Monthly Archives: October 2012

Harry Belafonte: Activist / Artist

Harry Belafonte with university students

Mr. Belafonte with college students in Evansville, Indiana (Courtesy of Evansville Courier and Press)

My son Jonathan and I – on Thursday evening, October 18 – attended a lecture by 85-year-old Harry Belafonte, activist and artist who probably remains most well known today for his early 1960s-era Calypso songs like “Day-O”; from which, to honor a request by multiple members of the audience, he sang the chorus. He still has his pipes, a singing voice apparently undiminished. I listened to his music in my early childhood because, along with the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, my mom often played Calypso; and during the Christmas season a truly lovely album in a tradition that gravitates toward the ordinary and trite.

But to sing is not what he came to do: he was invited to The Centre’s Aiken Theatre in Evansville, Indiana as part of Evansville’s Celebration of Diversity Lecture Series. My youngest daughter Stephanie, as part of a Masters program in Social Work at the University of Southern Indiana, was present recently at the same venue to hear singer and film star Queen Latifah address the same concern. I’m told she was spectacular.

Harry BelafonteSo was Belafonte, to say the least. When the lights came back on after an introductory film segment about his life, he was sitting at an angle in a big leather armchair, one leg over the other, hands over knee, one hand sustaining the cane he held in front of him. Then, amidst applause, he rose to his feet, stood there with an aura of immense dignity acquired from a life well and nobly lived. There he stood, his smooth head gleaming in the light, a pair of neatly pressed trousers and casual suit jacket over shirt and sweater vest, arms straight at his sides and launching into his speech – he stood like that for several minutes until he apologized and sat back down. All the while his image was projected onto a larger screen so that everyone could distinguish facial features and expressions. And on he spoke, with a gravelly voice that only occasionally bore some signs of age.

His subject, essentially, was a brief history of U.S. history through an African American lens, laying bare the hypocrisies of our national pretensions of democracy while it has been kept, by evolving tactics, from the mass of our fellow countrymen and women and children of color. And woven into that sketch, the outlines of a career in social and political activism that preceded the artistic career from which it was born.

He tells that, arriving at the age of eighty (“which was several years ago” as he said with a smile and a touch of humor), he thought he would retire from it all and bask in the sun on some Caribbean island, drinking rum, “watching young people frolicking.” At one point, walking along a dirt road, he wandered into a record store and started looking through the collection, discovering a whole list of names he knew like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand. He kept looking, kept rummaging. Then at last, with his ego hurting, asked the woman attendant if she had anything by a fellow named Harry Belafonte. She said: “Who?” and after he repeated the name she went on in her Jamaican or Caribbean accent: “You know, lot of people come here asking for that man. I think he long time dead.” That answer cheered him up.

Anyway, he quickly realized that this retirement – he and his wife agreed – was not worthy while there was still so much to do. Not that it’s not okay to take a vacation, but the need for activism is still tremendous. From here he lapses into the harrowing tale of a five-year-old girl in Florida, of a five-year-old African American child brutally arrested by police at her school; terror on her face as the officers slammed her across a table, arms pulled behind her back, handcuffed, hauled off to the station where she was then finger-printed – already a police record at that tender age! The particular incident had been talked up briefly in the press; I had caught word of it in a brief journalistic report. But the thing is, this sort of thing is happening now all across the nation. In this anti-immigrant, anti-diversity, fearful and punitive political and social climate, it is becoming a trend across this land of democracy’s fragile promise. Shocked by the incident in Florida, Mr. Belafonte phoned up an activist friend and asked her what’s going on. And she said, essentially, that it’s the new slavery: “kindergarten to penitentiary” – feeding the ever-growing “prison-industrial complex” in a nation that imprisons greater numbers of its citizens than any other nation in the world, including China and India with their vastly greater populations.

The new slavery, as I had read before in sources such as Michelle Alexander’s excellent book The New Jim Crow; but this deeply personal and impassioned narrative – like art: music, painting, theater – brings it home like no recitation of mere facts and statistics can. Not that the figures don’t bear some power to shock and persuade. I think the number (just encountered or re-encountered in The Nation magazine) is 7 in 100 incarcerated. And a vast majority black and brown. The Nation has had much to say, lately, about ongoing Republican efforts to suppress the vote among those populations, and to confuse ex-felons who are told by the same government agencies that, on one hand, they are free to vote, and on the other, then, that they aren’t – as if laying a trap so they might be picked up for supposed parole violations when challenged at the polls (as anyone can be; without cause other than attempting to vote while black or brown).

Then, of course, there is the military-industrial complex, which Mr. Belafonte did not mention in precisely those terms but which is implicit in the telling of his and other black men’s signing up – with many bold promises about the changed and more equal conditions they would find on their return home – to fight for democracy in World War II. Only to observe, while abroad, all the black and brown people from Africa and Asia being conscripted, by the Allies their colonial masters, to wage that fight while suppressing their own democratic freedoms at home. As America’s black soldier’s soon discover is still the case at home, where conditions only got worse.

