WYEP Remembers: Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte has died at the age of 96. He was an American singer, actor, and civil rights activist who had a significant impact on the entertainment industry and on American society during the 20th century. He was known for his rich baritone voice and his ability to blend various musical styles, including calypso, folk, and pop. During the 1950s, Belafonte had a string of hit singles and albums like Belafonte: At Carnegie Hall and Belafonte that would eventually become some of the decades’ best-selling records.
Beyond his musical career, Belafonte was also an influential figure in the civil rights movement and used his platform to raise awareness about racial inequality and injustice. He was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and a strong advocate for social and political causes such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Belafonte even helped organize “We Are The World,” a charity single that featured many famous musicians in 1985. He had become a major player in the entertainment industry and led the way for future generations of Black entertainers.
Below is a transcript of an interview that Rosemary Welsch did with Harry Belafonte in October 2017.
This conversation may be lightly edited for content, clarity, or length.
Rosemary Welsch: Well, I’m going to begin my questions in Harlem, you were born in Harlem during the Great Depression and I can only imagine the kind of culture that you were exposed to early on, can you talk a little about some of the culture you experienced?
Harry Belafonte: I was part of a group of citizens who were quite adroit and quite adaptable to the processes of having to deal with poverty, having to deal with the Great Depression of the day in the period in which I was born. I think it’s admirable, but my Mother, an immigrant woman, and all of the women in our communities and the families in our communities prevailed so admirably given all of the options and opportunities that had been denied them, and the opportunities they did not have. My mother with her strength and her intelligence and her passion was able to guide us through a rather tumultuous period and give us a sense of purpose, give us a sense of values, and the best of her instructions to get us through life. What makes it even more significant is that she’s a woman who had no formal education, who was born in [inaudible], and with all those struggles, she was able to provide us with the tools and the value system to help her children survive.
RW: She sounds like a lot of women today, who are fighting for the future of their children.
HB: Yes, and as a matter of fact, her example I think is part of what has encouraged many women to feel a sense of possibility. My Mother was from the Caribbean, she was a woman of African descent, she came to this country looking for the great American dream, and didn’t find it, but that did not deter her. (phone rings in the background)
RW: The culture you were growing up to in Harlem – there was theater, there were writers – can you talk a little about your experience, the first time you saw theater in Harlem…
HB: I do genuinely believe that one of the great mysteries of oppression and one of the great wonders of that application is the ability of people to be creative and to be absolutely magnificent in the way in which they survive. And the [inaudible] and the smarts that are brought into play. My community was filled with a lot of young men and young women, and some not so young, who gave us supreme examples of what to do in the face of adversity. I think that [inaudible] have had in our midst people like Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, to have people like Paul Robeson and the great writers and artists of the period were in abundance, for young Black children to emulate and to learn from, was a great gift. And for those of us who were able to advantage of that harvest, I think our lives turned out to be better for having had those experiences with those people in our past.
RW: The people you have just mentioned – some of those people that you just mentioned – when I think of those names I think beyond just art because they gave us more than art, there was a leadership in not just who they were, but the art that they gave to us.
HB: Well, Paul Robeson once said to us when I first met him as a very young person… [silence, call disconnects]
RW: Well, I’m glad you’re back again. I was just going to ask you about how Black culture relates to Black leadership, culture is about cultivating and I think culture can actually lead people into leadership roles, can you discuss that?
HB: I’m not quite sure I understand.
RW: If you grow up with culture, it can give you more than just… music isn’t just music and painting isn’t just painting, it can teach you about who you are and lead you to a person who can be a leader, and I’m wondering if culture had that kind of an impact on you, that taught you leadership skills?
HB: Well of course in and of itself often a lot of opportunities and possibilities in the individual practitioner, a certain aspect of cultural application that determines the goodness and the badness of the experience. I was as fortunate as those who are the practitioners of art, of the interpretive culture, or the men and women that brought substance to the table, ideas enforced and inspired me and obviously a number of others. It is that inspiration for which I am grateful because it was through their counsel and the things I learned from them, that I was able to shape my own targets and shape my own path. Culture is very complicated. It encompasses all of the human behavior, the good of it and the bad of it. But what it does give us is the opportunity of choice.
RW: I love that idea of choice. You met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when you were both very young – you were in your twenties – and you must have been present in watching how he began to form his vision to move forward. Can you talk about the young man that you met and what he taught you at that time?
