By Jess Scanlon
At Rider, not all lessons are taught in the buildings of the academic quad. Tuesday night, members of the Rider community got a special lesson from singer, actor, humanitarian and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte.
As the keynote speaker for the 13th annual Unity Days celebration, Belafonte spent more than an hour illuminating a crowd in the BLC’s Cavalla Room through a mix of personal history, anecdotes, stories and humor.
The child of Caribbean immigrants, Belafonte was raised partially in the United States by his Jamaican mother and partially in the island nation by his grandmother. His mother was an important person in his life and influenced him immensely. She was an immigrant, a black woman and a single mother because his father was in the Navy. She raised her family in Harlem, N.Y.
“I watched her struggle,” Belafonte said. “In her struggle, I watched the magic of life unfold.”
After serving in the Navy in WWII, where Belafonte fought for “freedom and equality,” he worked as a janitor’s assistant. He discovered a passion for theater after being given tickets to the American Negro Theater by a grateful customer.
“What struck me first was the reverence,” he said. “Everybody was whispering and kind of talked in hushed tones, and I realized that there was something sacred about this place.”
After initially working as a crewmember, he was encouraged by his peers to try out for Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. It was through the theater that Belafonte met another actor who would become a father figure to him, Paul Robeson.
“Paul Robeson was this huge, black force,” he said. “A man of enormous intellectual power.”
Robeson would be one of the many influential people in Belafonte’s life.
Belafonte became more interested in theater and began his studies at the Dramatic Workshop at The New School in New York City under the direction of German director Erwin Piscator. His classmates there included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur and Sidney Poitier. He described his studies there as a time of intense study where he explored questions such as, “What is art?”
After class, Belafonte would get 25-cent beers at The Roost, a popular jazz club, where he saw performers like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. They would later play backup for him when he began to sing there. However, he never considered himself a singer. In an anecdote, he spoke of a conversation between himself and an unnamed woman.
“By no stretch am I anything but an actor,” he repeated for the audience. When his companion accused him of arrogance he told her, “I’ve convinced everyone I’m a singer.”
Despite his claim, his vocal talents are evidenced by his two Tony Award wins and multitude of fans, who were won over by his repertoire, which consisted of everything from “Pennies from Heaven” to plantation songs from the Caribbean, like Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).
“I woke up one day to the world singing ‘Day-O,’” he told those present. “There’s nothing like seeing 15,000 people singing it.”
Off-stage, Belafonte is known for his humanitarian and civil rights work. His interest in these areas introduced him to people such as Eleanor Roosevelt and W.E.B. Du Bois. He was a supporter and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., assisting him when he was placed on a chain gang as a punishment for a minor traffic violation in Georgia.
“We appealed to the candidates,” Belafonte said.
The two candidates in question were Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. While the former ignored them, Kennedy helped the civil rights leaders free King. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy, went to Georgia to aid their cause. The Kennedy campaign then enlisted Belafonte to help them to secure the African-American vote.
“Black people are a movement,” he told JFK.
Later, when JFK was president, Belafonte would become a cultural adviser to him. He was particularly happy with the Peace Corps, which he saw as a way for people to “take the sting out of prejudice” by experiencing the lives, habits and traditions of other people.
Belafonte’s social work ignored political boundaries. He was a supporter of Nelson Mandela, whom he described as a great moral force. Mandela had been arrested as a terrorist by the South African government. Once Mandela was released from prison, Belafonte would finally meet him in person when he visited the U.S.
Also, despite his advancing age — he is currently 83 years old — Belafonte claims that retirement did not fit him well. He continues his work as an activist today, illustrating this through an example from 2005, when a young African-American girl from Pensacola, Fla., was arrested by three police officers for being “unruly.”
He also explored the concept of student movements, which were influential during the civil rights movement.
“Youth were responsible for the last half of the 20th century,” Belafonte told the audience.
In an interview after his speech, Belafonte had some words of wisdom about the recent tragedy at Rutgers.
“I think it’s connected to a deeper problem, and that is this nation has lost moral purpose,” he said. “We have lost moral vision. If we don’t focus on getting that under control, I’m not too sure that we’re not going to have more Rutgers.”
Belafonte’s greatest impact, according to him, “was to understand that I could make a difference. That’s the first really full sense of liberation, to really know you can make a difference and believe that.”
Belafonte, who does humanitarian work in the prison system, had this to say about the partisan nature of politics today:
“Until you stop the machine, the machine will not stop and will just continue to run over you. And I don’t mean acts of violence. I mean just don’t let it be so easy for them to win.”