Meet—

Harry Belafonte

We had a chance to sit and talk with icon and activist, Harry Belafonte. He shared thoughts on his life's work and what he's learned along the way. "If you take a long enough time to listen, then you’ll find that I left you a story. I left you a message..."

Q
How do your art and your activism overlap?

A
Whenever I sang a song, I could find a lyric which had something to do with the way in which we live and exist. Day-o. Glad you love it, it’s a lovely little song. But you know what it is? It’s the song of my father. It’s a song of my uncle cause they were on plantations. They had to chop cane, and then they had to cut banana, and they had to load the ships for the United fruit company, which exploited the universe, and if you take a long enough time to listen to it, then you’ll find that I left you a story. I left you a message. Art is bigger than life. I really believe we are the gate keepers of truth. Dr. King gave me the instrument through which to find specificity for art and culture. He called me and said “My name is Dr. King, I’m coming to New York, and I’d like to meet with you. I told him well ‘I know who you are.’ I realize I was in the presence of someone who not only had a mission that was deeply attractive and provoking, but a place in which I could find reason to exist. With purpose.

Q
How did you get your start?

A
In looking for where to place my life, and what to do with it, I thought I could be part of the military during the second world war. It was the place for me. I'd never been thrown into such an environment with a large mass of white folk. Most of my life I’d only known people of color. It was a racist experience. In winning the war, the assumption was that the gates would open up in rewarding the black servicemen. We all were prepared to die on the same battlefield. But when I came back to America, there was no such generosity in white America. And that created a conflict and a rage and anger became a very big part of my youthful expression.

Q
You hosted the Tonight Show for a week in the 1960's. Why was that such a monumental event?

A
In 1968 when Johnny Carson extended the invitation for me to take over the Tonight Show, I said to Johnny Carson, I could do it, under certain circumstances and conditions. The network was really uptight. If it had not been for Johnny’s intervention—he had a power—and in the use of that power coupled with where I came from, it made for what I think to be, one of the best incidents in art and social issues. As contemporary voices, speaking to the greatest issues of the day politically, to be on The Tonight Show which usually entertains, gave him a whole new constituency. I had Dr. (Martin Luther) King on. I said to Dr. King, “Are you afraid of death?" He said no. Dr. King was assassinated only months after.

Q
How about today?

A
I don’t think we’ll ever straighten out the issue of race. White folks have a lot to understand and to learn. We have even more to understand and to learn, why have we permitted ourselves to accommodate this indecency? Why have we been not more disruptive than we are? This is now a continuum of history, finding new channels through which to express itself. And I’m glad, in my 90th year of life, [8:12] I could have lived long enough to see this happen. I kind of leave it feeling it’s gonna be okay.
How do we educate the generations to come? Have we left them something rich and noble? Or did we leave them with the same distortions? I don’t think we’ll ever straighten out the issue of race. White folks have a lot to understand and to learn. We have even more to understand and to learn, why have we permitted ourselves to accommodate this indecency? Why have we been not more disruptive than we are? This is now a continuum of history, finding new channels through which to express itself. And I’m glad, in my 90th year of life, I kind of leave it feeling it’s gonna be okay.