Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Noble Man Honors a King -- Harry Belafonte Talks About MLK, January 29 at Northwestern

“We’ve come to a time when we’ve abandoned radical thought. Radical thought is essential [to bring about change].”

It’s amazing how the things I often prattle on about sound so much more sage, and eloquent, when voiced by an international legend—and human rights hero—like Harry Belafonte.

While at 85, the resonant tenor of the man who had the first million-selling album has been reduced to a rasp, as the Keynote Speaker at a Northwestern University program honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte still spoke volumes.

Of course, the singer, actor and activist—who I learned much more about last year through the Sing Your Song documentary, and subsequently saluted in this birthday blog post—had plenty of history to draw upon, as he became a close confidant of Dr. King when both men were in their mid-’20s. Belafonte recalled how MLK initially called him and said, “I cannot do it alone.”

And to a Pick-Staiger Hall audience comprised largely of NU students, though also the general public, Belafonte’s speech had an underlying theme of devoting oneself to helping others, particularly the disenfranchised.

Though no longer the spry performer who enjoyed groundbreaking success in music, theater, film and television—at the very least, check out his Wikipedia bio—Belafonte began his talk by displaying the warm-spirited personality that once made millions of worldwide fans wild about Harry.

Following an impressive performance by the Northwestern Small Jazz Ensemble, a remarkably buoyant rendition of “Amazing Grace” by the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and remarks from Charles Whitaker—an NU journalism professor who co-chaired the event—and Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Belafonte was welcomed to the stage by Victor Shao, president of Northwestern’s student government.

Harry noted that it was the first time he’d ever been introduced by a person of Asian descent, but that as someone who had long traveled the world, he had joyously experienced “thousands of Japanese singing Day-O.” Belafonte also shared how his grandkids had teased him when he told them—before flying to Evanston from his New York home—that he’d be making a 20-minute speech: 'Grandpa, you can’t say hello in 20 minutes.'

But as Belafonte got to the heart of his speech, relaying how he and King had worked together on the “Poor People’s Campaign” shortly before MLK’s 1968 assassination, and reflecting on how upon hearing JFK—who he also befriended and advised—urge “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he focused on what it meant specifically for black people, I doubt anyone was glancing at their wristwatch (including me, who always does).

In looking at the notes I took on Belafonte’s speech, which was followed by a brief on-stage interview by a journalism student, I am struck again at how masterfully he wove together themes of affliction, action and hope with equal depth and acuity.

He spoke of financial inequity, crippling levels of incarceration among African-Africans—“we build more cells than classrooms”—the loss of our “moral compass” under George W. Bush, improvements yet not widely realized remedies under President Obama and the terrible scourge of guns, for which he advocated “a radical movement to challenge the second amendment.”

Despite walking with a cane, Belafonte looked good and sounded sharp, but acknowledged his own mortality while expressing that gun control was “what I’m committing to in the last days of my life.”

Yet his endlessly impressive devotion to activism was nicely balanced by Belafonte referencing how his wife—who I believe is his third—and family were the most important part of his life, and that their support and understanding as he traveled the world and sometimes championed controversial causes largely enabled him to do all that he has.

Particularly moving, especially given the occasion, was when Belafonte shared being privy to Dr. King’s moments of doubt. ‘In the quest for integration, we are integrating into a burning house,’ Harry cited Martin telling him, to which Harry replied, ‘Then we’re going to have to become firemen.”

Without any boasting or braggadocio, Belafonte also looped in working on behalf of Native Americans and having been the motivator behind “We Are The World” and related African-relief efforts.

I apologize for reprising another of my common kvetches, but in watching Harry Belafonte speak I couldn’t help but again be chagrined over the relative superficiality and societal insignificance of so many of today’s so-called celebrities and—since they’re increasingly not one and the same—artists.

Much to my contentment and cognitive validation, Belafonte espoused how artists need to do more to stimulate the masses to address injustices, such as Wall Street fraud. And that everyone—especially those within institutions of higher learning—needs to share in a commitment to radical thought, the path to which, Belafonte voiced, “was the first thing the oligarchy sought to stamp out.”

As someone who often thinks and writes about societal transformations,  plagues, inequities and the like, yet sometimes can’t help think that I’m just pissing into the wind, it was personally quite gratifying to hear similar concerns conveyed by someone with such stature, perspective and gravitas.

So while many people who might well benefit from learning about Harry Belafonte and listening to him speak about activism, accountability and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. will likely remain willfully oblivious, I greatly appreciated the salient sentiment as Harry acknowledged the choir standing on stage behind him, made a joke about preaching to it and shared the wise words once intimated by his friend:

‘Harry,’ Martin said, ‘you’ve got to preach to the choir. If you don’t, they’ll stop singing.’


Ken said...

Seth, I commend you on another excellent, and inspirational blog post.

As someone who lived through those days with Mr. Belafonte, I look back now over the years and these thoughts haunt me:

Did anyone hear the President mention jobs in his inaugural address?

First, our generation got suckered into fighting in Viet Nam in a "noble" attempt to save the world from communism. Go ask any of your veteran friends how well that worked.

Next, (second), we got suckered into believing that we HAD to increase our productivity by leaps and bounds because we were so far behind the Japanese. So we left the industrial age and transformed into the information age. What happened to our increase in productivity?

Next, (third) we were told that only globalization would work, because it was such good capitalism, and the sh!tty jobs would all go overseas and Americans would get to do the "good" jobs. Go get an ex-ray and see where it gets diagnosed and tell me about the sh!tty jobs again.

Next, (fourth) we were told we had to fight all over the world to prevent terrorism so we needed to spend our money in this "noble" effort. (See first point.) Statistically you have a better chance of dying by someone dropping a television set on your head than you do of dying in a terrorist attack. Remember that the next time at the airport when the TSA inspector sticks his hands down your pants.

Next, (fifth) we were told we had to tighten OUR belts because we spend too much (points one and four). How DARE we unpatriotically ask to get our own money back. What? We think we are ENTITLED to get our money back? Fools.

Next, (sixth) those of us over 50 are told that we need to engage in another noble cause (see points one and four) and die, not only cheaply but quickly, for our country ...so someone else can spend our money (i.e.Japanese finance minister Taro Aso told a social security council that the elderly should be allowed to die rather than drain the resources of the government. An oligarch who is the scion of a wealthy family it''s no wonder why his last name rhymes with another pejorative term). Bet this idea catches on like wildfire here, I'm surprised somebody in Congress hasn't proposed a bill already. I guess if you didn't die in Viet Nam you were supposed to get the idea that you were expendable anyway.

Here's the new motto for the Unemployed Baby Boomer:You don't matter. Nobody cares. Die fast and cheap.

Yes, we truly are the greatest generation of Suckers ever born.

Regarding your point as to the duty of the artist to challenge the existing power structure, I offer the following quote from Nelson Algren, one of Chicago's most famous writers. (I bet most of your readers will not be familiar with his name...I'm sure Mr. Belafonte knew him because of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter...but your readers can look him up in Wikipedia.)

“The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.”
― Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

This was my tiny attempt. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Harry Belafonte is an Anti-American leftist radical. This moron recently appeared on MSNBC, calling on Obama to imprison Republicans. What a stand-up guy.