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Harry Belafonte: Passing the Activist Baton

'We are in an unjustifiable war. We are crippling our country with debt and fear, and killing off our children's prospects through neglect.'
 
 
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Activism wasn't always dependent on organized philanthropy. But today, many progressive groups are heavily reliant on foundations and investor donations, detracting valuable time and resources from the more important work they do.

I was reminded of all this in a recent conversation with Harry Belafonte, the legendary musician and activist, just before he went to Caracas with Danny Glover, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley to meet with Hugo Chávez.

Before speaking with Belafonte, I had heard from various activists that, since the 1940s, Harry has lent his art to the movement by performing at various left-wing fundraising parties and events.

Since my interview with the performer, he has been roundly vilified for his truth-to-power conversations about the punditry. In this same time period, the Democratic congressional leadership is still standing still on Iraq, the Supreme Court, wiretapping, and torture -- not to mention the banning of "The Crucible" in a Missouri public school. The moment could not have been more ripe for such a timely conversation with Belafonte.

Colin Greer: I've been told that you performed at left fundraisers back in the day; is that true?

Harry Belafonte: Oh yes, I did that. Left activists, people in the Communist party, were often good friends of the civil rights struggle. It was only outside the mainstream political parties that black leaders were respected and supported, especially in the south.

CG: Your mother was disappointed when [you] dropped out of school in 9th grade, but you certainly found yourself a high-powered alternative education. Who were your heroes and mentors?

HB: Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois. They were my teachers. They were men of great wisdom and courage. They taught me, and they inspired me. A BBC reporter asked me recently whether I thought that great leaders like Dr. King or Paul Robeson have any lasting relevance. And I said, 'Well, that's like asking me does Christ have any relevance! Does Gandhi. Or Abe Lincoln.'

I said, 'There are moments when they are less apparent than others, but they are forever in history … as long as people be oppressed, these are the voices we hear when we seek to shape our own futures and destiny. They're eternal. How could there come a time when they won't be relevant? Impossible. Their inspiration is forever. They changed the world.'

CG: But we're doing an awful lot of backsliding, don't you think?

HB: These are difficult times. The people running our country are willing to go to great lengths, it seems, to assert their interests through American power. And they do. We are in an unjustifiable war, we're crippling our own country with debt and fear and ruining people's lives, killing off our own children's prospects through neglect, followed by punishment through the criminal justice system.

CG: Yet there's no strong opposition to what's happening. Political leaders are careful not to offend, and for civic leaders, moderation is the order of the day.

HB: That's right. My generation of leaders has got to come to grips with the fact that we slipped. We are in positions of our power, but we've allowed the clarion that brought us there to fade. In the flush of victories, we forgot the continuing need to struggle. We did not take responsibility for passing that message to our children: the continuing need to struggle.

This all came clear to me a few years ago. I was watching the Olympics in Athens, Greece with Ossie Davis. And there came a moment when four black American women were running the relay. I think it was the 400; whatever. And there was no question that they'd win, because they'd all won in their own specializations, the hundred-yard dash and such. There was no question they'd win the relay, it was just a matter of what record would they set, and how nice it would be to win this. There is great pride in that for black people.

So I was anticipating this race, and in the second handoff they faltered with the baton and dropped it. And as a result, they broke stride, and we didn't win. And bemoaning the moment led immediately to what became a metaphor for me, my generation of leaders: that's what happened to us. We -- I think -- either handed off the baton incorrectly or didn't hand it off at all.

We had the rather arrogant expectation that our vision and achievement was in the very DNA of our children, that the young would simply continue to sustain, as well as enjoy, the rights we'd claimed. But they were not really prepared for that. This is what I've come to recognize recently.

My children knew nothing about the Ku Klux Klan and signs that said “colored here, white there.” We broke through a lot of barriers, and many of us became part of the new order we helped create. The truth is, we could really get into the Congress and government and business now. And many did. But I think to a significant degree, the system devoured them. And muted them. Dulled their capacity to be as effective as they were when they were just social activists. As a result, our children inherited gains they didn't understand, but gradually took for granted. They are often very much aware of their rights, but not often enough aware of their duty to stand for the rights of others.

