot of challenges in his way. In the beginning he was not such a nice guy and when we met I let him know that those were my sentiments. He let me know that he didn’t think too much of me, either. And that’s how we started. We wound up, by the end of his life, which was unfortunately a tragic experience, but I found in him a transformation that made all the work that I had done worthy.

I say that because the rewards in being part of struggle is replete with nobility and with people. Nelson Mandela would never have sought me out, necessarily, if I had not been an activist and on his radar screen. I didn’t do this just to be recognized by mentors of such nobility, but because to be with them and to hear them and to be rewarded for the things we did together was an endless gift, and it made me more compelled to that.

I am somewhat saddened by the fact that there isn’t a greater display. And I don’t mean just here in America among African-Americans, who have not really impactfully used the gifts that we achieved in making a difference, but also in the continent. I take a look at South Africa and I take a look at Nelson Mandela, at what he brought to the table. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu and I look at the plight of South Africans, who have kind of dismissed Nelson. He doesn’t prevail. He’s not earned the position of honor and nobility from his own people that he deserves.

But then in this country we have not honored our own either. We speak about Dr. King, but if we had truly embraced him and read his speeches and understood the depth of his commitment to our struggle, we would have insisted that all over this place there’d be statues of Dr. King and Malcolm X and Du Bois, and I can go on and on.

If I were to take one specific characteristic in the American social DNA, I would say the peoples of this nation are driven by one fact, that we are a nation driven by greed. In our pursuit of luxury and plenty and money and artifacts and possessions, we have been willing to abandon our responsibility to a greater cause. And I think that is somewhat saddening.

I cannot believe that in my youth, we would have permitted Trump to get as far as he’s gotten without shutting this country down. That’s what we did… we hit the streets. The march on Washington wasn’t just a call to a religious offering. It was a call to rebellion. When the nation saw that there was that willingness and that appetite for change, we won the day. If you take a look at went on in the march in Washington, there was very little said about blackness.

Although blackness was central to the development of that demonstration, what was important was that it was about labor, it was about work, it was about segregation, it was about the right to vote. We umbrella-ed so much. The women’s movement was spawned in its newest incarnation because of the civil rights movement… Youth and what happened with SNCC and what happened with Stokely Carmichael and all the players. I’m thinking of Diane Nash and John Lewis… We spawned a lot and this country was nourished by that fact.

Now, I think we’ve become somewhat complacent. The fact that we permit Trump to continue to malign us and to deny us should be thoroughly unacceptable. And if it means shutting down the government and shutting down what this country does… American young men and women are in 18 zones of violent conflict in military expeditions around the world – 18 places in which American soldiers are actively engaged in killing fellow beings, and they do it clandestinely. It isn’t that it’s not known, it’s that it’s not talked about. And if you took a look at the world and what’s going on, instead of leading it to a place of greater reward we’re leading to a place of great conflict.

When we permit people like Donald Trump to name the game, and we do nothing, then we have to take the blame.

Kimberly Drew

I wholeheartedly agree on the note of greed being an operating force in this nation. I also think a lot about how fear has operated in the current day, as a thing that inhibits us. I wonder if you could speak about how in your life you’ve overcome fear. What are some of the strategies that you’ve enacted, because in your life you’ve been on the front lines in the face of such incredible risk.

Harry Belafonte

Dr. King had a psychological problem with fear. As a matter of fact, he developed a tic. He used to have kind of like a hiccup, and every now and then he’d have moments where he’d have to spend a lot of time dealing with this intervention. And then I noticed a little bit later on in our relationship that that tic went away. And I said to him, “Doc, what happened to the tic? I don’t see it any more. It’s gone.” And he said to me, “I’ll tell you Harry, it was easier than I thought.” And I said, “What was easier than your thought?” He said, “Making peace with death.” He said I no longer fear that. He said, “Like anybody else I’d like to live long, but it’s not so much how long you live as it is with the quality of life that you live. And in the pursuit of a quality of life, if we succeed death is the smallest price we can pay.”

