Harry Belafonte with Coretta Scott King at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s gravesite at South View Cemetery in Atlanta on April 9, 1968. (Photo: Chicago History Museum, ICHI-173471; Declan Haun, Photographer)
The late Harry Belafonte was a great artist and also a committed revolutionary.
The consummate artiste, revolutionary and humanitarian the late Harry Belafonte, passed away at the age of 96 on April 25, 2023 at his home in Harlem, New York. According to our cultural and philosophical teachings of Maat and Kawaida, Belafonte did not become an ancestor just because he passed away, but moreso; because he lived a life of struggle and commitment in actively uplifting his community. Harry Belafonte did exactly that and more; he lived an exemplary life worth emulating by those in entertainment, politics, sports, and just ordinary everyday life.
From the outset, Belafonte made a conscious decision to actively engage himself in the struggle for social justice; following in the footsteps of one he dearly loved, admired, and was inspired by, the late Paul Robeson. Robeson said: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” Robeson had admonished that those of us in the arts should use our position to uplift our people.
Harry Belafonte – The Artist as Revolutionary
The corporate media have been bombarding us with endless clips and comments regarding his singing and hit songs, using terms like “icon” and his accomplished “firsts.” The term “icon” is distracting and mischievously misleading and trivializes progressive political thought and activism. It is a media construct to diminish the importance and potentially ideological impact, socially and politically, that Belafonte has had on the nation and globally. Once again, the enemy is shaping the narrative with the intent to colonize thinking and blunt the edge of the class and racial struggle for justice. His exceptional and extraordinary artistry and achievements should not be ignored or glossed over. However, as complimentary as that term is expected to be, Harry Belafonte was much more than an” icon.” Belafonte’s greatness and most significant achievement was his progressive social consciousness and contribution to human social progress and development, especially for people of African descent.
Harry Belafonte was unapologetically anti-colonial, anti-white supremacy and was a committed social-justice activist. It is imperative to understand that Belafonte was unapologetic about his social origin and upbringing; it is what shaped and forged his social outlook. He never forgot or abandoned his class origin and worked tirelessly to change the social conditions of the working
class. Belafonte confirmed this by saying: “It is hard to be born into the experience in the world of poverty and not develop some instinct for survival, and resistance to those things that oppress you.”
A Life of Principle and Commitment
Many from the Black community have fed voraciously from the “trough” of capitalism and continue to do so. In order to keep being continually “invited to the table,” they kowtow, pacify, or become ambivalent regarding the evils, inhumanity, and inherent socio-economic disparity of capitalism. They chose the “safe” route; Harry Belafonte was the complete opposite of that. Harry could have lived lavishly and been indifferent to the social ills plaguing poor people in general, and Black people in particular. Instead, he made a conscious decision to be on the side of the oppressed, and consistently championed their cause, both nationally and internationally. Like Robeson before him, Belafonte said: “I chose to live my life with dignity and courage – not bravado, but genuine social courage; to put all that’s on the line to come up against the forces of oppression.”
Harry Belafonte opposed the war in Vietnam; he actively supported the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa; he was openly in support of the National Liberation struggles in Southern Africa; Belafonte spoke out about the invasion of Iraq; he called for an end to the illegal and immoral blockade against Cuba; Belafonte openly spoke out against the CIA orchestrated coup and deportation of Haiti’s democratically elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristede; he showed solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, under the leadership of the late President Hugo Chavez; he expressed solidarity with “expelled” NFL player Colin Kaepernick, by referring to Kaepernick’s protest against injustice as noble and righteous; he publicly appealed to then President Barack Obama, to free American Indian Movement’s leader Leonard Peltier. Harry Belafonte was unequivocally opposed to the militaristic and interventionist foreign policy ideology of the United States. For these principled positions, Harry Belafonte paid a costly “price;” there is no doubt that Hollywood would have come calling a lot more over the years, if he had chosen the path of class and race collaboration.
Reaction or Social Justice – That is The Question
Harry Belafonte correctly justified his activism with the following: “Without the rebellious heart, without people who understand that there is no sacrifice we can make that is too great to retrieve that which we have lost, we will forever be distracted with possessions, trinkets, and title. And I think one of the big things that happened was that when Black people began to be anointed by the trinkets of this capitalist society and began to become big-time players and began to become heads of corporations, they became players in the game of our own demise.”
What Is To Be Done?
There is no “blueprint” for struggle or social activism against capitalism and racism. Methods and strategies must emerge and develop from the objective social conditions that everyday life experiences produce. Too often organizational leaders lose sight of this fact, and outline and engage in a course of actions, which render the liberation movement politically sterile and impotent. There is no substitute for study and clarity of the issues; Harry Belafonte was a shining example of that type of activism.
Richard Dunn is a retired construction professional, trained in Architecture and Energy Management. He is also a writer, Blogger, and has been involved in social justice issues, from the Walter Rodney demonstrations, in Kingston, Jamaica. [email protected]