Actor-activist Harry Belafonte, Part 1

In part 1 of a two-part conversation, the pioneering singer, actor, activist and author of My Song: A Memoir discusses McCarthyism, Communism and the price he pays for being a man of conscience.

Over the course of a very full life, Harry Belafonte has been an actor, producer, singer, music composer and arranger. He was the first recording artist to have a million-selling album and broke down racial barriers as TV's first Black producer and the first Black performer to win an Emmy. He's also known for his longtime and passionate commitment to civil and human rights issues. Belafonte was a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and raised money to release imprisoned civil rights protesters. He chronicles his journey in the inspiring memoir, My Song.


Tavis: I am always pleased and honored to welcome Harry Belafonte to this program. Despite all his fame and accolades for his music and acting, those of us who know him best will always revel in his humanity and his commitment to justice in this country, and for that matter, around the world.

If you have not seen the terrific – and I do mean terrific – documentary about his life and legacy, it’s called “Sing Your Song,” currently playing every day, all day, on HBO, he’s also out now with a wonderful new memoir called “My Song.” Mr. B, sir, as always, an honor to have you on this set.

Harry Belafonte: I’m very happy to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: You doing all right?

Belafonte: Yeah, considering what’s being thrown at me, people say, “How you doing?” I say, “I’m hanging on.” (Laughter) It’s better than hanging up.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Well, you will never do that. You will never do that. I’m glad you said that. As always, you give me these great segues into conversation. To your point about never hanging up, I wrote this down.

I could have read it directly from the book, but I love this line in terms of how you open the text, really, about your childhood, you say, and I quote, “I was born into poverty, grew up in poverty, and for a long time poverty was all I thought I’d know. It defined me. In the depths of my soul I think it defines me still.”

Speaking of never hanging up, never giving up, particularly given where you started, how does poverty, you think, in the depths of your soul still define you?

Belafonte: Well, first of all, poverty continues to exist. Its appearance seems to be relentless in evidencing itself not only to all the things we experience here in America, but certainly what we see globally. You just jump to something like better than seven billion people on Earth and I don’t see anywhere any philosophical analysis that suggests we know how to get out of this, because what we need to do to get out of it, people are not prepared to commit themselves to – even those who desperately want to be outside of this wretched economic oppression that everyone’s experiencing. Nobody wants to step in and stop the machine that perpetuates this relationship to poverty.

Many who have nothing opposed to the few who have everything, and as long as these disparities remain, as long as these distances remain between people and forces, I think we’ll be in a perpetual state of upheaval.

I was born into poverty, and as I said in the book it was my expectation that I would always know it. What I’ve opted to do is that since I have escaped the harshness of the economic bounds of poverty, I have stayed very connected to it spiritually.

I reside and live and go and socialize and exist among those who suffer daily from the relationship that they have to poverty, Black men and women who are incarcerated. Actually, all people who are incarcerated, not just Black.

But when I go across the country, whether it’s Albuquerque, New Mexico, whether it’s Birmingham, Alabama or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there are always forces at play that I choose to relate to and extract inspiration from, and as long as they stay committed to the struggle against poverty, I find a role for myself.

What’s going on, for instance, with Occupation Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street, I find just a natural extension of something that I used to do as a daily part of my life not that many years ago, and seeing young people in a mood of rebellion, in a mood of dissatisfaction, seeking to have change and rejecting all that has been offered as too anemic to really deal with the situation as we are experiencing it.

People who inspire me. I like what these young people are saying and doing, and I like the instrument that they’ve used in which to play out the scenario, and it’s the instrument of nonviolence, which I think is – I don’t think anybody can successfully challenge nonviolence and succeed.

Tavis: The key word to me, to my ears, at least, in all that you’ve just said about your relationship to the poor in this country and around the globe, is that you choose – you choose to side with the poor, you choose to side with the underprivileged. Why that choice for Harry Belafonte?

Belafonte: Because everything that I need to talk about, everything that I need to reveal to continually engage and bounce off of resides in poverty. I’m very familiar with it. I find it easy to be with, whether I’m in America or in Africa or in Asia. Wherever I go and find the environment of those who are living in poverty and resisting poverty is a great in which I have great comfort.

