Harry Belafonte and the politics of language »« Is the Pope an atheist?

Harry Belafonte

For those of you fortunate enough to be in the Cleveland area, Harry Belafonte has been invited by the University Program Board to speak at Case Western Reserve University. The talk will be in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm on Tuesday, February 7, 2006. The talk is free and open to the public but tickets are required. For more information and to get tickets see here. (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s visit has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)

Harry Belafonte hardly needs any introduction worldwide to older fans of music (Belafonte was a staple on Sri Lankan radio and I still know all the words to such hauntingly beautiful ballads like “Island in the Sun” and “Jamaican Farewell”) or to those who have followed the civil rights and other social justice movements. In the UPB statement about the invitation to him, they quote Professor Henry Lewis Gates who said that Harry Belafonte was “Radical before it was chic and remained so long after it wasn’t.”

More recently, Belafonte has said that “President George W. Bush] lied to the people of this nation, distorted the truth, declared war on a nation who had not attacked us…put Americas sons and daughters in harm’s way…and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of [Iraqi] women and children who had nothing to do with it. It was an act of terror.” In doing so, William Loren Katz says that Harry Belafonte became part of a proud African American tradition of speaking out against wars of aggression that Frederick Douglass started in 1848 and continued through with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali.

Frederick Douglass excoriated President Polk’s administration for “grasping ambition, atrocious aggression, and wholesale murder of an unoffending people” in “a disgraceful, cruel, and iniquitous war,” and demanded “the instant recall of U.S. forces from Mexico.” President Polk lied to justify a U.S. invasion that seized land stretching from Texas to California for new slave states. “I would not care if tomorrow, I should hear of the death of every man who engaged in that bloody war,” said Douglass. (Congressman Abraham Lincoln also reviled Polk for ordering an invasion of an innocent neighbor based on a lie.)

Harry Belafonte is one of those rare people who has used his talents and fame to further the cause of social justice. While many celebrities carefully avoid politics and controversy for fear of alienating lucrative commercial endorsement opportunities, Belafonte has always spoken his mind, even if that meant losing contracts for sponsoring the colorful silk shirts he wore during his concert performances. My parents were fortunate enough to attend a concert given by him in London around 1960 and I still remember how they were raving about it. I am looking forward to Tuesday, not to hear him sing (sadly), but to listen to one of the political legends of our time.

The UPB statement describes his accomplishments:

Harry Belafonte received the first platinum record ever, the creator of “We Are the World,” which earned $70,000,000 that was donated to fight the famine in Ethiopia, the first African-American to win an Emmy. He is immensely successful and a world-wide star. He also is a political and social activist. It was he who bailed Martin Luther King out of the Birmingham jail. It was he who wouldn’t perform in the south during the period of segregation. It was he who helped to organize the March on Washington. Harry Belafonte railed against apartheid in South Africa. On civil rights and human rights, Harry Belafonte has used his extraordinary intelligence, vision, talent and visibility to bring those issues to the world’s attention.

Democracy Now! had an extended interview with him on January 30 that is well worth reading, where he elaborates on the reasons behind his outspoken activism. The prologue to that interview gives further information about him.

He sent money to bail King out of the Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned protesters. He financed the Freedom Rides, and supported voter-registration drives and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.

In the 1980″s he helped initiate the star-studded “We Are the World” single, which raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia, calling global attention to the humanitarian crises in Africa.

A longtime anti-apartheid activist, Belafonte hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on his triumphant visit to the United States. In 1987 he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. After serving two years in the US Navy towards the end of World War II, he became radicalized when he returned after the war. As he explains in the interview:

When I was discharged from the United States Navy, having served almost two years during the Second World War, I came back, like millions of us did, with an expectation that those principles for which we fought would be fully revealed and embraced by the American government and the American people – the war was about democracy, the war was about ending white supremacy, the war was about ending colonialism – only to discover that the Allies, the British, the French, the Dutch and the Americans, all who were the forefront of the democratic charge, having victoriously won that war, did not upon the celebration of victory do anything but go back to business as usual.