HB: Well I was more than fortunate to have been exposed to Dr. King. So when he called and asked of me to render my services to the cause he was espousing, I listened with great awe and wonder at his formulations. After listening to him very carefully, I decided that I morally have a responsibility to commit myself to his mission. I don’t think there could be a thing more rewarding than to be guided by his social philosophy, by his humor, by his wit, but most of all by his humility and his [inaudible]. I think that though he gave us a supreme example of the best of the human heart and I try to carry on in that spirit. I don’t assess to be anywhere near what he was, but I do profess to be his disciple, and I think anything that I would get to do in life can be accredited to the fact that I was blessed to have met him.
RW: One of the ways that the Civil Rights Movement was able to reach a broader group of people – to appeal to more people – was through music, and I know that Dr. King traveled with the Staple Singers often, and there were people who worked with him who also sang. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the importance of music, how it helped promote Civil Rights in the 1960s…
HB: No, Not just in the 1960s but in all of it, music has been the language of civilization. It is through music and song, and through all the arts as a matter of fact, that we learn who we are, what we were, and what we aspire to be. It is the instrument through which anything about human conduct and human behavior is notated. Our thoughts and feelings are in the poetry of our books, followed in the lyrics to our songs, and the [inaudible] there’s going to be music that forces us to dance with harmonies. I think without culture and without art there would be no solution, there’d be no language, and there’d be no instrument on which to work on how to understand and help each other. It is the single most important force in our midst. The art. Music is an art form, it’s a [inaudible] to help communicate that.
RW: Are there certain songs that for you stand out, that really captured the essence of something you were experiencing at that time?
HB: I will tell you one or two – “We Shall Overcome” – the great anthem that was in style, The song that I sang and continue to sing called “Brown Skin”, are on my mind. A lot of songs that come out of Black culture in particular really [inaudible] a sense of joy. Our culture’s endowed with magnificent statements in poetry if we would just take the time to expose ourselves to them.
RW: At this point in time in history, you’re coming to Pittsburgh, you’re going to be speaking about Civil Rights – do you think the United States is falling backward when it comes to Civil Rights, are we reversing the strides that we’ve made?
HB: I take it you’re a person of color?
RW: I am not.
HB: You’re not?
HB: Oh, OK. In a way that’s even better. Not better that you’re not a woman of color, but better for what I’m about to say. I think that America has never found its moral compass, it has eternally been searching for one, and each time it comes close to such a moment where we think we’ve just grasped a good way of doing it, we show the propensity for letting evil overrun our path. It is a long and tedious job to try and get this nation to act up to its potential and to what it speaks of with great duplicity. Because we’re not a moral people, as a matter of fact, there’s a lot about us that is immoral, we are driven mostly by the greed that’s in our DNA and the love that’s in our DNA. And I think that the more we pay attention to what our careless behavior is doing to our universe, not just human life, but all of life – the destruction of the planet, the destruction of all living things – I think we have to understand that we are going to pay a terrible price for this inattentiveness to the greater truths. And I think that’s what art is charged with, being one of the instruments through which that information has to be imparted, and we should get on with that business.
RW: You’ve dedicated your entire life to the arts, but also trying to further the human race – to try to get people to look for a moral center – there have got to be times in your life when you have felt frustration, where you thought, “I don’t know if this ever will move forward” – what keeps you centered, what keeps you going forward, what gives you hope?
HB: I can never ever look at what I do and have anything but a sense of hope. Given any day in my life I need someone that makes me smile and puts a sense of hope in my heart. And I have met some incredible people on that path. I mean, how can one be exposed to Nelson Mandela and not leave feeling somehow rewarded with the sense of possibility? How can one meet Eleanor Roosevelt and not be rewarded with the sense of self and possibility? How could one meet Dr. King and Ella Baker and all those people at work in my past as I stumbled through my obligations to humanity? I think that every day wakes up with a new promise, and for that, I keep saying that I have not yet earned or deserve the harsh conclusion that all of this is for naught. I think that we have a purpose and that purpose is being fulfilled by every single thing that we do.
RW: It sounds like what you are saying is that the answer is in ourselves.
HB: I kind of like that, I have to give you credit for having said it. Be sure to include that, with parentheses and then say, “as I told him” (laughs).
RW: (laughs) I will do that. I have one last question. You’ve known so many incredible people in your life, so many people that give inspiration, that give example – were there commonalities between these people, were there certain traits that you looked at and said, “this is the one, two or three things that I see in all of these people”?
HB: An unequivocal love of humanity. Every one of them had that in common, their care for fellow beings was absolutely stunning, and from them, I saw that as my path.
RW: Mr. Belafonte, I’m very honored to have had the chance to speak with you. You’ve been an inspiration for many years and you remind me that I have my own work to do, and I appreciate that.
HB: Well thank you very, very much, it’s a joy talking to you.