And in that environment, I find great inspiration. Many of the men and women whom I admire as artists, the things they write, the songs they sing, the admission is filled with inspired moments to overcome oppression.

I don’t find that on Wall Street. I don’t find that in Beverly Hills. I don’t find that in places where opportunity resides unbridled, and I think the real creative energy and the real juice is in where people are caught, in this economic abyss.

Tavis: How much of who you are today has to do with growing up in this country as the son of Jamaican immigrants?

Belafonte: Well, almost everything that shapes who I am comes from that fact. It was my formative years. When I left Harlem as a child with my mother, who as an immigrant woman from Jamaica coming to America to find the generosity of the American dream and discovering that that was not available to her, it was her taking us back to the island of Jamaica and my formative years, until I was 12, was all shaped by that culture, by that economy, by the people in my family, who are agriculturalists, who were plantation workers, who harvested those crops and took them down to the boats run by the United Food Company, to load those ships at night, hence all the songs that I sing that come from that environment.

That was all the things that bombarded me in my youth. What I admired about it, as poverty-stricken as we were, it was the cunning that emerged from this social scenario that I just admired the way in which people survived – the cunning, now brilliant they were able to move the chess pieces of life against this onslaught of depravity and denial that they were constantly facing, and through them I discovered my own center.

I understood the hustle of the streets. I also understood where one had to be short, where one had to be tall, and played that game all day long. I’m still in a place where that goes on, and most of the men and women that I befriend and most of the men and women that I run with and speak to are all people in that environment.

Tavis: Let me ask how it is – there’s so much to get into in the book and about your life. I said to a friend of mine yesterday, preparing for our conversation, that the two persons I know who have lived the most life, Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones, I don’t know how y’all have squeezed so much life out of the years y’all have been given, and we’ll get back to all the life you’ve squeezed out of these years in just a second.

But for those who are hearing that you grew up here in this country the son of Jamaican immigrants, with all the debate and controversy about immigration and immigrants and their role, or lack thereof, in this society, in this country right now, what do you say to people who might be of the notion that for a guy who grew up in this country as the son of immigrants, he’s awfully loose with his lips when it comes to rebuking this country.

You don’t hold your tongue when you think that something ought to be said about this country. So for folk who don’t understand the connect or see a disconnect between what ought to be your patriotism and your rebuke of America from time to time, link those two things up for me.

Belafonte: Well, first of all, I am who I am despite what America has put before me. I am who I am despite the obstacles that we have all faced based upon race and based upon social and spiritual humiliation. I am not here because I’m inspired by what the presidents have not done or done, as the case may be.

I’m here because I come from a sense of struggle, a sense of using the instruments that were given to me to manipulate the environment in which I found myself, and joined up with those who are equally as skillful at manipulating that environment, as was I.

I think America offers a dream that cannot be fulfilled as easily anywhere else in the world as it could be fulfilled here. Great men, Dr. Du Bois or Dr. King or others, really saw in America opportunity that did not reside quite the same where elsewhere. Opportunity for Black people in Africa were really quite different under the colonial oppression that Africans experienced, just as it was quite different for those who grew up in the Caribbean.

Although oppression was common to all of us, those styles of oppression gave us the opportunity to see the world in dimensions we didn’t quite see growing up in any one place.

I think being born in America and growing up exclusively within the American boundaries of race and race oppression is a very different experience for those of us who grew up under the boundaries of race and race experience in the Caribbean, or for those who grew up in Africa.

Our experience, although we have great similarity, has not made us monolithic. We’re not all of the same stripe, coming from the same place with the same sense of what the tactics have to be to survive.

In that context, I had a great reservoir to draw from, because all of the men that I met in Africa at the dawning of African independence – by that I mean the current wave of sovereign states that have emerged since the 1950s to become Ghana and to become –

Tavis: And (unintelligible) yeah

Belafonte: (Unintelligible) and all the rest, those are friends and neighbors that I met who coming from somewhat the same experience also inspired me, because these men were soon to become heads of state and designers of a history that was most unique to the continent. And to move among them and to hear their points of view only enriched me in terms of what I saw I had to do here in America.

