A great Calypso musician and civil rights icon

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  • Tribute to Harry Belafonte (1927-2023)

In Harry Belafonte’s memoir, My Song, he wrote: “All of us see the world as it exists; fewer envision what it might look like if made to change; and fewer still try to put together the people and ideas that make change happen.” He noted, “Paul Robeson was one; Martin Luther King, Jr., was one; Bobby Kennedy became one. And, of course, Nelson Mandela. I had just enough vision to see that they were visionaries, and to do what I could to help.”

The help that was needed then, and still today, was the unending commitment in the struggle to defuse racial injustice. For one, the proponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT) argue that unless systematic racism is deconstructed and removed, the United States, for example, would never wean itself off the devilish roots of racism.

But will that ever happen considering how others benefit through the privileges from the inequities?

Even a respected liberal philosopher, George Santayana, was to argue that slavery was a “necessity, a kindly apprenticeship to instill into the simple negro a love of labor and of civilized arts [until] they could become well-rooted, so domestic servitude might be justified provisionally, until the slaves were ripe for freedom”.

Such absolute nonsense has to be overcome for racial freedom to prevail.

Civil rights activism

White European superiority is built on the premise of black inferiority and that belief was convenient and deeply entrenched  into the American Christian identity. This led their Christian pastors and congregants to view slavery as “God’s will” – in the biblical scriptures – for slaves to trust and obey the masters.

In his own life, Mr Belafonte realized that he was only acceptable to the white community so long as he restricted himself to Banana Boat songs; Day O; Coconut Woman; Jamaica Farewell; and other Calypso music to entertain. But when he fought against racial injustices, he began to lose some white friends.

Although there’s always been resistance from the very beginning when the first ships carrying enslaved Africans landed in Liverpool, the West Indies, and the American south – it was not until the likes of Rev Martin Luther king, Jr.; Malcolm X; John Lewis; Nina Simone; Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael); Bill Russell, Mohammed Ali, Sam Cooke, and others entered the scene that the civil rights movement in the US saw the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Mr Belafonte was in the mix with financial support and staging shows to raise more money for the cause. Often his own life was in danger including brushes with the J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI branding the activists as communists.

A generous heart

By the early 1960s, Mr Belafonte had chosen to make civil rights his priority. At the peak of his fame, he risked his career by producing a benefit concert for the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that helped make Rev Martin Luther King Jr a national figure.

Billed to perform in 1967 – with Aretha Franklin during Rev King Jr’s last visit to Houston – they were besieged by Ku Klux Klansmen distributing hate tracts outside the stadium and planting stink bombs inside the arena. That sent many in the crowd to the exits, but Rev King Jr continued his address despite the dangers.

When Rev King Jr was assassinated in 1968, Mr Belafonte helped pick out the suit he was buried in, sat next to his widow, Mrs Coretta King, at the funeral, and continued to support that family, in part through an insurance policy he had taken out on Rev King in his lifetime.

In her autobiography, Mrs King said, “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open,” she said.

On meeting Mr Belafonte

I met Mr Belafonte in 1983 when I served as the president of the Ghana Association in South California. The Ghana troupe, “Odomankoma Kyerema”, had come to Los Angeles to perform, and we invited him as a special guest. Not only did he come, he arrived with his wife to join us celebrate Ghanaian culture.

Before coming to L.A., the troupe – aged from 9 to 18 – had represented Ghana at the 21st Festival of the Child in Yugoslavia. In Italy, they performed in Milan, Varedo, and Rome.

They were now with us after gigs in Washington, Seattle, Chicago, New Jersey, and Atlanta. Dressed in colorful uniforms they excited a standing room audience at the Georgia State University where they illustrated the heritage of nine of Ghana’s regions.

In New York, they participated in the Marcus Garvey Day, the Harlem Week, and the 13th African American Day Parade. At the prisons on Rikers Island, the children were reported to have turned the complex into a frenzied West African disco.

Now in L.A., we were grateful to have Mr Belafonte join the community to celebrate Ghanaian culture.

Humble to a fault

The second time I met Mr Belafonte was in the Century City Plaza Building (Los Angeles) famous for law offices. He had disguised himself with a dark coat, a large hat, and a muffler wound around his neck. But I recognised his gait and graceful stature. So – to not blow his cover – I whispered, “Here, Harry …” He turned his head and actually approached me to engage in a conversation. He was in a hurry, but he stopped to relate.

Though famous and most accomplished, he was down to earth. He’s been a mentor, a role model in humility, ever since I met him in my youth.

That was all way back in the 1980s, but as Maya Angelou put it, “People would never forget how you made them feel.’’ I feel his caring spirit to this day.

Email: anishaffar@gmail.com

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