On the anniversary of the March on Washington, we revisit an interview with the musician and civil rights activist about his anthology of Black music.
Harry Belafonte, singer, recording artist, actor, and producer, has been called “the consummate entertainer.” His album Calypso was the first LP in the history of the music industry to sell more than 1 million copies, and he’s won an Emmy Award and a Tony Award. But his successes as an artist have never eclipsed his passion for justice and civil rights. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. He is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and was one of the co-hosts of the 1990 World Summit for Children. He also hosted South African President Nelson Mandela during his U.S. visit. Throughout his life, Belafonte has been a tireless advocate of justice and human rights.
Harry’s most recent musical contribution is The Long Road to Freedom, containing 80 tracks on five CDs, including the blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the voices of Belafonte, Joe Williams, Gloria Lynne, and Bessie Jones and singers from the Georgia Sea Islands. The set, which also contains a DVD and a book illustrated by the renowned American painter Charles White, is a musical narrative of the history of African Americans.
YES! executive editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder interviewed Harry Belafonte shortly after the release of The Long Road to Freedom:
Sarah Ruth van Gelder: I’m enjoying The Long Road to Freedom very much. Could you tell us the story of how this extraordinary collection came about?
Harry Belafonte: In the last half of the 1950s when the new stirrings of the civil rights movement were coming into evidence, many of us had to examine what we thought we could contribute to this coming struggle.
I realized that most White Americans knew very little about our history and our struggle, and were having difficulty understanding the basis for our agitation and our resistance and our complaints. I also discovered that while Black Americans had a sense of the beauty and tragedy of the journey from the time of slavery until now, we were not rooted in the specifics. I thought one way to familiarize people with that history would be through the voices of the great folk artists.
The more I researched and listened to this music, the more I began to understand that it is one of the very few accurate documentations of the history of our journey. I delighted in the music of Africa, the earliest of the slave plantation songs, the transformation into Christianity and all that Christianity brought to the lives of the Africans who were forced to come here. In this process, we also examined the tragic role the church played in the development of slavery and its role in helping develop tools for the resistance to slavery and ultimately its abolition.
Although some of the material is familiar, few people understand the subtext of a lot of these songs and what the lyrics really say. On the face of it, some of the words appear to be spiritually pure, when in fact much of it is really the language of rebellion, the language of resistance, language calling on the courage to overcome the oppression of slavery and racism.
“My environment as a child prepared me to reflect on what it must have been like for slaves.”
Sarah: I understand that you grew up in an urban setting, so rural black America was a new discovery.
Harry: Yes, as far as America is concerned, but I grew up in a very rural environment on the island of Jamaica, and had a sense of the experience of slaves through slave descendents who were members of my family, who worked on the banana and the sugarcane plantations of the absentee landlords from England. So my environment as a child prepared me to reflect on what it must have been like for slaves and the slave descendents to work the plantations of America.
Sarah: Who are some of the people you encountered and what was most meaningful about this discovery for you personally?
Harry: Leadbelly, Bessie Jones, Joe Williams and Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee were but a few of the easily identifiable personalities.
When I listen to many of the voices that sang these songs, the soulfulness with which they expressed themselves dimensionalizes for me the sense of how broad my own repertoire of songs could be. As much as I understood about the music of the Caribbean—which some people view as exclusively my artistic voice—it is the folk music of the African diaspora, which includes America and the Caribbean and Brazil and all the nations of Africa, that enriches my own work.
The purity of purpose and the kind of passion Miriam Makeba and the great Calypsonian singers and the other artists I mentioned brought to their work is very, very different from the ways artists express themselves in pop culture. Pop culture has none of the vibrancy that you find in the folk culture, where people speak directly to their own experience in the human condition. Pop culture tends to be escapist and to focus on the boy/girl, moon/June, the great influence of Tin Pan Alley. We had to go outside of that arena into places that were not so accessible to find blues artists and chain gang songs and other expressions that spoke to the suffering and the conditions of Black people.
Also very central to my own development was Woody Guthrie and the folk art of White America, and the kind of alliances that were made between Black and White people who were caught up in the working class struggle of this country, and indeed the world.
Sarah: What have these African American traditions taught the larger American society?
Harry: I think there’s a lot that the larger society could have been taught or can be taught, but I’m not sure—given how unyielding the larger society has been—that much has been learned.
Each time we arrive at a new level in extricating ourselves from economic, social, spiritual domination, we have a moment when we dance in the world of these new experiences, only to find that the music soon stops, the dance ends, and we’re struggling once again to save ourselves from being thrown back into those conditions.
I don’t know what America has really learned. We are too quick to do what’s expedient on behalf of our culture of greed and hedonism. We’re quite prepared to go to conditions of tyranny to sustain that culture, and we do it in the name of democracy, when nothing could be more undemocratic. We do it in the name of saving the values of our society, when the way we behave corrupts those values. We do it in the name of God in whom we believe, when in fact we have corrupted our own vision of the Christian journey.
A lot of this paradox expresses itself in The Long Road to Freedom. At the very beginning of the album you hear a sermon given by a White preacher to the slaves on the plantation. He twists the teachings of the Bible to preach subservience to the slave masters. Then, bookending the collection, the philosophy of Christianity appears again, but this time used in a more enlightened, compassionate way that leads towards human freedom, as expressed by Dr. King. It’s important symbolically that the first voice you hear is a White preacher and the last voice is a Black voice, Dr. King.
“There will never be peace until their condition has been alleviated and until their humanity is in full bloom.”
Sarah: You quote Paul Robeson, who said that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but also to show life as it should be. What does this collection tell us about life as it should be?
