Belafonte's fires undimmed at 80
By Stephen Evans
BBC News, New York
(note: this is a summary of an interview I heard of Belafonte on the BBC tonight. I was very moved)
Harry Belafonte at 80 has a real story to tell. He remembers, for example, a barely known political hopeful turning up at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. John F Kennedy, who was trying to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency, wanted advice and endorsement from the biggest black star in showbusiness.
Nearly half a century on, Belafonte sits in an easy chair and reflects on the meeting: "I listened to him and I refused to endorse him, telling him that his best bet was that he should begin to seek out more details of our struggle and who our leaders were and begin to talk to them rather than just seeking to talk to celebrities." He advised JFK to seek out Martin Luther King, then a young activist preacher in Montgomery, Alabama. "He hardly knew who Dr King was. That pointed out to me that he was really distant from our struggle."
But Kennedy listened and learned, and made contact with the black leader. In a tight election, the black vote split 70:30 Kennedy's way, enough to tip the finest balance.
Under JFK and then Lyndon B Johnson , Belafonte was Dr King's conduit to Washington, and also the financial provider at crucial moments, particularly when the civil rights leader had been jailed and needed to be bailed out. He also provided support at a cataclysmic moment that Dr King would never live to appreciate. Belafonte took out life insurance on his friend to ensure the family's financial stability after any assassination.
"I saw the threats on his life and decided to take out insurance on his life for his family's benefit so that if anything happened to him they would not be economically destitute".
Belafonte's mentor was Paul Robeson, the great American singer who, according to Belafonte, was politically energised when he met a group of Welsh miners picketing in London in 1928. When Robeson was blacklisted and had his passport taken away by the American authorities, Belafonte paid for a transatlantic link for him to sing to the National Eisteddfod of the South Wales miners' union. According to Belafonte, Robeson's advice was "Get them to sing your song and they'll want to know who you are".
It was advice well taken. In 1956 Belafonte recorded Calypso, which became the first album to sell more than a million copies. Even today, who can't sing its trade-mark "Daay-oh"?
Fame led to television, which brought its own challenges. He did it on his terms, refusing to do shows which were uneasy about blacks and whites appearing together.
When Petula Clark touched his hand on her primetime show in 1968, the sponsors - Plymouth automobile company - wanted the shot cut. As he remembers: "That touch on the hand wasn't just a white hand on a black hand it was a white female hand on a black male hand and that touches the deepest sensibilities of racist thinking.
"So when Petula Clark in this innocent moment reached out and touched my hand, it was rather a very friendly thing. Nothing was overt or implied by that touch other than a moment of friendly joy".
Belafonte and Clark refused to cut the shot, which became a seminal moment in American television, indeed in American life.
He also jolted America when he had his own show, Tonight with Belafonte and chose to invite a string of guests with whom white America was not quite at ease, including Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr, both of whom offended hard-line white opinion.
Harry Belafonte at 80 still has a righteous, burning anger. After all, close friends of his have been killed for their beliefs. But has nothing changed, I asked him?
"A lot has changed. I can sit here in New York and talk with you, people of two different races, which when I was born there were laws that prohibited such associations.
"But if you talk about racism it's far from over. The evils of racism are as commanding as ever".
He dismisses the appointment of Condoleezza Rice and before her, Colin Powell, to positions of genuine power in George W Bush's administration. He has described them as "house slaves", and doesn't feel their presence has helped his cause in any way.
"He puts them there in the service of power. They are quite powerless - powerless - powerless," he says. "They are extensions of George W Bush, Condoleezza Rice is revered nowhere. She has influence over a nothingness." Does she not make even one millimetre of difference, I asked. "She makes a difference for the worse," Belafonte replied.
Harry Belafonte, despite the rhetoric, does not come over like an ideologue but as a man with righteous anger. He's open to argument. His mind remains alert and curious. Intelligence, curiosity and openness to argument shine out. He's up for disagreement and debate.
So, is he hopeful?
"I'm very optimistic. That is the only basis on which I can get up every day. If I were not, I'd have long since gone.
"I'd have either drunk myself to death or shot myself full of heroin or something to try to numb the pain that is so prevalent in so many places in the world.
"But I see promise. I see promise in the human family. I see promise in human beings. I see promise even in white folks," he says, emitting a loud, warm laugh to this particular white folk.
Stephen Evans interviewing Harry Belafonte at 80 can be heard as follows:
Radio 4: Archive Hour: Saturday 10 March 2000GMT
World Service: The Interview: Saturday 10 Mar 0730GMT, repeated Sunday 11 March 1130, 1630 & 2330GMT
Online: via programme links on right hand side of page above.
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