He struck a chord with me, where I began to think about that. If you go at this work with fear as your dancing partner, then you’ll never hear the beat. And I just sat there alone with myself, “Well if death is part of the reward for this journey than let it be.” I made my peace with it too, just about time Dr. King gave me a vision about how to deal with fear. So, I go anywhere and everywhere, and I have been demonized for that fact by many, including my own community, black America. There was a time when things that I did which were charged to me with being a traitor to this country and that my communist behavior… I was not a communist – I had believed deeply in the teachings of Karl Marx, because long before communism adopted his philosophy as a social thinker, if you read Marx very carefully and the definitions that he brought on economic construct and how the economy was arranged to keep peoples of color in particular in a place of oppression, it was a good way of nurturing my thoughts on the subject.

I think when we took up the master’s jargon, black America cut off one of its great tributaries of knowledge. It became more anti-communist than it became pro-black. I think that I lost a lot of work, a lot parts I could have played, a lot of pictures.

I remember my friend Sidney Poitier. He and I met when we were 18 and he is eight days older than I am. And we both had just come from service in the military. When we met at the American Negro Theater, I was quite taken with him, but I also saw him as a fierce adversary, and I decided that I’d become his friend, so that I could contain him. But we did things together and took on challenges together that gave us a very rewarding path.

When I discovered the power of art… It was Robeson who said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s moral conscience. Art leads us to places that carry incredible moral power.” I always liked that. It kind of sounded hefty. The idea that I was a missionary of moral courage kind of fascinated me. But I took it to heart and I found that, as long as you liked the way I sang, maybe you’d like some of things I had to say. So, I used my platform as an artist to become an activist, or to reveal myself as an activist. Well, I lost a lot of work. Sidney got most of the parts. And I kind of reminded him that... I remember that we were in a space together and I had a job as a restaurateur, as a waiter. Highfalutin terms, “restaurateur”.

Sidney, I’m trying to remember the sequence of events correctly… When I went into the restaurant business, so did he. His place was in Harlem called, I’ll think of it in a minute… Ribs in the Rough is what he called it. Ribs in the Rough. And I went up to his place to see what Ribs in the Rough looked like, and I roughed me through a bunch of ribs. And, eventually, he said in this enterprise, “I think I have to do more with my life than have a restaurant.” And I said, “How you going to do that?” And he said, “I think I’m going to become an actor.” And I looked at him and I laughed. I said well, “When you get there, take me with you.” And that’s what happened.

He and I have been very close. We have shared this journey together. And on occasion, when Dr. King stepped into the space and asked for artists to be supportive, we did that. Well he was not quite as reckless as I was. I stepped way out there and found that doors were closing left and right. But I found if to make peace with the enemy was to get more employment and therefore abandon the importance of struggle, I couldn’t square that. I’ll stay here as long as they let me. And they let me stay there longer than I had anticipated – up until now.

But I think there are decisions that people have to make. You have to come to peace with what you really want in life. What do you really want to be your tribe? What do you really want? The rewards that you meet along the way, and meeting people who are in that same space or in that same struggle is a greater gift than anything I could have asked for. I would not have known Dr. King and Malcolm and all the rest in the way that I came to know them. I would not have been embraced by Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the greatest women of the 20th century. Fannie Lou and Ella Baker and others. It was a hell of a journey, and I’m glad that I made the choices that I made, because in getting them as my colleagues, getting them as my friends and being able to share so many rewarding moments with them and the things that we did was way beyond anything I thought I would have. That has nourished me greatly.

And I look around at the world today and I just said, “OK, maybe we’ll come to our senses soon.” I am hopeful that black America... Dr. King once said... he went to New Jersey to visit with a group of young warlords in the black community and he tried to win them to the idea that violence and where they were headed was not a strategy that paid off. Listening to him speak to these young people he said, “You know you talk about guns and taking up arms, rebellion. He said we’re only 12% of this nation. We don’t own gun factories. We don’t own munitions plants. We don’t own all of the instruments of war. For you to talk about going into battle with a tribe that has a military and an air force and the Marine Corps is an act of insanity. I’m here to say that there’s another way we can do this and have to do this.”

