The Tony- and Emmy-winning singer, actor, activist and author of the memoir My Song continues his conversation with Tavis and discusses faith, spirituality, war and peace.
Actor-activist Harry Belafonte, Part 2
Tavis: Back now with part two of our conversation with Harry Belafonte. As I mentioned on this program last night, the acclaimed documentary about his life is currently airing on HBO. The film is called “Sing Your Song.” It’s a good one. You can also pick up a copy of his new memoir, “My Song.” Mr. B, good to see you again for night two. (Laughter)
Harry Belafonte: Good to see you too.
Tavis: (Laughs) We have the same clothes on we had on last night.
Belafonte: Well, I’m inspired. (laughter)
Tavis: We left our conversation last night with me asking you about the path that you had to take to find the good, as Dr. King said, in John Kennedy, the good in Robert Kennedy, and how to win them to your side in this movement for civil rights in the country, and you were talking last night about McCarthy and McCarthyism and your being caught up on it.
So pick up on the story about how you pulled the Kennedys, Bobby specifically, onto your side of the ledger.
Belafonte: Well, the Kennedys weren’t an option. It wasn’t as if I had a vast arena of powerful men and women everywhere in the world waiting for an opportunity to interface with us and our movement. These are people who are by destiny given these jobs of authority and power, and they controlled so much of the gearbox in which our movement had to go.
And if you didn’t get the president on your side and if you didn’t get Bobby Kennedy on your side, then your task would be far more daunting than getting them on your side.
When Dr. King said, “Find his moral center and win him to our cause,” this was in lieu of not even knowing the man. We were not social — we didn’t have a social engagement, we didn’t meet on a corner at the social club. We were in a world, in a society that was fiercely adversarial from the point of view of race, we were in a society that was fiercely distracted by the lust for power and the greed that is so central to our own culture.
With all these forces coming at you and all of it spelling out with some group or the other will be oppressed, if you are the oppressed then you have to find a way in which to work through this. You can do it violently, or we can do what Dr. King suggested to find this methodology through nonviolence, to try to find a way in which to redeem relationships or individuals.
I did not much believe in the idea of nonviolence. After all, nonviolence was the teachings of Christ. And the most powerful institution to rise up from that legacy was the church, and I didn’t find a place more oppressive and more cruel, not just in the large sense of violence, but in the daily sense of violence.
A priesthood that was willing to molest little boys and to lead them with a hierarchy system that protected them from this mischief and did not bring any justice. I was one of those children in Catholic school going through the experiences of the nuns and race and all this.
Tavis: But let me jump in right quick, though — but you were not, then or now, tell me if I’m right or wrong, atheist or agnostic. We had this conversation many times. I know you had a problem with the church, but on your own faith were you ever then or now an atheist or agnostic?
Belafonte: I became very atheistic.
Belafonte: Because in turning against the church, that meant I also had to turn against a lot of the teachings of people in my family who were very much of the church and caught in it, and every time I turned to find where resides the good in the church, all I saw was the demonic, the Lucifer of the journey.
The Catholic Church had strict racial attitudes and intolerance for anybody who was not Catholic. When I look at a lot of Black ministers and what went on in the Black church, I was more caught up with those who were in Cadillacs and shiny suits than I was with those who were Kingian in their style.
Tavis: With a lot more of the former than the latter. (Laughs)
Belafonte: Exactly, exactly.
Tavis: At the time, yeah.
Belafonte: When Dr. King stepped into my life and I found that I had to become engaged with him and reason with him, it was his vision of how he saw our task that attracted me deeply to the idea that I thought his idea was the best that I’d heard.
I’ve often said that Paul Robeson gave me the spine for my manhood. Dr. King gave me my spirituality. Between these two men, these fierce forces that nurtured me, I found in them all the triumph that I needed to have for endorsing the mission that I was on as being correct, and Dr. King, when he and I first met, one of the first things I said to him was, “I’m not of the church. I’m from the church and I look at the church with great caution.”