So to engage the struggles of today, I've come to feel it's important to work closely with young people, especially young people for whom the dream remains distant and fractured on the mean streets, where they're dogged by poverty and prejudice.

CG: I recall that you grew up on the streets of Harlem.

HB: Yes. I did for a while. But my mother took us back to Jamaica. She was afraid for us. Thought we'd be safer there.

CG: But now your work with young people takes you to "ghettoes" all over America.

HB: I go to the streets of Watts, certain parts of Bed-Stuy [Brooklyn], and over the line in Cincinnati. And into the prisons, where so many young people are incarcerated in a prison system that houses the largest prison population in the world, mostly made up of people of color.

There was a girl, a little girl, who was taken from her school in Florida in handcuffs. A five-year-old girl. It was on television. The cruelty of that moment just really blew me away. It violated me deeply. That was quite recent. It made me determined to expand my efforts and to push harder. This little girl was, for me, like Rosa Parks, a black woman in all her humility, sitting in the front of a bus saying, 'I have a right to sit here.'

She presented an indelible image of the immorality of the prejudice she refused to be cowed by. That five-year-old girl in handcuffs … in handcuffs … presents another such image of immorality. This was a moment around which to galvanize forces. So on my own dime, having never done this before, I called many of the old civil rights leaders, and many younger activists, the older and newer generations of black leaders, and invited them to a conference in Atlanta, to be near Dr. King's vision. I was convinced this was the environment, the place where we should be, where Dr. King's voice is, and near where his body is.

I called on this leadership, my friends from the past and my new friends from the work I've been doing with young people, to come together to think about how we change the world that causes such pain that ends the childhood of a five-year-old girl, for a minor, childish offense in school. She is, I've learned, one of many who are marked so early in their lives, children who need our love. I asked my friends, “If we don't, who will?” And people came from all over the country. From Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston, Boston, California, Washington, D.C. And we talked about youth and the justice system, and we committed ourselves to work together from here on.

“It's important to remember,” I told them, and I tell you, “we will do ourselves a grievous disservice if we do not begin to honor and have faith in the young.”

[There have been two such gatherings so far; the second was in Alabama at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and another is planned for the spring. It may be held in Houston because there is so much there between Houston natives and Katrina refugees. Some foundations are considering giving support for Belafonte's efforts, but--as was the case 50 or 60 years ago--up-from-the-movement dollars (Harry's own and his network's) are setting the pace.]

CG: But you are still hopeful that you can be effective?

HB: Exactly. [ His eyes brighten, and he stabs the air with his finger for emphasis.] In the end, I believe the world can be trusted [laughs].

Just look, at the start of a new century, Nelson Mandela and South Africa is free, and the most popular man in the world, according to the polls. Just recently, even our current Supreme Court voted against child capital punishment. It's only by one vote, but we will no longer be executing young people.

I remember Dr. King trusted in an unlikely Supreme Court to make dramatic changes on behalf of our people. And they did. He said to me, 'Don't be too sure that even evil sits unmoved, or resides in an unmovable place.' I am very hopeful. I can feel change brewing, the way it felt back in my younger years. It's happening. There's no question about it. I'd stake … my reputation … my life … my honor. It's the most palpable thing I know. [He stands up. At almost 80, he is still an amazing physical presence.]

CG: You are leaving in a few days to meet with Hugo Chávez…

HB: I'm interested in what's going on down there. I like to take the measure of popular progressive leaders, see them up close. Chávez is a serious figure; it's important to treat him respectfully, to try to understand him and his popularity. Sadly, our government has, instead, tried to undermine him, even tried a coup. That's terrorism, you know -- trying to displace an elected government leader. And it's counterproductive when he is using his resources to make strong regional ties.

We have to do better. We're not on a good course. Bush and his ilk are a danger to the U.S. and the world. We're a strident military force abroad, and we're losing our basic liberties at home. I've seen this before. It can be very ugly. I believe my first marriage was undermined by the FBI. [He explains that his wife was repeatedly visited by FBI agents until she became so fearful that she demanded he give up his political activities -- but "I couldn't do that," he concludes. "I couldn't do that."]

Colin Greer is president of the New World Foundation in New York. Among his books is A Call to Character (HarperCollins, 1995).