Harry Belafonte

Saturday, August 26, 2000

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Aug. 26, 2000, in Nashville, Tenn.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, joining you today from Nashville. We’re pleased to be joined today by a man who has had a remarkable career as a singer, actor, and producer, and has used his talents and fame to help build a better world: Harry Belafonte. Delighted to have you here.

Harry Belafonte: It’s nice to be here.

Paulson: This show is all about people who have used free expression to make a difference, and of course, that’s really been your entire career. Did you decide early on, as an artist, that you weren’t going to separate your art from your activism?

Belafonte: No, as a matter of fact, my earliest thoughts on activism had nothing to do with art. I had no idea I was going to become an artist. I became an activist because of poverty. Born in America, born in Harlem, born in a confined and oppressed circumstance, and watching all of those who are trapped in this abyss struggle against it, it became quite evident to me that the struggle would be going on from generation to generation, and that those of us who had witnessed this oppression had a responsibility to do all that we could to change it and to make a difference, and I was instructed in these thoughts and in these ways by my mother and people who made up my community. When I became an artist, it became quite clear to me that art — and I quote a very — my mentor, Paul Robeson — that “art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be,” and I saw in the world of art the opportunity to speak to issues that might help society grow and develop and become more understanding of itself.

Paulson: Do you think an artist has an obligation to do that?

Belafonte: Yes, I do. I think artists have a moral and a social and a personal responsibility, and they certainly have the right to do what they want or say what they want, but I do believe that height — the height of art — art in its highest form is art that serves and instructs society and human development.

Paulson: If the impulse to become an activist came earlier — early in your life — you didn’t have the impulse to become an artist, I understand, until after you’d left the military.

Belafonte: After I left the military and discovered theater, I, quite accidentally, went to a small theater in the Harlem community, and I saw in that performance, and in the people gathered around, that — that center, a sense of purpose. I was quite taken with the brightness, the energy, the creativity that went on, and I saw in art the opportunity to instruct and to use that platform to influence, and the better your art, the better your capacity to influence, so I seized on it.

Paulson: And you walked into a remarkable acting class early on. Can you tell about that a bit?

Belafonte: Well, actually, there were two such happenstances. The first was in the American Negro Theater itself in Harlem, and when I walked into that organization, there were people like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Sidney Poitier and others. However, the institution itself was not framed for higher instruction, and I had to go off to study theater in a deeper context. That took me to a school called the New School of Social Research and Drama Workshop, under the tutelage of a man from the Max Reinhardt Theater in Germany, who had fled fascism and became a sought-after instructor here in America. And when I signed up to participate in that institution, I — on my first day of attendance, my classmates were Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis, just to name a few.

Paulson: Tell me there were some people in that class who did not become stars of that stature.

Belafonte: None that I can remember. As a matter of fact, it’s quite a statement that so many of us should have turned out to become so highly profiled.

Paulson: Now, for a man who did not become an entertainer, or didn’t even have an interest in the arts, becoming a performer, until 1945, your career rise was pretty quick. By 1953, you’d won a Tony. A lot of people associate you, of course, with your recording career. In 1955, your calypso album, the first million-selling album, and that had to be an interesting time, because it was also the height of the Red Scare, people concerned about communists, and you were a man who felt the need to speak out. Was there a backlash against you?

Belafonte: Yes, there was a backlash against almost anyone who took up the cause of free speech, anyone who took up the cause of human rights, civil rights. America was in a — was not in a very generous mood at the end of the Second World War. The generosity that this country showed towards Europe in the Marshall Plan and rebuilding Europe, rebuilding the land of the enemy, was far more on display than any willingness it was to treat its citizens of color with a sense of fair play. Many of us who served in the Second World War had felt that the whole issue of democracy, the ending of totalitarianism, was, indeed, a lofty objective, and in the success of that — the execution of that war, we came back to America with expectations that the segregated laws would be turned on their — turned upside down, that America would be more embracing of the black soldiers who served in that war and served this country honorably. And America, as a matter of fact, was not in that mood. As a matter of fact, there was a strong resurgence of institutions, of segregation, and oppression, and to put us back in our place, to rid us of any lofty ideas we may have had about democracy in America as opposed to democracy elsewhere in the world. And those of us who had come from the war just felt that the deal was unacceptable, that we would continue to organize and to protest and to do what we could to change the way America was doing business with its citizens of color. For that commitment, we paid the price of McCarthyism and people who said anything that we did was tantamount to serving the communist ideology and that we were unpatriotic and that we were serving the cause of the enemy. And we did valiant battle. It was a price that many paid supremely. Friends of mine went into bankruptcy. They were never permitted to work. Some committed suicide. It was a dismal time in American post-Second World War history.