Whether it’s Catholicism and what they did with the great historical evils that they did, when you look at those who most morally justified slavery, you’ll find that the church was central to that –
Belafonte: — fact. There are all these things that are in your way. And Dr. King said, as a matter of fact, that much of the sentiments that I had expressed to him were very much his own, and he felt very much the same way about a lot in the church, and he felt those facts alone would give us a good ride.
Tavis: Even though he was himself a man of the cloth.
Belafonte: A man of the cloth.
Tavis: When you mention King, certainly in this context of the Kennedy years and at the end of the Kennedy years and into the Johnson years, you can’t talk about King without talking about, as you said (unintelligible) his nonviolent stand and his opposition to war.
King said, famously, as you know, that war is the enemy of the poor, where we started our conversation last night talking about the poor. So the last time that you and I sat together for a television show it was a special, you’ll recall, that I was doing for PBS.
We sat together at Riverside Church in New York for a one-hour special here on PBS about Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech. It didn’t occur to me to ask this question then, but after reading your text, your memoir, it occurs to me to ask it now, which is how a guy who served in World War II, you were a military man, you didn’t just play one on television. You were — and in the movies — you were, in fact, an enlisted military man.
How is it that you have over the years juxtaposed your being a part of the military, fighting to defend this country in World War II and being so unapologetically antiwar?
Belafonte: In my youth, I saw the war as an instrument in the defense of something for which I held a great esteem, and most of it was through the instruction of my mother, who was fiercely anti-racist. She struggled against poverty; she struggled for all the rights and dignities of a woman.
Coming from Jamaica, she was a neat package for all of this, and in her struggle and in her counsel she — I’ll never forget when Italy first invaded Ethiopia, my mother’s indignity at that, at the great sense of crisis that existed (unintelligible) was to watch these people very much like her own people, from the mountains of Jamaica, it’s not by any stretch of the imagination that Rastafarians and the great tribute to the Lion of Judah and Jah and all that comes from Abyssinian tradition historically.
When Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, my mother was just absolutely furious, both at the church for blessing Italian soldiers to go off and kill these barefoot Black people in Africa for no reason other than the lust of conquest, and she said that she felt that that struggle was our struggle.
That the forces that were at work crushing Ethiopia and crushing so much of Europe in the world at large, the fascists, Japan, Italy and Germany, were the final vision of what would happen to a society that fulfilled its mission, if its mission was racist.
And no place had a mission more racist, defined and designed than did America. We created the apartheid system that helped South Africa create one of the most cruel societies in modern history. All of these things were in our basket, and therefore, anything that we could commit to that early on stemmed the tide for what was to come would be an engagement of honor.
So for me, volunteering going into the Second World War was because I felt that what Haile Selassie, with what Dr. Du Bois had to say, with what so many had to say who interpreted that war, not just from the Eurocentric aspects of history, but from the African and the developing world points of view of history.
What the people in the Far East had to say about the French colonialists and who conquered them, and the Japanese and what we had to say about Africa and the Caribbean and what was going on in America. All these places were in this turmoil.
To walk into this fray was very much a war to which I felt and was instructed that we belong to, and all the people I respected were part of that. When I came out of the war and expected this triumphant experience for the victors, we had defeated Hitler, we had ensured that there would be no more room ever to discuss race superiority because we had killed that off, but only to come back to find that here in America, especially Black servicemen, were being treated more cruelly than anyplace else in the world.
What happened to Isaac Woodard and people who were Black servicemen that came back and went South, who were murdered, who were lynched, who just disappeared and have never been heard from since, cases which still reside in the books of many states as just missing people, when you saw this as an ex-GI looking at what was happening to us, we just felt we have a struggle here and that struggle is to get it on.
We can acquiesce to the rules of the day, which was more oppressive racist laws than we’d ever known before, or we can resist it, which meant going to a place of rebellion. In that place of rebellion, in walks this young man named Martin Luther King, and while Du Bois and Paul Robeson and so many others were feisty, ready to meet at the gates of violence to thrash out this question, along came Dr. King, who showed me this device.
