‘I chose to be a civil rights warrior’
Harry Belafonte enraged rightwingers when he branded Bush ‘the world’s greatest terrorist’. But that’s nothing new for him – the singer and actor has devoted most of his life to political activism. Now turned 80, he talks to Steve Howell
Wednesday March 14, 2007
Harry Belafonte has every reason to sit back and enjoy the warm glow of his extraordinary career. "Award-winning" is an overworked term, but it has real meaning when you have picked up a Tony, four Grammys (including a lifetime achievement award) and the first ever Emmy for an African-American. Or when you have been a Unicef goodwill ambassador for 20 years and received countless accolades for work in Africa and the civil rights movement.
But although Belafonte has just turned 80, he is not the type to wind down. He has hardly been out of the news since attacking the war in Iraq and dubbing President Bush "the world’s greatest terrorist". With more than a hint of irony, he subsequently admitted he didn’t know all the world’s terrorists. But that was a little subtle for most of the pundits on CNN and Fox News. On home ground at the Hotel Algonquin in New York’s theatreland, Belafonte is unrepentant. "I have very little regard for consensus if it blinds you to the truth," he says with typical fervour. Tall, trim and in enviably good shape, Belafonte has lost none of his sparkle and talks enthusiastically as he eats lunch with the appetite of a teenager.
Born in Harlem of Caribbean parents in 1927, Belafonte spent five years of his early childhood in Jamaica. His mother had a passion for education and was prepared to "make any bargain with poverty" to get her son through school. But Belafonte had dyslexia and dropped out of high school at 17 to join the navy. "The guilt stayed with me for ever," he recalls. "When I came out of the navy, I had no skills and became a janitor’s assistant. Then I was given some free theatre tickets as a tip. I didn’t even know what theatre was, but I went along, and it was a revelation."
He studied drama in a New York group that included Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Walter Matthau and was soon taking his first steps to becoming America‘s first black superstar. At a time when blacks in the south could not eat at the same food counters or sit on the same bus seats as whites, in 1953 he broke through the race barrier to win a Tony award for his role in the Broadway play Almanac. His singing had originally paid for his acting classes, but soon the music took over. When Calypso, his third album featuring his trademark song Banana Boat Song (Day-O), was released in 1956, it was No 1 for 31 weeks and became the first LP to sell more than a million copies. He had signed for RCA at the same time as Elvis Presley, but the Graceland lifestyle wasn’t for him. "I could have made $2bn or $3bn – and ended up with some very cruel addiction – but I chose to be a civil rights warrior instead."
Belafonte was a pioneer in movies and television, too. In 1957, he appeared in Island in the Sun, in which there were hints at an affair between him and Joan Fontaine. A scene in which the two kissed was taken out, but even the suggestion of interracial sex caused controversy in the south. Some states talked of banning the film, and the Ku Klux Klan threatened to bomb any cinema that showed it.
Eleven years later, Petula Clark, who was at the height of her popularity, invited Belafonte to appear on a primetime television special on NBC and the two sang a duet during which Clark touched Belafonte’s hand. The show’s sponsor, Plymouth Motors, said the gesture would upset southern viewers and wanted it cut. But Clark owned the rights and, after talking to Belafonte, said the performance must be shown intact or not at all. It is believed to be the first time two people of different races made friendly physical contact on US television.
Off screen, Belafonte married his second wife, Julie, in 1957. A dancer and actress, she has appeared in films with him and been active in the arts and politics in her own right. In 2001, the two of them set up the Harry and Julie Belafonte Fund for HIV/Aids.
Since the 50s, Belafonte has used his celebrity status to aid the civil rights movement, influence the Kennedys, raise millions for Africa and support the anti-apartheid movement. The turning point was a meeting with Martin Luther King in 1953. Belafonte was already politically aware, his anger stirred by the way blacks were treated after they had fought for democracy in the war against Hitler. Then King, a relatively unknown preacher at the time, sought his aid. "We talked for four hours – it was a life-changing moment. From then on, I was in his service and in his world of planning, strategy and thinking. We became very close immediately."
Belafonte gave generously to the civil rights movement and enlisted the support of Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Garner and other Hollywood stars. But, despite turning up at rallies with a legendary bag full of cash, he was far more than a political sugar daddy. The authoritative history of the movement by Taylor Branch has more than 100 references to Belafonte’s role as a key adviser to King and a bridge to prominent white politicians, especially the Kennedys.
In 1959, Jack Kennedy arrived on his New York doorstep. The young senator from Massachusetts was desperate to win the black vote in the presidential primaries and hoped Belafonte would help. "There was no time for polite soft talk," Belafonte recalls. "I told him his choice in coming to me was rather misguided … ‘You should talk to our leaders – if you don’t know Martin Luther King, your knowledge of him will be central to your interests.’ " Kennedy went on to win the Democratic party’s nomination and beat Richard Nixon in the presidential election by a margin of less than 1% – Belafonte’s endorsement possibly being the decisive factor.