Paulson: This whole environment created a dilemma for someone like Ed Sullivan, who had a popular television show, knew you to be a popular entertainer, and wanted you on the show, but was reluctant because he had concerns about the backlash himself. What did Ed Sullivan do in reaching out to you to perform on the show?

Belafonte: Well, I’ve — my first Broadway show, called “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” I had won the Tony award, and as was the custom, whoever won the Tony award must — almost was mandated to appear on “Ed Sullivan” that following Sunday, and it was the centerpiece of his show to show the new Broadway show and who won the Tony. When my name was submitted as the person who had won it, it turned out — my agent called and said that I was not able to do it because CBS had said that I was on this blacklist, and I asked to see the blacklist, and none was forthcoming. I asked to speak to who was in charge in making the blacklist, and no person existed. However, there I was on this blacklist. And Ed Sullivan was quite upset at the idea that he was going to lose his centerpiece because of this list, and he called me into his office to ask me — he read a — he had before him a sheet of paper that had listed a number of things and causes to which I had been committed and was involved, and he wanted to know if, first of all, was this true? And I pointed out that not only was it true that I was involved with everything that was written on the list — and there were even some things on the list — that did not appear on the list, that made me know that they had done very sloppy homework — but that my involvement with these institutions went beyond any concern about me as an individual. It was about America. It was about the right to free speech. It was about the right to express my opinion and to pursue redress for grievances, and there were institutions that wanted to contain us from doing that, and if that was my guilt, then I was going to bear it honorably, and that, as much as I would have loved to have appeared before the people of America, I was not going to compromise myself on any of those issues, and that — I left understanding that I would not appear because of the blacklist. That meeting that I had with Ed Sullivan took place in the morning. That afternoon, my agent called and told me that whatever process they had to go through, they went through, and that I would, in fact, be appearing on “Ed Sullivan.” Which automatically, incidentally, cleared me of the blacklist.

Paulson: I’m sure one of the things on that list was your friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, and can you tell us about that day you met him in Harlem?

Belafonte: I met Dr. King in 1953. He had come to New York to speak to the clergy of the North in a church in Harlem called the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was — the head of the church was a congressman by the name, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Dr. King said he was coming to meet at that church to speak, and would I take a meeting with him afterwards to discuss the Montgomery, Alabama, campaign? And we met, and at the end of that meeting, I knew that I would be committed to him and to our cause.

Paulson: You’ve had a remarkable career, and you’ve made some remarkable friendships, and I was struck in reading about your life in the ’50s, that you found it difficult to find an apartment in New York City until a good friend stepped in. Can you talk about that?

Belafonte: I had sought to find living quarters in New York City, and I tried to find living quarters in Midtown Manhattan, and as I found a place that I thought was appropriate for me and my family, I was told that black people were not welcomed as tenants, and in my frustration and anger at this thought — at this intervention, I was having dinner with a friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, and at the dinner table, I happened to have mentioned this fact, and she became quite incensed, and she was, at the time, writing for a major New York City newspaper and used her column to comment on the fact that there was restricted covenants and segregation in housing in New York. And it exploded a bit and caused a lot of people to wake up and pay attention to the fact that segregation wasn’t just legally instituted in the South, that, although it was not legal in the North, it was carried on anyway by citizens in ways such as the ones that I had experienced.