I must admit that in the beginning, what appealed to me was the brilliance of the strategy of nonviolence as a tactic against oppression, and then to see what happens when you really got into the philosophy of it and began to apply it, it became the supreme tool for us.
Tavis: The way you got into this story, this answer to this question about your antiwar position, is not unlike the way you started answers to a number of questions last night and tonight, which is by starting with your mother.
I want to go back to your mother now because you did a lot to make your mother proud, but you did one thing that you write about in the book that was not such a proud moment, and that is not finishing your education.
I want to come back to that because it never ceases to amaze me how brilliant you are, how inspiring you are, how expressive you are, how all that you are without having finished your education. How did you accomplish all of this? I don’t mean the acting and the singing. I’m talking about all of this. How did you get all this when by your own admission, you didn’t finish school?
Belafonte: Not finishing school for me can only be viewed as an aspect of the learning process. I am still learning. Everywhere I go, every day, the knock at the door and I open it, something reveals itself that I really need to know and should embrace, and I’m quite open to embracing the knock at the door, whatever it may be, because my life has been built more on coincidences than they have built on things that I specifically set out for myself and went out and achieved.
So that when my mother was a little girl on the plantation in Jamaica and she tenaciously, at a very young age, went after learning her ABCs, and with a slate and a pencil couldn’t wait to show her father how much she had achieved in learning the alphabet and inscripting.
When she felt she got it to a level of perfection as a little girl she took it to her father and said, “Look at what I’m doing,” and tried to get him to commit himself to further helping her get more instruction, to send her to another village to advance her studies.
He looked at it and said, “As a girl child, if you can do that much, you got all you need to know. We need another hand in the field.” So she was, instead of being rewarded for moving so well in a world of academics, she was taken away from it and sent back into the field to become a slave.”
That crushed her terribly and it became central to her whole view of oppression from another perspective. Her father, male, man, not very responsive to the needs of the girl child and what went on in this environment, which is not an unusual story in the Caribbean and how that society reveals itself historically.
But my mother took this with her, and when she came to America, among the many opportunities that she saw here was the chance to move ahead educationally. She went into school at the Y and began to become a seamstress and learn how to sew and learned the alphabet herself, and to get into these things while pulling her children with her.
What happened to me was — I often talk about God’s sense of humor — (laughter) was that I was struck with a learning disorder that nobody knew anything about, and I was filled with discontent. Couldn’t focus in the classroom, teachers were just really frustrated with my distraction, and when I left school one after the other there was always a celebration that I was out of the school rather than having stayed, because teachers were just overcome with my distractedness. (Laughter)
What it was was that it was an extreme case of dyslexia, and I could not really keep words in focus. They skipped and inverted and all the problems that we faced — nobody knew what that was, except that measured against my appearance I did not seem to be living up to my potential. I wasn’t living up to what my native intelligence, as they call it, appeared to be, as opposed to the failure of my academic pursuit.
In that context, when I got to high school I was struggling desperately to cope. I just couldn’t handle it, and I left. That broke my mother’s heart forever.
Tavis: It’s always hard to know — and I’ve still got another good — wow, so fast — I’ve got another seven or eight minutes here, it’s not enough time — it’s always hard when I sit to — and I don’t do this often because there’s so few Harry Belafontes walking around, but it’s hard to take a book this dense and a life this rich and to try to make sense out of it in 30 minutes, even when you get 60 minutes, like last night and tonight.
But I’ve chosen to not focus so much of our conversation on your entertainment life, because people know that so well, at least parts of it. The part that I think people don’t know which I find fascinating and found fascinating, reading your detail of it in the book, is how this raspy voice of yours came to be. So we all know you from “Day-O,” you go to any NBA game to this day, basketball arenas, and thank God basketball is back, you go to NBA games anywhere in this country and at some point in the game somebody’s going to play the “Day-O” song, the audience comes — so your stuff is everywhere.
So we know that wonderful musical gift that you’ve had for your entire life, but you’re the only person I know who had that voice and made it work for you, had a surgery that went wrong that made you sound this way, and this voice is as much of signature (unintelligible) Harry Belafonte, this raspy, rich, beautiful, the tones in your voice, the timbre in your voice –
Belafonte: Will you marry me?