And he came back from that meeting quite disappointed that he had not won instantly the hearts and minds of the young people to whom he was speaking. He said, “You know, I have more in common with those young men that I spoke with today than I have with, and he turned to Andy Young, than I have with you all…” He said, “But I didn’t win them, and the failure sits deep in my conscience.” And he said, “I’m afraid that all we’ve tried to do with integration, we’ve integrated into a burning house.” I said, “Well, what would you have us do if that be the fact? If you think we’re integrating into a burning house, what would you have us do with that fact?” And he said, “Well, we’ll just have to become firemen.” And I looked at him and I said, “Doc, I’m out of here.” Because the idea that we had to take on responsibility of changing an immoral America was not my idea of how this game was to be played. And he said, “We’re the only ones that can change it.” He said that without America dealing squarely with the issue of race and letting people of color have their honorable place among civilized beings, this country will never, ever survive, and it will not find a happy day, because it is our task as peoples of color to make it uncomfortable for them to be comfortable with our demise.

Kimberly Drew

So, we are coming to a bit of a close here, but before we wrap up I’d like to invite folks who have questions to come to the microphones that are in the audience ,and if anyone is unable to come to the microphone, just wave a hand or have someone next to you wave a hand and we can run a mic to you. And I encourage everyone to be brief please.

Audience member

I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the way media, social media is really making things kind of spread like wildfire. Misinformation or a lot of tactics to trigger fear and anger and emotions… I just find it really crazy and overwhelming, so I was wondering if you had some perspective on that? I would like to hear, based on all your wisdom, what you thought about that, or how to make better use of that in terms of creating a better nation.

Harry Belafonte

I don’t know.

[Laughter and applause]

Audience member

Thank you.

Harry Belafonte

Social media is not an abstract. It’s a technology that gives people the opportunity to converse, one with the other. The telephone did the same thing. It is what we do with social media that makes the difference. If social media has been captivated by a certain group and that group determines what is put on the air that you are required to listen to and be influenced by, you have a voice in making sure that social media acts up to a greater sense of purpose.

I just don’t watch certain things. I don’t watch them, not just to be in rebellion against the stupidity of popular culture, but I do it because I don’t want to be counted in their survey of listeners to things that are, more often than not, dumbing down civilization rather than inspiring it.

I think that those of us of color, who have a great set of challenges and purposes, have to become more conscious of how we utilize that space. Social media is how I converse with neighbors. I often say to myself, “You know, if after Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Lincoln and the Civil War and all of this stuff, and for all the noble words that have been uttered by people who led those grand campaigns, if that had not been sufficient to make us understand what path we should be on…” I said to myself, “After Abe Lincoln, what the hell do you have to say?” He said it. After Frederick Douglass, my God, I can’t think of anything that is better than what he said.

Well, let me ask the people of color in this audience or let me ask the nation in general, how often at your dinner table in your home with your children have you ever discussed who was Frederick Douglass? By that I mean what we do with social media and what we as a people have not done to perpetuate the nobility of our history is also a guilt to be laid at our doorstep. I don’t let a night go by when they were growing up with my children and didn’t have a discourse with me on something that was valuable about what was going on with the human condition.

This doesn’t mean we can’t just sit back and relax and have a good time sucking up some chicken. But I think we do not encourage debate. We do not pass along information that keeps our young people on target. I love not only coming to a community college, where I get a chance to speak to a lot of young people, but I am encouraged by the fact that a lot of young people are beginning to articulate a greater sense of social awareness and conscious than I can remember.

I look to the fact that after a lifetime of absence from the best that America had to offer, black people came into a period where we not only won the right to vote, because black people pushed for that, we won the right to be hired in all the more lucrative places, but we got so caught up in the rewards of participation that we forgot the most important part of our social integration, which was that there’s still poor people in the world. That we still have the largest prison population in the world and we still find a lot of black youth being maligned and treated with a difference. What part does the black community play as a conscious part of the debate?

And I think since we are the largest prison population in the world numerically, people of color, what do we do about that fact? What do we do to change that paradigm? What do we do to change that canvas? And I think that we are somewhat absent on the issue of change. Part of it is justifiable, because if you never had a dollar the first time you get one, acting like you don’t have a dollar is not the way to go. So, people get distracted. They get turned away from the mission.

How often have I heard that I’m first person in my family to go to school? Well, we’ve been here for a few hundred years and this young man or this young woman says to me they’re the first in their family’s lineage who’ve ever gone to high school, that says a lot about the extent of the oppression. What have we done about making sure that the curriculum that our young people are engaged in carries the information that makes them more wholesome as participants in a corrupt America?