President Kennedy appointed Belafonte cultural adviser to the new Peace Corps, which sent thousands of young volunteers to Africa, Asia and Latin America. But that did not allay concerns in the civil rights leadership about the president’s choice of attorney general: his younger brother, Bobby. "We saw it as a very dark day," says Belafonte. Though now seen by history as a champion of civil rights, social justice and peace in Vietnam, in 1960 Bobby was known as a lawyer who had aided the McCarthy witchhunts. When the civil rights leaders debated Bobby’s appointment, King told the meeting that they had no choice but to accept they needed the help of the Kennedy brothers. And he gave Belafonte a very clear mission: "Find Bobby’s moral centre and win him to our cause."
The two men were similar ages and had young children. Over the next eight years, their families would spend many days together around Kennedy’s swimming pool, going to concerts and playing touch football. "To reach someone’s soul, you have to have a social relationship," says Belafonte. "You can’t just sit down in the cold world of legal jargon and settle the nuances of racism and what it does to the social and cultural fabric." But Belafonte says Kennedy’s real transformation came when he went to the poor white areas of Appalachia and into the southern states to see things for himself. "The rich in America are so isolated that for Bobby to come into this intimate experience with its victims was a revelation. You could see in his face the anguish and consternation. It played away at his conscience and soul."
In the 1968 election, Belafonte was a tenacious activist for Kennedy. And he still had the superstar status to give the campaign special help. When Johnny Carson, the host of NBC’s flagship Tonight Show, took a week’s break, Belafonte became the first black person to host a US chatshow. King and Kennedy were among his guests, but just a few months later both would be assassinated, shot dead at the peak of their powers.
What bothers Belafonte today is the lack of young leaders. So he has been trying – "on my own dime" – to bring young people into political action. He was recently galvanised by seeing on television a five-year-old girl being taken away from a Florida school in handcuffs. "Her only crime was that she was unruly in class. She did nothing threatening, she stabbed no one, there was no violence. There was a time you brought in a counsellor or a social worker, but now you incarcerate them and take their fingerprints. It so shamed me that I called a meeting of the old civil rights leaders and many younger activists to discuss the plight of children and the justice system."
The meeting was held in Atlanta – to be near King’s vision – and was so successful it was followed by conferences of young people in Alabama, California, upstate New York and Tennessee. "They have chosen to call themselves the Gathering. It hasn’t found its Dr King yet, but it’s building a life of its own."
These days Belafonte sees himself as working "outside the box" of conventional politics. He’s not impressed with the presidential choices offered by the Democratic party, but he does see Barack Obama as someone who could play a positive role. "There’s a place for him, but he’s the final determinant as to whether he achieves that or not. He needs to capture the imagination of a universe hungry for decent thought and passion. All he has to do is be truthful and have a vision for what to do and stop playing a goddamn game of politics. If he does that, he’ll get everything he needs."
Obama recalls in his autobiography: "More than once my mother would point out: ‘Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.’" But clearly he will need more than flattery to win over a man hardened to the superficiality of American politics.
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Well, back on the road again. Neto que estuve a punto de quebrarme, pero gracias a Dios, sólo me doblé. Luego tengo a la “mujer maravilla”. No sé cómo le hace pero siempre tiene la “palabra precisa”. Y luego veo a esos “locos amarillos” llenos de vitalidad y yo pus bien pusilánime (je, je, ya saben que tengo que salir con una Dominguera a mitak de semana), no se vale. Pues lo que tenga que ser que truene. Aunque, para ser sinceros compass, no coincido mucho con sus técnicas, debe ser la edad. Coincido más con el MLK y planear y preparar estrategias, para que no nos vayan a llevar al baile sin tener practicado el pasito tún-tún.
Mmmm. ¿Qué más? Les tenía un montón de chismes, pero siempre me pasa, ando por ahí baboseando y traigo un buen de ideas, y ya que estoy frente al keyboard se me olvida todo.
Pues para el placer de TODOS ustedes, regreso a postear. A ver si así conjuro uno que otro demonio que me anda rondando.
Norwich, G(ran) B(atalla)
14/3/07 (Día del amor y la amistak. !Ah, no! Ya es MarXo, ¿tanto estuve juera?)
P.D. Pumas, Adela Noriega, Cachún Cachún, CIDE, Wall Street Journal, The economist, Abraham Lincoln,Camus, Trevor, espinado, one on one, a mastermind, the opera prima, Rockwell C, Anacleto, Menchú, NSA, Diánetica, everglades, Padre Kino, El Pico, Dan Brown, Lozano Gracia, Jorge Carpizo, El Travieso, Goethe, una carnita "asada", Taco Bell, El Cavernicola, La Tumba de Colón, Ordem e Progresso, Cold Guiness, Barros Sierra, Sánchez Vázquez, el Tata Cárdenas, cajeta Celayense, Aura, a hearing aid, la flor de lis.
… La Destra Radicale.