Tavis: No, get out of here. (Laughter) I don’t think Pam would appreciate that. But that voice is a part of you now as “Day-O” was back in the day. What do you make of something going wrong and you still making it work for you, and how embittered were you that that voice was taken from you?
Belafonte: Well, first of all, the voice was taken from me before the surgery. The surgery was an attempt to try to bring it back, so I can’t blame the loss of the voice on surgery.
Tavis: On the surgery, right.
Belafonte: I ascribe that to other things, other abuses, other misuse of the instrument. I pushed myself beyond my physical capacity and ability. But when you look at Louis Armstrong, when you look at Ray Charles and you look at Cocker, all the great singers that had these sounds, I was in great company.
Look what they did, and I don’t profess to have their gift, but I certainly had their sound. My problem was that I didn’t come from any specific school of musical tradition. I had to make up my repertoire. I had to make up who I was. Until today, people don’t really know what to call me.
I’m called a Calypsonian and I’m not, (laughter) I’m called a folk singer, and I’m not too sure about that. I once had Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, “What is a folk singer?” He said, “Well, all people are folk singers, because I never heard a horse sing.” (Laughter)
I went about my life approaching music not from the point of view of a singer, but from the point of view of an actor. That’s how I first started to sing. I had a part, it was required that the guy sing, and when I found out how to approach it from the acting point of view, the subtext, all this stuff, and I did it, it was resoundingly the rewards that came from that practice.
So everything I went after in my musical career was really based upon how I approached a song as an actor, not because of the power of my musical instrument.
However, having said that, what I delighted in was the fact that so many people found what I did to be so attractive, and the way to really know more about me as a performer would require that you see me in the theater as opposed to hearing me on record. I think that what you see in the theater is an arc of the experience that is revealed musically that really talks about my life, about the songs that I’ve chosen to sing, the protest songs, the songs that embrace other race, the songs in many languages that I sing, not too unlike the influence of Robeson (unintelligible) because he sang 22 languages, wrote and read them and sang in them.
I saw the appreciation from global audiences because he did that. I did the same thing. When I went to Japan I sang in Japanese; when I went to Greece I sang in Greek. When I went to Spain, I sang in Spanish. (Laughter) I couldn’t speak it very well, but I sang, I was beautiful in singing it. These things just constantly attracted people to the uniqueness of who I was and the way in which I performed.
As a consequence, that served a political end, which was to make me completely independent of the economics and the way in which life was designed for the artist in America. They’re all deeply dependent on how Wall Street defines us, and the banks define us, and commodity defines us, and what industry says, whether General Motors likes us or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes likes us, you are equated as an artist based upon the likes and dislikes of those powers.
How you get around them, how you — so I went directly to people and maintained a people relationship so that no matter what they did to me, would blacklist and I couldn’t get on the air, or for 10 years I couldn’t find a movie, I would go to Paris, the theaters were filled.
I’d go to Hong Kong, theaters were filled. I’d go to Lagos, theaters were filled. Wherever I went, there was always an audience, and I defied being touched by the instruments of denial that was in the hands of the power elite. So if a sponsor didn’t like me, I could care less. What you’re asking me to do is to give up what I believe in, which I believe to be not only morally correct but I think spiritually most desired, and to give that up in order to be anointed by your product, there’s no bargain here. I said, well, I’ll just be who I am, voice or no voice. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’ve done that remarkably well for these 85 years now — 85 years young.
Harry Belafonte is an authentic American hero, and I am honored always to have him on this program. I’ve said it two or three times already — if you have not seen the documentary “Sing Your Song,” which really gets into even more texture about his life than I could get into in this conversation, go to HBO and check out “Sing Your Song,” and pick up the new book from Harry Belafonte.
It’s called “My Song.” The details, a life very well lived until this present moment, I know with so much more to come.
And Mr. Belafonte, if I were ever to marry a man, it would be you. (Laughter)
Belafonte: Well, I’m glad I can compete. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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