I think that this nation is so blinded by money and power and its own greed that we have let the planet come to falter. I don’t know if it’s not too late. I mean this not just as a teaser, but I sincerely ask myself… I’m 91 years old, I’m in a place now where I’m constantly reviewing my life and reviewing the rewards of that life and also the failures of that life. And in reviewing my life, I said, “What could I have said that I didn’t say? What could have been said that has not been said? What could be done that we have not tried to do?”

When I look at it black people have a responsibility, as Dr. King pointed out, we have to make the enemy face the dilemma and make it part of their pain, as it is part of ours. I think that much of the responsibility for any change in this country is to experience must come from the white community. Black people have just done just about everything we know how to do, and it honors us as a noble race. We fought for the right to vote. We did it honorably. We did it non-violently. We fought in all the wars, just or unjust, that America has chosen to engage itself in. Our patriotism is infallible for our commitment to this nation. Our slavery was infallible to the commitment to this nation. What does the nation give us back in reward? We are the ones that must extract that fact. We must extract that, and we have to do it by making sure that…

As I said at the start of this moment, I’m not too sure it’s not too late. I feel somehow depleted. I look around and I see the planet. I look around and I see constantly on PBS the stories about the end of nature. The loss of species. Animals dying. Riverbeds drying up. Pollution in the air. Everybody dying from strange disorders. What do we do about it? We’re so distracted with our reward with money.

And I say, “Well, I am left with nothing but to service, my honor and my soul.” I believe in the struggles that I’ve engaged in. I think we’ve achieved a lot, but obviously we’ve not achieved enough, because I think America is hell-bent on self-destruction. And I’m not too sure that our preoccupation with possessions and goods has not, in fact, ended the truth that existed once when we had what I thought was a moral center. We have corrupted that. I think that the way it’s going, with the melting of the ice caps and all these things that this planet is going to survive… I think that it may be too late. I don’t know quite where else to go.

I will continue doing what I do because I don’t know any other way. And I’m reward that I did, at least what I thought in conscience, was necessary. I imparted what I wanted to impart to people who have had to deal with and encounter. You pay a price because the enemy is tenacious in his cruelty against those of us who are opposed to oppression. But it’s a simple price to pay to deal with things that are so dishonorable. I would hope America gets an awakening soon.

I don’t know who comes after Trump. I hope I live long enough to see that something comes after him.

Audience member

I was listening to you quite some time ago on the Gary Byrd show. You were talking about that you were at the deathbed of Paul Robeson and that you were talking to Paul Robeson and I guess you were crying. And Paul Robeson said, “Why are you crying?” And you said, “Well, you’re a great man and you have so much to give us.” And Paul Robeson said, “Well, there’s a window of time.” And I’d like for you to talk about what Paul Robeson told you during that time period. Thank you.

Harry Belafonte

I don’t think, and the black community in particular, is guiltless in the painful way in which Robeson’s life was ended. He ended it honorably. He ended with great noble cause and with statements that made a difference for all of us. But by the end of their lives, both Paul Robeson, one of the greatest of our heroes, and Dr W.E.B. Du Bois, and what he did [coughs]... excuse me. Both of those men died with a sense of loss. Black America turned its back on Paul and he felt it. It was perhaps the most severe blow of all to him. We didn’t come to his defense. We were duped into believing that he was unpatriotic and that what he did was not to the best interests of America and American ideals, when, in fact, he was the apex of the pursuit of those ideals and the man who brought many possibilities to the arena of debate.

Dr. Du Bois in his great pain and his great anguish at the outcome of events not only left America as a sign of his sense of disappointment and how this nation has treated its people of color, but he also went to live in Accra in Ghana, where he was invited by the President to have citizenship and space. And, on his way there, he did his last act of defiance. He joined the Communist Party of the United States of America as a statement to the oppressor that he’s going out making sure that he had not bought their line of propaganda.