I remember that when I was a kid Mr. Belafonte took a lot of heat at home for declining to entertain the American troops in Vietnam, who were fighting brown people in Southeast Asia for the white masters, again. This language may sound incendiary to some, but in his brief history of the U.S. – starting with the horrors of slavery – Mr. Belafonte paints a picture sufficiently strong to make one think twice about why a black man might see it that way. He speaks vividly of the cruel treatment received by early African American slaves, who would have tongues cut out or be lynched for the crime of being heard speaking their old languages – while not bothering to teach them the master’s language that they were expected to pick up on their own, if they were to break the code of silence at all. Later, with the new African catechism, taking the Biblical stories of figures like Moses who they identified as their own, they would cunningly plant the seeds of resistance as they turned to the art of what became the Negro spiritual, which

Belafonte ca. 1962

Belafonte ca. 1962

guided them on their journeys North on the Underground Railroad. Taken in this context, anyway, and all the emerging civil rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s, it is not difficult to see why Mr. Belafonte might not in good conscience service the cause of a war he judged unjust by cheering the soldiers up to kill more Viet Cong. As Jonathan pointed out to me, even my own mom – who took his refusal as an affront to U.S. soldiers who fought, she insisted, to protect his own liberties; which were the source of his great good fortune and fame – even she, were she alive today and present at this lecture, would most certainly have been touched by his narrative (she was generally noted as a deeply compassionate woman); and might even have changed her mind.

In the question-and-answer session afterwards Mr. Belafonte reiterated the importance of all the arts, adding that they were a launching pad to activism (just as activism, for him, was the launching pad to art). Speaking to what advice he would give to aspiring young artists, he counseled them to avoid the narrow strictures with which the powers that be – political, media, etc. – have historically tried to shackle artists and keep them in line with the official storylines. To not try to be a star, therefore, but to be true to the purposes that they themselves derive for their art. That in so doing they would find tremendous freedom to say whatever they want to say, to create and to do whatever they will.He also noted, sadly, that the first thing always to go in government budgets were the humanities, and sports, all the arts, anything that might bring people together in potentially seditious acts of creation. Education, he adds, is more than math and science – a sentiment that, without being an enemy of either math or science, I warmly echo; though even President Obama, when addressing issues of education, only speaks of hiring more teachers to teach those two subjects.

One of Mr. Belafonte’s great pleasures in life has been, in any case, to see Barack Obama in the Presidency, an occurrence that has leant him some optimism in respect to the evolving maturity of an electorate that would finally place a man of color in that office.

Let us hope that in the present election the electorate will show as much discernment. And reject the politics of those who would dismiss all of the above as just one more grand “apology tour.”

Harry Belafonte, age 85

Mr. Belafonte, 85, at The Centre in Evansville (courtesy of the Evansville Courier and Press) 

On the “Redlighting” of Our Domestic Economy

A few nights ago I was reading the new issue (#53) of Rosebud; this is the journal that in issue #52 published an excerpt (“The Gentleman and the Willow”) from my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel La pasión de los nómades, or in English: Passionate Nomads ( It’s a print magazine whose website, at, is worth checking out.

Veterans Occupy Washington, 1932

Veterans occupying Washington struggle with police, 1932

Anyway, I read Kitty Baker’s story, an excerpt from her unpublished novel Dandelions of Spring, called “The Occupiers of 1932.” The excerpt centers on the occupation of Washington D.C. by a mass of homeless and hungry veterans, and then-President Hoover’s use of military force to remove them. For a journalistic account of this Occupation see the article “History for Kossacks: The Occupation of Washington, 1932,” published in the Daily Kos on November 6,2011:

Washington Occupation 1932

Veterans bring their grievances to the Congress

The historical events are made all the more poignant by the fictionalized presence of a teenage girl – daughter of a veteran who is there with her, and wishes he could be sure he would ever be able to afford to send her to art school – who is there to observe and draw the scenes around her.

At one point, as the troops have gathered and begun their attack, one of the veterans comes to understand what is happening and says: “We’re the enemy. Once we were heroes!” When the removal was complete, General MacArthur is reported to have said: “The rioters lost heart in the face of a power they could recognize as overwhelming, even though numerically their advantage was some five or six to one.”

This “official story” seems cynical at best, the distorting and biased word “rioters” aiming to de-legitimize the validity of the veterans’ complaint and of their aggrieved humanity; the latter part of the sentence obscuring the fact that this ragtag bunch of protesters had come to petition their government non-violently, and in return faced the overwhelming military might of the very country in whose name they had previously fought in WWI.

"Hooverville" shantytowns burned by MacArthurs's army

“Hooverville” shantytowns burned, veterans evicted

The parallel to the recently squelched “Occupy Wall Street” movement is unmistakable and chilling: the images of police attacking non-violent protestors, burning the books donated to a portable library, etc. It is all the more chilling in this political season of the 99% versus the 47%, when we face the possibility of electing a President who’s avowed agenda (though he pretends the opposite in the campaign’s final weeks) is to dismantle the entire safety net – along with what’s left of a regulatory system of economic and other protections – which has been created in the disastrous wake of the first Gilded Age and subsequent Great Depression.