Paulson: You know, you sometimes faced a backlash because of your politics, but sometimes, it was the art itself, something about American society, at the time, objected to some aspects of what you did. A couple of controversial moments — I wonder if we could recall “Island in the Sun,” a film starring you and Joan Fontaine, and the intimation of a romance — I don’t believe there was any kiss or any — certainly no intimate contact in today’s terms, and then, about 10 years later, a television show with Petula Clark. Could you talk a little bit about how people responded to both of those? I mean, it’s 10 years apart, a kind of a similar reaction, and yet, between the two, you’ve got tremendous progress in civil rights and awareness. What occurred?

Belafonte: In the script, “Island in the Sun,” there were four characters. Dorothy Dandridge and myself were two African-Americans, and there was Joan Fontaine and the young actor by the name of Justin. And Justin was white; Joan Fontaine was white. And the romantic interest in the film was between the two black characters and the two white characters. And in the script, it had been written that Joan Fontaine and I kissed, but before the film was made, that was taken out, not wanting to overtly confront sensibilities in this country, but the rest of the film stayed intact. Our love relationship was there by implication and by things that were said, although there was no touching, and there was no overt lovemaking. When the film came out, many in the South were most disturbed by the idea that the miscegenation was treated as a friendly thing and as something that was going to be the way of the future, and states in the South that had segregated laws and laws against miscegenation said that if the film came, they were not permitted to show it. And then the Ku Klux Klan, which was also incensed by the content of the film, had decided that any theater that would show the film in the South would be violated, that they’d be bombed or burnt down. Much to his credit, Darryl F. Zanuck, who was the head of 20th-Century Fox, and who personally handpicked making this film — he had done “Gentleman’s Agreement” some years before, which was hugely successful in America on the issue of anti-Semitism, and here was this film now dealing with the issues of race. And he said that not only would 20th-Century Fox indemnify any theater and pay for any cost that would be caused as a result of the film showing in the South, but that he would also bring legal suit on a federal basis against freedom of speech being oppressed by these laws in the South. Well, the South really did not want, at that time, to have a fight in the federal courts on the issue of free speech, so they did not do anything to evoke the law once the film showed in the South, and the few theaters that chose to show the film had such runaway success at the box office that other theaters picked up the theme, especially with Darryl F. Zanuck’s promise to pay for any damage that would be done by the Klan. So that, economically, the film did very well and encouraged 20th-Century Fox to seek even broader distribution for it. Some years later — this was even before the civil rights movement had become effectively demonstrated. After the civil rights movement had been effectively demonstrated in the 1970s, a young woman by the name of Petula Clark and I performed together on television, and it was a heralded show, because Petula Clark was at the height of her fame. I was in the height of my ascendancy at the time. We loved the work that each other had done and enjoyed performing together. And at the end of this particular song that we sang together, at the end of it, because we had successfully achieved what was a rather difficult technical approach to accomplish, she reached over, delighted at the success of the — that we had technically achieved our goals, and she put her hand on my hand. The account executive for the sponsor of the show saw the touch and said that he was violated by it. He did not want it to go forward, that it would upset Southern viewers, and that he wanted that shot struck from the — from the — he wanted it edited out. Petula Clark had the rights to her show, and they called her to tell her quietly what had happened, why this was not — why they were having difficulty, and she came, and then she told me what the problem was, and she wanted to know, how did I want to handle it? And I told her we were in a very peculiar place at that moment. Here we were, getting on television for the first time, seeking to have black images put in positive ways on television, and that, certainly, to raise a question at this time would not only frighten other people but, perhaps, even cause her — her show to be suspended and that I would defer to her. And she said, “I will go any way that you want to go, Harry.” And I said, “Well, I’d like to take ‘em on.” And she said, “Well, then let’s do that.” So we took it on, and the press carried a lot of stories on the subject. She survived. The show did very well. Her ratings went up, and she stayed on television for a very long time.

Paulson: You know, it’s easy to look back at the controversy over the film and say, you know, 45 years ago — the television show, 25 more years ago — and say, “ancient history.” How over that are we now as a nation?

