A conversation and evening spent with the legendary Harry Belafonte


by Lynda Jones

Harry Belafonte

On the snowy evening of Friday, Feb. 10, 2112 the legendary Harry Belafonte made his annual Black History Month visit to speak at Chicago’s Faith Community of St. Sabina Church, pastored by Rev. Dr. Michael Pfleger, a longtime friend of Belafonte’s. Before he spoke to the congregation and guests, he so graciously sat down for conversation with a select group, members of the Chicago-Midwest ANC Centenary Committee, students, and myself (a member of the Black Press).

Belafonte, who is quickly approaching his 85th birthday (March 1) sat with his wife Pam next to him and spoke with the group for about an hour. He gave a preview to what he was going to speak to the audience about. He began with speaking about the Civil Rights Movement, and his days with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is evident as he speaks of Dr. King how much he truly cared about the man.

Many have asked Belafonte, how and why he became an activist, and honestly, I cannot remember if someone asked him that question, but he answered it anyway. He began with sharing some insight on his youth, he was born in New York City, but spent much of his first 12 years back in Jamaica where his mother was from. His mom was a single parent and her work kept her away from home long hours, and she was not comfortable with leaving her children home alone. She made the decision to send them back to Jamaica with family, and that is where Belafonte spent much of his childhood.

He says that he grew up in poverty, and growing up this way made him very conscious of what was just and unjust around him. He learned early in life that being poor and of color came with challenges and obstacles, and although he didn’t know it then, working against injustice became his passion in life.

Mr. Belafonte met with young men from the Faith Community of St. Sabina Church School before leaving following his presentation at the church. (Photo by Jeremy Shine)

Belafonte did not begin to have aspirations of being a singer or actor until he was paid for a cleaning job with tickets to a show. It was at this performance that the acting and singing bug hit him, and the rest is history. In 1956 Belafonte recorded his first album, a Calypso record that sold one million copies, he was the first to do it. Not first Black man to do it, but the first man period. The ‘Banana Boat’ song would go on to be the most recognizable song that he sings, the words ‘Day O, Day O,’ are known all over the world.

Belafonte has used his celebrity to bring not only attention to causes, but to fight them. He has always been that man who marched alongside, and got down in the trenches and to this day he still does.

At our meeting in Chicago with Belafonte, he spoke a lot about the Civil Rights Movement, but more about where the movement went wrong.

“The Civil Rights Movement never lost a battle that it waged against. We won every battle that we took on. But at the end of the victories, we found ourselves at a crossroads. The injustices that we had fought against now presented opportunities, we won voters rights, but now we needed candidates that could fill these positions. Unfortunately, we had to draw from those within the movement, because these were the people that were most trusted and prepared for such a task. People like, John Lewis, Andy Young and Julian Bond along with others were the ones who had to enter the political arena.” Belafonte said.

The problem with entering politics was that it was an atmosphere that takes on some many other challenges. And money and power become intoxicating, and once these individuals entered politics they could not be committed any longer to the movement fully. Belafonte said that the movement failed to plan for a next step, individuals to come and carry on, because these men were very central to the movement.

He also said that shortly before his death, Dr. King told him in a very sad tone of voice, “I am afraid that we are finding ourselves in a burning house.” Belafonte understood that he was referencing integration, when Blacks began to abandon their own to seek out what they thought they were missing in the White man’s world. Dr. King often visited the home of the Belafontes in New York, and to his day Belafonte says that he puts on Dr. King’s tapes and listens to them for inspiration. Many don’t know, that Belafonte was the main financial backer for the movement. It was his own money that bailed Dr. King out from jail many times.

Belafonte is a man who has seen so much, met with presidents and leaders worldwide, and he continues to fight today, yes as he approaches his 85th birthday. He says that he believes that today, people are suffering indeed, but the same people have not gotten angry. He says that it was Dr. King who stated, if people are angry enough, they will act, they will revolt.

“We see what is happening all over the world, in Egypt, in Syria, in Libya, the people got angry, and they were and are willing to pay the price for whatever it takes. During Civil Rights, when the machine kept operating unjustly, and workers could not make a fair wage, then the action was no one is going to make money. That is the only way that you stop the machine.” Belafonte stated.

He even challenged today’s entertainers, who make tons more money than what he and his peers made to get more conscious. And he questioned someone like Jay-Z finding it necessary to pay over a million dollars to sanction off a hospital for the birth of your child. “What’s wrong with a private suite, just for you and your family?” he asked. He said that today’s artist feel entitled, and instead of understanding that they are just lucky, they believe that they have truly earned all of this money, and that they are owed so much more than everyday people.

Belafonte released a documentary in 2011, ‘Sing Your Song’, and a book ‘My Song’ also released in 2011. Both should be viewed and read for today’s youth, and adults. Belafonte’s style of using celebrity for cause should be duplicated over and over again.