But rather than descend into a merely political debate, a flurry of claims and counter-claims and questionable statistics, let’s allow the narratives themselves – literary and actual – to influence our affective and reasoned response to the monumental choice that faces us on November 6.

In that spirit let me share the following portion, very slightly adapted, from a 2008 essay posted to my “Arte Retórica” column in the blog “Tertullian’s Corner”, in the online journal Tertulia Magazine which only recently ceased to publish. What I wrote then, in this the essay’s core, strikes me as entirely pertinent to what we face these four years later as we lurch further into a new Gilded Age that may still be reversible.


The truths that most affect us – and potentially transform us – are sometimes better revealed within the passion and subjectivity of a well-told narrative (whether factual or fictional or even mythical) than in the mere accumulation of data. All utterance is subject to interpretation, after all, and thus to argument. A truly valid rhetorical practice must therefore transcend the mistaken objectivity of mere “facts” (or “factoids”) lined up by polemicists on either side of a political divide.

Vintage Circus Poster

Vintage circus poster

One such narrative, for me, is the one that Sara Gruen weaves in her novel Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2006), whose subject, briefly stated, is an old man’s remembrance of his Great Depression-era stint on a circus crew. It is arguably as harrowing in its revelations of humankind’s potential depravity and grandeur as, say, The Kite Runner, whose demons one might carelessly dismiss as merely exotic, or pertinent only to those barbaric lands to which our nation’s best and bravest are presently bringing civilization and democracy.

In Gruen’s novel there is everything: from the most sordid to the most redeeming and love-saturated sex; from soulless violence and cruelty to courage and heroism, to a powerful commitment to the keeping of promises – a simple human endurance, in short, never wholly erased by the humiliating anti-climax of crushing poverty and oppression, or of old age. The particular love story at center is deeply poignant, as is the nuanced characterization of the protagonist as an old man. And from the opening sequence, in which what one thinks has just happened has not happened really (or at least not as imagined), the suspense never wavers.

In short: a fabulous novel, deeply imagined and researched, revealing our not-so-distant national history in ways that our real and imagined progress tends to obscure. The story is firmly rooted in the facts and down-to-earth realities of a cruel era, all of which it transcends. The particular, the immediate, the national and local, is made universal. And closer at hand to Khaled Hosseini’s Afghanistan of fewer decades past than we might have wished to imagine.

New Orleans Ninth District

Ninth Ward seven years after Katrina

For that matter, as I read Lizzy Ratner’s article (in the February 25 [2008] issue of The Nation) about the homeless and maimed in the deepening shadow of New Orleans’s post-Katrina face lift, Gruen’s Depression-era America seems frighteningly current.

“This is a Dickens novel that we’re living in right now,” says one of Ratner’s journalistic protagonists. “It’s like A Tale of Two Cities.”

While Donald Trump’s International Hotel and Tower New Orleans (“number one address for elegant living”) rises heavenward like its mythic Babylonian counterpart, the huddled masses down below are cast out of the housing market, which is being rebuilt for a whole other demographic. In a city whose housing market, pre-Katrina, was over half rental, and in which 52,000 rental units were destroyed in the flood, (not to mention another “4,500 relatively unscathed public housing apartments” bulldozed by HUD), a whopping 85 percent of federal aid has gone to home owners while the fair-market rate for rental properties has soared out of the working class’s means.

“The result,” Ratner reports, “is that the funds allocated by Washington’s recovery gurus to rebuild the Gulf area are expected to restore only 43 percent of Louisiana’s rental apartments – and only 37 percent of the city’s most affordable rental housing, according to PolicyLink, a national advocacy group promoting social and economic justice.”

“Poor people just have not been the priority in this recovery,” says another of Ratner’s sources. “And I think the fact that this situation hasn’t been treated with the urgency it deserves is exactly why we’re seeing these huge homeless camps in New Orleans, why so many people are living in abandoned buildings and why so many people are suffering in Third World conditions in the United States of America two and a half years after Katrina.”

In Gruen’s novel, the most vulnerable members of the circus crew are simply “redlighted,” a euphemism for being thrown off a moving train under cover of night. Isn’t what is happening to the vulnerable in New Orleans (not to mention Mexico’s corn farmers, or countless victims of Bush-Cheney’s “homeowner society” in the present foreclosure crisis) simply a more sophisticated form of the same practice?

“As for local leaders,” Ratner reports, “they have sometimes seemed less interested in resettling the poorest Katrina survivors than in finding ways to keep them out of their neighborhoods. In numerous instances […] elected officials have pushed bans on multifamily apartment complexes – measures that would effectively freeze poor, often African-American renters out of those ZIP codes.”

Woody Guthrie, writing of Mexican Americans’ plight in an era of cheap bracero labor, sang it like this: “Some of us are illegal and some just not wanted.

Unrepaired home in Ninth Ward

A Tale of Two Cities of New Orleans