Segregation was more vigorously enforced in this country. Many citizens in this country did not have the right to vote. Opportunities were not on an equal level playing field. The peoples of Asia and Africa and the colonial Caribbean were not experiencing any relief from their colonial degradation. And many of us were very, very upset and very angry with the fact that here was democracy, having been fought for so vigorously, not reaching out to those of us who were the victims of the absence of democracy. And in that context, rather than submit, we joined and organized and did everything we could to have the principles of democracy in our Constitution upheld. That meant we went after voting, we went after ending the segregation laws. We did everything.

For that act, we were looked upon as unpatriotic, we were looked upon as people who were insurgents, that we were doing things to betray our nation and the tranquility of our citizens, when nothing could have been further from the truth. That engaged the F.B.I. That engaged the House on American Activities Committee. Many of our leaders were hounded and denied their livelihood. Their passports were taken away. So vigorous was that campaign of oppression that even American citizens committed suicide, and not by ones or twos, but by large numbers. It was a cruel, oppressive period. But we stayed the course, many of us. We resisted. And ultimately, we prevailed.

On the threshold of that experience came the Civil Rights Movement. As a matter of fact, we were the forerunners to the movement. We energized the spirit and people to make America live up to its code, live up to its great promise. In that context, the Civil Rights Movement began to do the same things that those before the movement did to vigorously pursue the unjust laws of this country and to turn them over.

J. Edgar Hoover and others in government began to put surveillance on the citizens. I have no idea how many court permissions were given to have our wires tapped, but nevertheless, we were. Everything we talked about were tapped. As a matter of fact, as an artist, while I was away, the innocence of my family and my children were invaded one evening by the F.B.I. agents who came while I was away, knocked at the door. My wife was very startled at the experience, and when she queried them as to why they were there, they said they had come to investigate me, because they felt that I was doing acts of treason towards our country.

Most recently Belafonte stirred up a controversy when on a visit to Venezuela he called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” This has, of course, caused controversy, but this is nothing new to Belafonte who has never shown any sign that he can be intimidated and prevented from saying what he thinks needs to be said in the cause of social justice. (In a subsequent interview on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, Belafonte refused to back down and explained why he was justified in what he said.)

As Democracy Now! says:

Belafonte has been a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, calling for an end to the embargo against Cuba, and opposing policies of war and global oppression. Earlier this month, he led a delegation of activists, including actor Danny Glover and professor Cornel West, to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez. Belafonte spoke at a rally in Caracas, where he commented on President Bush.

Belfonte was standing next to Chavez when he made those comments. And he didn’t let up. Belafonte also recently spoke in commemoration of Martin Lurther King Day at Duke University where he said, “Bush has led us into a dishonorable war that has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people…What is the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?” And in a speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference days later he said, “We’ve come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended.”

Tomorrow I will discuss the language of politics and how words like terror and terrorists are used to serve political ends.

I definitely will be at the talk and I strongly urge people who can attend to come to Strosacker tomorrow. It is not often that one has the occasion to deal with people who have played such a pivotal role in history. Just as my parents were proud to be able to say that they saw and heard live the great Harry Belafonte, I would like to be able to tell others in years to come the same thing.

POST SCRIPT: I’m a failure

I read that David Horowitz has published a new book naming the “101 most dangerous academics in America.” Although I have not read the book, the fact that no one has contacted me probably means that I did not make the cut.

I find this frustrating. Surely he would have found my positions on issues highly dangerous and objectionable since I disagree with almost everything he says and that is usually the most reliable indicator for inclusion in books of this kind that are lists of people? I recognize that the field of people that find Horowitz to be a ridiculous figure must be huge in number but I thought I had criticized Horowitz enough (see here, here, and here) to merit his ire and warrant my inclusion. I even highlighted the news story accusing him of making allegations about people without evidence. What more can one person do to become an enemy? To paraphrase Art Buchwald, what kind of person is this who does not even know who his real enemies are?

I jealously note that Michael Berube made the list. Apart from being much better known and prolific and extremely witty writer than me, and a person who is full of interesting and provocative ideas, and seems to get enormous enjoyment making fun of Horowitz, what else has Berube done to deserve this honor?

It’s enough to drive a person to drink.

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