Harry Belafonte was given an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at a ceremony last week. The 87-year old actor and singer took the opportunity to deliver a powerful speech on racism and justice and human rights.
I wrote about Belafonte back in 2006 when I was privileged to be able to attend a talk given by him at our university. I have long been an admirer of Belafonte who saw himself as primarily a fighter for social justice and used his success and celebrity status to speak out on such issues even though it required risking his career and he faced repercussions and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era witch hunts.
Undaunted, he continued to speak out, championing Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and calling George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world”. When the condemnations dutifully rolled in, he refused to back down the way that the weak-kneed often do, saying “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?” He also went on to criticize the state of civil liberties in the US “We’ve come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended.” And this was even before all the current revelations of torture, drone killings and bombing of countries, and widespread illegal snooping
In his speech, Belafonte showed that physically he may have become more frail with time but when it comes to his voice and his mind and his opinions, he has lost nothing of his fire. He paid tribute to those that inspired him like that other great actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson (whom I wrote about (scroll down) in 2010) and to his close friend Sydney Poitier.
Here he is singing Island in the Sun, a song that, although referring to the Caribbean islands, had particular resonance for us in Sri Lanka because he could just as easily be describing that country..