Because when I came back and took a look at American foreign policy and saw how much we thrived off the oppression that was being experienced by the people in Africa, how we conquered and manipulated that environment, how we robbed the people of their rights, not only material rights but their spiritual rights, what we imposed on them with our policy, pointed out to me that America was the place most critical, in my experience, to deal with in trying to change the way in which these systems work.

If I can change America and change American foreign policy and help get people into office who will bring a moral mission as well as spiritual insight into what they should be doing politically, we sit in the place where the opportunity for change resides in its most powerful sense – the dynamic of what we can do to make change is unlike the dynamic that anyplace else could boast of.

Tavis: But pushing America in that way, to your mind, makes you a greater patriot, or in the minds of others, an ingrate?

Belafonte: I don’t dwell too much on the minds of others. (Laughter)

Tavis: There’s the Harry Belafonte I know. (Laughter)

Belafonte: Well, early on when the response was so – was filled with such animus because I backed Dr. King or I backed Nelson Mandela and they were all defined as communists and as terrorists and as people who were just filled with negativity, everybody I saw who they were denouncing were the very people to whom I was attracted.

Eleanor Roosevelt. Every time I looked at – when they first branded me a communist, I just kind of – I was supposed to have felt horror. I didn’t feel horror, I felt in a way peculiarly anointed. There are so many – all the communists that you have defined, all the people you’ve defined as being communists or communist-inspired, they became my wish list for people I would most want to be like, and people I most wanted to know and to follow their path and to be influenced by their mission.

These facts carried me everywhere I went. When I found America extremely upset with Africa, who were they upset with? They were upset with (unintelligible) they were upset with Jomo Kenyatta, they were upset with (unintelligible) they were upset with (unintelligible) and with certainly Nelson Mandela and the ANC.

And every time I looked around for what made us the most upset, it was always those people who were the most oppressed and doing remarkable things to overcome that oppression.

Tavis: When you used the word, the “C” word, the “communist” word, you made a comment at the beginning of our show when I asked you how you were doing, and you said you’re hanging on for all that you’re up against, and I know what you meant by that.

When one is a free Black man in the way that Harry Belafonte is, speaks his mind and isn’t concerned, to your point, with the minds of others, you express yourself the way you want to, there’s a price to pay for that and people push back on you and say nasty things and call you names and challenge you in a variety of ways – I get that.

I’m raising that to say that I know how I feel as your friend when I hear people say things about you, not that you need any help or defense from me. But I’ve always got Harry Belafonte’s back in any conversation where I think he’s being derided.

Belafonte: Don’t be too hasty. I need all the help I can get.

Tavis: No. (Laughter) I’ve always got your back, but I know people are being derisive or dismissive of you. I raise that to go back into the book because again, I know how I feel when I hear things said about you, but how did you navigate what they did to your mentor and your friend, Paul Robeson? Because he got called everything but a child of God, got maltreated in every imaginable way.

You’re his understudy, you’re his student, he’s your mentor. How did you deal with the way they mistreated, maltreated, Paul Robeson?

Belafonte: It was the way in which he treated his mistreatment. It was the way in which he handled all that they threw at him. I saw this man as uniquely courageous. There were none of the romantic trappings that most heroes would get who come from the world in which he resided, and I looked at him and I listened to him, and each day that I (unintelligible) my own horror stories, he was one of the first persons I would go to to discuss how does one handle an environment that does the kinds of things they were doing to he and to myself and to so many others.

In his counsel, in his guidance I found a way in which to manipulate my own experience through his eyes, through his courage, through his – in the end, how he went out. He went out hard, but he went out pure. He went out hard, but he went out noble. He went out hard, but he went out with dignity. He went out hard and he went out heroic, and all of these things constantly attested to the fact that this man possessed a depth of human kindness, of human power, that I saw very rarely anywhere else.

