A report by Brian Cook for the Pittsburgh Courier.
Harry Belafonte, a man who has lived in the public eye fighting for the rights of African Americans and other vulnerable populations, touched on a myriad of topics when speaking to a crowd at Carnegie Music Hall, Oct. 20.
Belafonte was introduced by Janis Burley Wilson, president and CEO of the August Wilson Center, and his appearance, sponsored by the Carnegie Museum of Art, continues the museum’s series of looking at inequality and justice in America.
Shortly after he was escorted to the stage, the freedom fighter, singer and actor said this conversation in Pittsburgh would be his “last public appearance.”
Belafonte, 90, though recently surviving a stroke, remains a vibrant and captivating storyteller. His nearly two-hour conversation walked the audience through much of his early life’s journey and rise to the world’s stage.
Belafonte was born in Harlem, N.Y., but his immigrant mother moved the family back home to Jamaica to escape the grind of urban life. When he was growing up, Belafonte said his mother was the most influential person in his life, challenging him to confront social issues and live with dignity.
“She said to me, in this wonderful Jamaican accent, ‘In your journey through life, you’ll never come upon an injustice, where you did not pause to fix it,’” Belafonte said. “A rather daunting request for a 7-year-old,” he added, drawing laughter and applause.
But Belafonte, a friend and discipline of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he met in the 1950s, and an artist active in the Civil Rights Movement, did not shy away from political commentary.
“The country made a mistake,” he told the crowd, referencing the election of Donald Trump as president. “I think the next mistake might very well be the gas chamber and what happened to Jews (under) Hitler is not too far from our door,” he said.
For the most part, though, Belafonte talked about his incredible life and work as a performer.
Belafonte returned to Harlem for high school and took a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy. By this time, he had converted to Catholicism, but seeing the pope bless Italian troops before they set off to war in an attempt gain control of Ethiopia gave him his first impression of racism and made him question the role of organized religion and its power to corrupt.
After his military duty, Belafonte returned to New York City where he worked as a janitor’s assistant. A friend, the actress Ruby Dee, gave him a ticket to a production at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. It was his first visit to a theater and it changed his life.
Because of theater, he soon joined the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research with classmates like Marlon Brando, Bea Arthur, and Tony Curtis and became lifelong friends with Ossie Davis and Sidney Poitier.
Belafonte spoke of how his work in theater led to his successful music career. He came to see music and singing as an opportunity to tell stories of racial and class oppression and encourage the fight against injustice.
He told the audience that his folk music, each a little story, came with the ability to impact upon human feelings, to inspire and instruct in the battle against the tyranny of war, poverty, anti-semitism and hatred.
He was the first Black performer to win an Emmy Award and the first recording artist to sell more than a million copies of a single album with Calypso (1956) featuring his hit “Day-O.” The “Banana Boat” song told of the hard life he saw among his family and other workers in the Caribbean banana and sugarcane fields.
He said he came to understand that there was power in speaking to people in their own language. He learned to sing and recorded titles in French, Zulu, Patois, Spanish, and Khosa.
He said his music reached the world’s people and their support enabled him to survive the injustice and blacklisting in the United States that he encountered during the years when Senator Joe McCarthy spread anti-communist repression.
“I made sure,” he said, “that I did not have an association with an industry that could use its power over my voice.”
Belafonte’s music opened the door for him to meet Paul Robeson, the actor and activist who introduced him to Eleanor Roosevelt. He called the First Lady “remarkable,” and traveled with her in the 1950s, meeting African leaders and being influenced by their emerging independence movements.
All of these experiences rooted in Belafonte a consciousness that the fight for justice was global. It was a cause he battled in both his music and personal life. Belafonte served as the cultural advisor for the Peace Corps, as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and was honored as an Ambassador of Conscience by Amnesty International. In 1985, disturbed by war, drought, and famine in Africa, Belafonte helped organize the Grammy-winning song “We Are the World,” a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa. Belafonte was active in efforts to end apartheid in South Africa and to release Nelson Mandela. Recently, Belafonte founded the Sankofa Justice & Equity Fund, a social justice nonprofit that uses the power of culture and celebrity in partnership with activism.
Event attendee Joseph L. Lewis, III, general manager of the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre and media specialist, “thought it was a blessing for the Pittsburgh audience to hear and experience the life of an African American icon. Especially being that it is his ‘last public appearance.’” Lewis said. “It is rare to have a griot speak to you and is exhilarating to find somebody who is a living witness of the 20th century.”
In 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him an Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, for his decades-long fight against injustice.
The work against oppression has left Belafonte confident that his generation has laid a framework for justice that others can build upon.
“We have achieved a lot in my lifetime,” he said. “Dr. King was not about nothing, Eleanor Roosevelt was not about nothing. I think in the final analysis that we shall overcome, because what we did is…we left a harvest that generations to come (will) reap. That they have not yet plowed. That they have not yet harvested.”