Harry: That the human spirit is resilient and that truth—no matter how long you abuse it and how long you try to crush it—will, as Dr. King would say, rise up again, and in the final analysis will prevail. From the point of view of the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the wretched of the Earth … there will never be peace until their condition has been alleviated and until their humanity is in full bloom.
Sarah: You survived a period in our history where there was a great suppression of dissident voices and, if I’m not mistaken, you were one of the people whose voice was silenced during that period.
Harry: Yes, I was on the black list under McCarthyism.
Sarah: What were you saying that caused you to be on that list, and how did you come to be politically active?
Harry: Well, things not on that list should have been included.
In my earliest of years, my mother was a huge force in my life. She was for all intents and purposes, a single parent. My father had abandoned us. He was an alcoholic and a physical abuser. My mother lived through that tyranny and made her living as a domestic worker. She was uneducated but she brought high principles and decent values into our existence, and she set lofty goals for herself and for her children. We were forever inspired by her strength and by her resistance to racism and to fascism. She was very vocal on the issues of the 1930s, in particular on Hitler and those in America who embraced Hitler’s philosophy. And she embraced Marcus Garvey and the struggles against oppression of Africans.
We were instructed to never capitulate, to never yield, to always resist oppression. That always stayed with me, so much so that during World War II, I volunteered and served in the United States Navy. The Navy came as a place of relief for me. It gave me the chance to learn to read and write and to get off the streets of Harlem and the kind of degradation that surrounded me as I grew up. But I was also driven by the belief that Hitler had to be defeated. Although we had a lot of villainy here at home, he was certainly the most visible illustration of what would happen if fascism went unchallenged.
I became an anti-fascist, and the more I saw what was happening to the peoples of Europe, the Jews, the more I saw the deep cruelty and inhumanity of that system and its philosophy of White supremacy.
My commitment sustained itself after the war. Wherever I found resistance to oppression, whether in Africa, in Latin America, certainly here in America in the South, I joined that resistance. I took part in the labor movement, in social movements, in the church community. I felt that it was the honorable thing to do and still do.
Of course when you get into that work, you’ll forever come up against those who find you unacceptable and will do whatever they can to get you out of the way. McCarthyism was an attempt to do that. And I think we’re headed that way now, with the very divisive and cynical way in which leaders of our present government are manipulating the democratic process and the constitutional system to deny us our basic rights, and to extract more control and power for those already in power and who are already corrupted by that power.
“It is extremely critical that oppression be met full head-on and that it be resisted with every fiber in our being.”
Sarah: Having survived McCarthyism, do you have any advice on how to survive this period of political repression we seem to be entering and to keep the movements for positive change alive?
Harry: Do not submit. It is extremely critical that oppression be met full head-on and that it be resisted with every fiber in our being. Absolutely no compromise can be made with it. As a matter of fact, compromise is what oppression feeds on.
Without compromise it would be defeated. Just as some cancers feed on hormones, compromise becomes the hormone of oppression.
Sarah: Clearly we’ve encountered a lot of dangers since the 9/11 tragedy—fears about terrorism, attacks on civil liberties, the threat of widening war. Do you also see opportunities coming out of this tragedy for greater reflection about what this country is about and what this country could be about?
Harry: Not since the early days of the civil rights movement has America been given an opportunity as great as the opportunity we have now. It’s one thing for us to avenge our pain, our anger, and our rage by targeting bin Laden and a handful of men who have wrought this villainy. But one should be wise enough to ask, What fueled all this? What continues to sustain the possibility that this will not go away? I think the answer is poverty.
Dr. King once said that when we reach this kind of crisis, this kind of terror experience, that we should stop long enough to look at ourselves through the eyes of our detractors and find what wisdom we can glean from understanding how we have directly contributed to that tyranny. What have we done to humanity that brings us to this place of inhumanity? Terrorism is in many, many ways the final utterance of voices unheard.
We have the opportunity now to look at the 2 billion people in the world who suffer from the most abject poverty, hunger, disease, and devastation. Add to that another 2 billion people who are just plain poor. If you look into the world of those caught in economic oppression, illiteracy, disease, and sexism, then you’ll understand more clearly what we have to do.
The problem has always knocked at the door; we’ve just never been attentive. And I think now, with our technology, our capacity to grow food, our ability to stop raping the Earth and destroying the ecology and killing off fellow creatures, we have a chance to bring a new harmony and a new path to human development.
America can no longer afford to be as arrogant as we’ve been. We can no longer exempt ourselves from the global family of concern. We can no longer exempt ourselves from conferences on racism like the conference in Durban that we walked out on, or concerns about trade, or global warming.
So this is a great opportunity to take a good, hard look at these things. Because now we’re more vulnerable than we’ve ever been. The only thing that can put that to rest forever is to abolish poverty. To eradicate preventable diseases. First and foremost to get rid of ignorance.
Sarah: One last question. What keeps you energized and active in this work?
Harry: Even with all the difficulties and the frustrations that we feel—those of us who have been consistent in this journey—what makes it so remarkably attractive and encouraging are the men and women you meet on the way. I have met some glorious human beings: Eleanor Roosevelt, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Dr. King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara, and Cesar Chavez and others not quite so famous—they are the ones who really make the journey rewarding. The work I do with UNICEF. The men and women I’ve met in Rwanda, South Africa, working against HIV/AIDS, and the courageous things that simple, wonderful human beings do for each other.
In the face of all the inhumanity, their humanity feeds the capacity to endure and continue to pursue honorable solutions to our pain.