The Harry Belafonte Speech That Changed My Life
In the summer of 2013, I participated in a daylong series of talks at the Ford Foundation in Midtown Manhattan. The event, The Road Ahead for Civil Rights: Courting Change, was meant to mark the semicentennial of the civil rights movement.
My panel was in the morning, but I stayed for the lunch session because Harry Belafonte was participating in it, along with the activist Dolores Huerta. I met Belafonte once before, and I was in awe of him. I didn’t know the Belafonte my parents knew, the young, handsome calypso singer. I knew him as an elder statesman for Black America, one whose now gravelly voice seemed to only deepen his solemnity.
Belafonte, who was 86 at the time, did not disappoint. His words that day would change my life. Dressed in a natty cream suit, he was so eloquent and erudite — even poetic at times — that I craned my neck to see if he was reading from a prepared text. But there were no notes that I could see; we were witnessing the brilliance of Belafonte in real time. His words burned with a fire that spared none.
Sitting in the dining room of the Ford Foundation — one of the largest foundations in the world, a citadel of philanthropy — Belafonte said, “I think that philanthropy is a big part of the problem” because it fails to fund the real change makers. As he put it, he hadn’t been sure that he would go to the event that day because he was tired of begging philanthropies for money, only to have them send back proposals to be adjusted for new criteria, the people in boardrooms “telling the street how to shape language so we can appeal to you for your meager generosity.”
He condemned Black leaders who he believed had been seduced and silenced by the allure of self-import, saying, “The more they threw money at our leaders, the more they gave them electoral power, the more they gave them Black caucuses and progressive caucuses and they could sit in these tiny rooms and dance to their own melody, they completely lost sight of what was going on down below in the communities.”
As Belafonte said, “We’ve become a shadow of need rather than a vision of power.”
He chastised Black leaders for the cessation of pressure on the political establishment after the initial successes of the civil rights movement, saying: “We surrendered to greed. We surrendered to our hedonist joys. We destroyed the civil rights movement. Looking at the great harvest of achievements we had, all the young men and women of our communities ran off to the feast of Wall Street and big business and opportunity. And in that distraction, they left the field fallow.”
He even took time to comment on hip-hop. He liked its street herald beginning but believed that it had become corrupted by corporate greed. “Wall Street heard the jingle, then the merchants stepped in and began to adorn this culture with all the distractions that ultimately took the culture over,” he said.
His assessment of President Barack Obama, then in his second term, was harsh and unyielding. He said that Obama had been “a cause for hope, a cause for opportunity and possibilities, and we, I think, endowed that moment with more than the moment was willing to yield.”
He said he didn’t believe that the president saw “his governance in the way that we would like him to see it.” Belafonte continued, “I think the one essential ingredient missing in Mr. Obama’s machine of thought is that he has suffocated radical thinking.”
Here, I diverged. It wasn’t that Obama himself had smothered or suppressed radical thinking but rather that his presence, for society at large, had sucked much of the air out of the room when it came to the discussion of racial issues. That dynamic began to change in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman and after Zimmerman was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges just days before Belafonte spoke. That acquittal and the Black Lives Matter movement that it produced would change Obama and his presidency, including being the genesis for one of Obama’s enduring legacies: the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
But the point about the dampening of radical thought was woven throughout Belafonte’s talk, and it was the part I remembered most. “Where are the radical thinkers?” he demanded.
He explained that at that stage in his life, he spent most of his time “encouraging young people to be more rebellious, to be more angry, to be more aggressive in making those who are comfortable with our oppression uncomfortable.”
It was a warm July day, so after that session, I decided to walk back to The Times’s offices, and as I did, Belafonte’s question kept repeating in my head. The reality seized me that I had been playing much too small as a writer, covering and commenting on society and its systems rather than truly challenging them. I was at peril of being serenaded to sleep by professional vanities. I was squandering an opportunity and a responsibility.
Belafonte’s question lived with me henceforth and changed what I wrote and how I wrote it, and a few years ago, it spurred me to write my most recent book, “The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto.” It was the thesis of that book, reversing the Great Migration to consolidate Black power in a few Southern states, that prompted my own move to Atlanta.
I’ve written several columns that mentioned Belafonte, and he invariably called me afterward. I wrote an appreciation of the remarkable lives of him and his best friend, Sidney Poitier, around their 90th birthdays. (They were born a week apart.) A portion of my book that was excerpted in The Times included Belafonte’s inspiration. And I wrote a column last year on Poitier’s death.
Each time, Belafonte expressed his thanks. As I write this, I only hope that I was clear to him in response that I was the one who was thankful. That he had helped me clarify my thinking and my mission at a time when I was at risk of treating them as trifles.