So to follow his path and to listen to his counsel was the reward of my journey, not the anguish of it. What anguished me was that we weren’t more successful in saving him from so much cruelty. But through that sacrifice, through that experience, as much as Jesus has inspired many towards the tenets of Christianity and the teachings of Christ, so am I touched by Mandela, so am I touched by Dr. King, so am I touched by these figures, which are to me quite Christlike.

Not only in their sacrifice but in their moral strength, in their moral center. They find the motive for their lives being embroiled in the moral choices that they make in what to do with life.

Tavis: There are two people that come to mind that you talk about in the book, and there are certainly more than two. I count myself as one of them, and there are many others I know who could attest to the same who met you around the world.

But for the purpose of this conversation at the moment there are two people who come to mind who you helped push to find their moral compass, to find their moral center, and I say this respectfully, but for all of the hubbub, especially these days, there are a couple of more books out now about Jack Kennedy.

I was just reading a piece in the “Times” the other day taking on Chris Matthews and others, but once again the deification of JFK. So whether you’re talking JFK or RFK, you know, and you write about it in the book, they both started – both of them, respectfully – started out on the wrong side of the civil rights question, and their exposure and relationship with you and others helped to push them, certainly RFK, who lived longer, obviously, helped push him toward his better self.

Talk to me about the role you played in trying to expose them, help them find their own moral compass around this very critical question.

Belafonte: Well, both the presence of John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy was quite troubling to those of us who were caught up in the (unintelligible) and the adventure of the civil rights movement.

First of all, from a technical point of view, if everything we wanted to do was heavily dependent on the federal government, because the laws that oppressed us the most severely, the laws of the state and the only thing that was supreme to the laws of the state were the laws of the federal government and the laws of our Constitution, which said you have to abide by the tenets of the Constitution or you cannot be permitted to violate these laws, these rights of the people.

Therefore, the only tool that we had that came from the nation and from the state were the federal law. The people who are the caretakers of that law were both the president of the United States, who by the power of his executive being could write things into law, or into execution of the law, and there were the personal head of the Justice Department, his brother, Bobby Kennedy, whose job was to everyday attend to the rights of the peoples of the nation that we’re not violating the Constitution.

So from a practical point of view, from a strategic point of view, those were the men we had to deal with, whether we liked them or not. In order to deal with them most successfully, Dr. King said we have to find in them where does good reside, and after listening to us in an analysis that we gave night after night, not for a very long period of time, but in a very intense period of time, we concluded that as Dr. King instructed us, is there’s good in these men, especially Bobby Kennedy.

You must go out and find his moral center and win him to our cause. Well, if there’s good in the man and if he has a moral center, we can find it and we win him to our cause, we would have one of the most powerful forces on our side.

So the conditions under which I had to work with Bobby Kennedy were never constantly adversarial.

There were adversarial moments, but we quickly looked for healing when it was adversarial in order to get on with things that we both felt we were charged with or was a bigger responsibility than just what we were as individuals.

In the beginning, it was very difficult. I was a victim of the McCarthy period and not as victimized as many others were – certainly not as victimized as Paul Robeson and so many others. But in this context, Bobby Kennedy was an attorney for the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was very close to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was the most villainous of all in the execution of this terrible mandate, or this terrible rule on how to treat suspected communist.

When Dr. King said, “Find his moral center and win him to our cause,” I found that a very daunting task.

Tavis: Hold that thought. It was indeed a daunting task, and we’ll pick up on that tomorrow night on how daunting the task was. I’m so delighted that I’ve got Mr. Belafonte, Mr. B, as I call him, for two nights, because you can’t do justice to a life in even five or 10 nights.

But two is better than one, so we’ll continue this conversation tomorrow night. The new book by Harry Belafonte is called “My Song,” and of course if you turn on HBO any day right now, any hour of any day, practically, you can see on one of the HBO channels the new HBO documentary about his life, “Sing Your Song.”

So Mr. B, I will see you here tomorrow night, sir.

Belafonte: Can’t wait.

Tavis: (Laughs) Until then, keep the faith.

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Last modified: August 21, 2013 at 9:31 pm