These men do not sit in the center of the black American debate. These black men do not sit in a place of honor in how we speak about our heroes. I think our movie actors and our great singers and all the awards that are given us constantly will not begin to take the place of the absence of protection to our gift and to our inheritance that black America has expressed. Our willingness to not create institutions…

I ask you to take a look at your public school here in Harlem or anywhere else…Brooklyn, Bronx, the nation. How replete is the public-school curriculum with the honor and nobility of what black people brought to this country? Our citizens are not instructed. They’re not participants in the nobility of what great men and women did. Nobody knows that the first shot to be fired in the American revolution was by a black man. That we have no statue to him sitting somewhere in America that honors that noble and courageous act. As a matter of fact, we have done much to bury the truth of the nobility that has existed.

But the black community’s also responsible for that fact, because we have not exerted our moral power in making sure that these things do not go into oblivion. There’s still a lot of work left to be done.

Kimberly Drew

Thank you.

Audience member

How did you go about selecting the music that you shared with the world and how did you make it your own? And a side question being, how did you use this music as a catalyst to share your political endeavors?

Harry Belafonte

When I first stumbled on the idea of being an artist… I grew up in the Caribbean. I was born in Harlem. Went back when I was a year-and-a-half and stayed there for the first 12 years of my life. During that time, I watched the way in which the citizens of that community treated their culture and their history. There was constantly a song on their lips and those songs always reflected some part of who they were and what their history was about.

I extracted from that experience, as a young person, the idea that the “Banana Boat Song”… “Day-o…” and all the others, were not just songs that entertained, they were also songs that carried information. And the “Banana Boat Song”, if you listen to the lyrics carefully, it talks about the pain and the anguish of labor in the tilling in the fields of agriculture that many Jamaicans had experienced. “Come mister tally man, tally me bananas. Daylight come and me wan go home. Lift six hand, seven hand, eight hand bunch. Come mister tally man. Tally me banana. Daylight come and me wanna go home. Work all night and I drink a rum.” All those things are replete with moments that identify who we were as a people and what we experienced.

To me the folk song carried information. It carried history and it was songs that I found greater nobility in than I found in general pop culture… songs that were being written for the top 40, for the top 10. And I decided to take the folk art as a basis for my repertoire and see, in that gamble, what would happen.

Well, it was a huge gift. I often don’t refer to this because these things carry a lot of trickery, but to become the first artist to ever sell a million copies of an album in a year, and for that album to be replete with stories of a people of an island about Matilda and group participation and all that stuff, I found that folk art was the most attractive. In order to make that realized, I began to dig deeply into black American art, black American culture. Lead Belly became my mentor. He became of enormous credentials. When I listened to him, and I listened to all the other singers of color, and some not of color… I listened to Pete Seeger. I listened to Woody Guthrie… they wrote songs that said something about something. And when I decided to integrate that into my repertoire and there was a public that found great favor, that encouraged my idea that I could also become outspoken on things that were part of our dilemma.

Well, I’m not too sure the extent to which we are engaged from the African community of imparting the magnificence of our history. The magnificence of our culture. What do we force our children to listen to? What do we recommend that they listen to? And do we instruct them in a way that make it attractive or do we counsel in a way that make them feel it’s just another deed that makes my parents happy? “I don’t really care what Lead Belly said. I can’t boogie to him…”

Well I think we have some shifting to do here. And I think, as a black community, we have a responsibility to dig more deeply into who we are and what we are, and what’s happening to us as a species, as a people. I think when I discovered the nobility of African history long before Europeans discovered themselves, we were off creating incredible things both with our intellect and our gift and our courage. We built all sorts of incredible things for the world long before Europeans discovered those things. But we don’t push that to the forefront of our history and to the forefront of the knowledge of our community.

I think we all have a price to pay for what we are leaving behind as a legacy to our children and our country and our world. As I said before a little earlier, I’m not too sure that all of this isn’t too late. I read constantly from the World Health Organization, the UN, which I’ve been with for 30 years as a goodwill ambassador, working constantly listening to the voices of the world.

We have such a history and such a gift, and I have found that just the wonder of it. Just the incredible power of the will of people for good is replete in the midst of our history, yet we don’t pass on that information. We don’t think of ourselves as worthy, unless we were anointed by the white father. I think we have to get over that. Yeah, we have to get over that.

Kimberly Drew

Thank you Mr Belafonte. Thank you all for joining us. It’s been such a pleasure. We’re all set.


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