Belafonte: I think that, although we have displayed a tremendous growth in broadening the ability to say and to do many things on television that we were prohibited from doing before, some of which is based upon the issues of free speech and First Amendment; others are just based upon issues of human decency, but both have the right to play themselves out. The great problem that I find in American popular culture — radio, television, and film — is that the truth about what exists in this country politically, the oppression that has been experienced by the black citizens of this country have never really been accurately or honorably told. There have been attempts at telling it. There have been little, fleeting moments of daring to tamper with the subject. There has not been an honorable display of willingness on the part of the institution of this country to let African-Americans have the capacity to tell our story in the dimensions that we deserve to have it told in, and to be able to impart truths about our experience that, I think, would change the way in which black America and white America looks at America. I think the inability to have honorable discourse, to have curriculum that speaks to the issue of slavery and racism, to have journalism that speaks fully to the issue, and to have it debated in honorable terms without censorship, I think, is still a place that we have to go, and I think that until we do that, until America is able to have a dialogue and a debate on what has happened to the black citizen of this country, we will forever be cursed with the — with the byproducts of racism and the absence of free discourse.

Paulson: I’m sure that many times over the years, you’ve been — you’ve tried to make the case for a project, and there’s a been a reaction that said, “Well, we’re not biased, but not marketable.” I know I’ve read interviews with you where “The Wiz” was cited. An all black cast; did very poorly. You took a risk in celebrating the hip-hop culture in 1984 with “Beat Street,” and it was a very positive kind of statement about street culture. That’s evolved in a different way today. And what is your perception of where hip-hop, and particularly rap, has gone since ’84?

Belafonte: In ’84 and the preceding years, I saw in the hip-hop culture a remarkable phenomenon. In the South Bronx in New York City, from whence this marvelous culture emerged, it was an attempt by the young people in that community to overcome violence, to change a code of life, to try to find self-esteem, and to find respect. And if one goes back into the earliest beginnings of this culture, you’ll look at the poetry that came from these young creators as really remarkable utterances, that was filled with wisdom, political insight, filled with humor, filled with drama, and has said remarkably positive things about life, about the people who made up the underclass of America and, certainly, made up that community, and it’s embraced by other people, was really quite remarkable. It wasn’t until the profiteers came into being and seized on this culture that it began to take negative dimensions, and then the negative dimensions became almost the front– the frontest image of that culture. I think that many in the hip-hop culture today who will tell you that it’s more dimensional than people have heard, and that there are many within that culture which–who are seeking to bring these other dimensions into play.

Paulson: All those years where you must have felt like you were running uphill, pushing uphill, are there moments where you said, “That’s an area of particular satisfaction, where we made a difference?”

Belafonte: I think everything that I’ve done has made a difference. There’s just no question in my mind about it. I would be somewhat reluctant to define the extent of that difference, but there’s no question that if I’ve impacted on one heart, one mind, one soul, and brought to that individual a greater truth than that individual came into a relationship with me having, then I would say that I have been successful. A mentor of mine, Paul Robeson, once said, “Harry, get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are, and once people want to know who you are, then you have an opportunity to bring them truths and ideas and thoughts that they may never have embraced before.” I believe very much in America. I believe very much in our Constitution. I believe very much in the remarkable design that was created by these men of enormous wisdom who put it together. It is the fulfillment of the mandates and that which have been handed to us, and it is the pursuit of finding democracy expressing itself at its highest that has always been central to my existence and to my thoughts and feelings. Is there much that is flawed about some aspects of — are there things that are flawed about aspects of our Democracy? No question about it. But democracy’s going to always be flawed as long as there are human beings involved in the process. It is seeking the highest in the human spirit, seeking the best in our moral code, in our ethics, in our — in who and what we are as beings that, I think, is the constant pursuit, and democracy that is not attended to is democracy that will be lost, so I think that as long as the word democracy exists, and people want it, it’s going to have to consistently be attended to, because there will always be those who would seek to deny it or to diminish it or to destroy it, and we just have to be very vigilant. Anti-democracy is an antibody — is a virus that exists, and pro-democracy is the antibody to that virus, and I think we have to become vigilant, and we have to stay on top of the issues of democracy and freedom.

Paulson: Very well said. Thank you for joining us, and thank you, above all, for your work.

Belafonte: Thank you very much.

Paulson: It’s been a pleasure and privilege to visit with Harry Belafonte. I’m Ken Paulson; back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and America. Hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”