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.
So 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
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.”