Actor, singer, activist Belafonte says the struggle for justice is not behind us.
“Pundits say that they are just a bunch of decadent ragamuffins, smoking dope and causing trouble,” Belafonte said of the Occupy movement. “I recall another time we were called dope smokers and malcontents.”
Belafonte reminded his audience that Martin Luther King Jr. was only 24 when he became a national Civil Rights leader. Diane Nash was 17, he said, when she began leading anti-segregation sit-ins in Nashville.
Miami Book Fair International continues this evening at 6 p.m. with Navy SEAL and humanitarian Eric Robert Greitens, and again at 8 with filmmaker-novelist John Sayles. For more information, visit the book fair website.
Speaking before an adoring crowd of some 600 in the Chapman Conference Center at Miami Dade College, Belafonte told stories from throughout his long and eventful life — growing up poor in Harlem, spending years in Jamaica with his grandmother, breaking into showbiz as a hit-making folk singer, and becoming a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Belafonte was on hand to promote his new autobiography, My Song, and the companion documentary, Singing Your Song, now airing on HBO.
The audience gave Belafonte a standing ovation before he uttered a word. It was a mixed crowd, black, white, Caribbean, Latin, and all ages — from people old enough to remember when Day-O made him a star in 1956, to a 10- or 12-year-old girl who sat in the first row and clapped enthusiastically at every political statement he made.
Belafonte started by saying he had never considered writing a book until the death of his “close friend of many years,” Marlon Brando.
Brando, like Belafonte, may have been best known as an entertainer, but he was also an activist who did significant work in behalf of American Indians.
“I felt a great loss,” Belafonte said. “He took a great story with him — his accomplishments and all the good he had done. If it’s not told by others, then it will never be known.”
Belafonte, interviewed on stage by Miami lawyer Marlon Hill, spoke fondly and at length about his musical and acting career, at one point joking that being labeled “the King of calypso” had cost him all his Trinidadian friends. But he kept coming back to his life of activism.
“I was an activist who became an artist,” Belafonte said, “not an artist who became an activist.” He chose “art as the essence of my life’s journey,” he added, so that he could fulfill his mother’s injunction to never miss an opportunity to correct injustice wherever he might find it.
Belafonte spoke of his difficult childhood in Harlem, where his father — “a wretched man, an alcoholic” — abandoned the family, and his mother, a Jamaican immigrant, found her dreams of life in American disappointed by racial oppression and grinding work.
Returning from World War II, where he had helped defeat the Nazis, a young Belafonte had expected “the fruits of democracy” to finally be extended to black Americans. “But there was no such generosity.”
Belafonte worked as a janitor’s assistant — dyslexic, he was a high school drop-out — when a woman tipped him with a pair of theater tickets. Attending the play, “I had an epiphany. I was possessed by what I saw — black people on stage speaking poetry.”
Soon Belafonte became lifelong friends with other young performers like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Ozzie Davis. Paul Robeson, the great black performer and activist of the previous generation, came to offer words of encouragement.
“He told us were were embarking on a great adventure,” Belafonte said. “He said as artists we were the gatekeepers of the truth.”
Robeson also told Belafonte that if he got people to sing his song, they would want to know who he was. “I woke up one morning and the whole world was singing Day-O,” Belafonte said. “You have not seen anything until you see 50,000 Japanese people sing Day-O.”
Despite the horrors perpetrated upon blacks in the pre-Civil Rights era — Belafonte told of a soldier beaten and blinded for not moving to the back of a bus — he remains without bitterness. Asked what he had learned about race, he said:
“There are some very nice white people, and some terrible black people.”
Asked what he had learned of love and hate, he replied: “Love brought Dr. King into my life, and hate took him out.” A few minutes later, he added, “Hate is in all of us. Love is a conscious thing.”
While Belafonte spoke reverently of his friendship with Martin Luther King, he took pains to emphasize the fallible humanity of his friend. “We have a propensity for pushing people into deity and making them less real. People ask where will the next Dr. King come from. I say, where did the first come from?”
Quoting King, Belafonte gave his prescription for change: “Those caught under oppression will find those who are comfortable with their oppression, and only when you make them uncomfortable will they accept change.”
While the world has been altered since the 1960s, Belafonte sees the need for continuing activism. He described a hypothetical young woman emerging from a university with a masters degree as the fruit of past change — and her inability to find a job as the need for change present-day change.
From such young people, he declared, will arise “the Rosa Parks of this day.”