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Interview with Harry Belafonte

Harry singing

HBO

Where did the seeds of your activism spring from?

HARRY BELAFONTE

My activism came out of the social environment in which I was born. My father abandoned us fairly early. My mother was an immigrant woman seeking to participate in the American dream. She discovered that the ground rules for people of color were not the same as the ground rules for people who came from Europe. I grew up appreciating her resilience and courage. She felt our mission in life was to stand up to oppression wherever we saw it, and never surrender until we have done what we can to change it. So to a great extent that was my first inoculation, the first thing that got to me.

In the subsequent years of watching Hitler and the building of the Nazi war machine, watching what was happening to Jews on Kristallnacht, looking at what happened to Italy and Ethiopia and Haile Selassies plea before the League of Nationsall these events fascinated me. I later volunteered to be in the Second World War. When I entered the service, I was amazed at how diverse the black community was. It wasnt just my narrow experiences living in Harlem. Now if you were a person of color you were either a mess attendant or a munitions loader, which most people did not want to be because it was fearsome work, driven by racist officers, doing things that were extremely dangerous.

After the war, when people asked where did you fight? I said: we were on the fourth front. And the fourth front was the United States, primarily in the south. And in that context, we were fighting the war to end racism and white supremacy and Hitler, and to avenge what happened to the Jews. And it was difficult for us to come back from the war, having been victorious against all these oppressions, only to find out that we were subjected to the same oppressions from the very sources that fought the war. We had a choice to make. You either acquiesce and give into them and just be a broken human being, or you resist and say, no, were not going to accept it.

So whatever I can belong to that resists that kind of oppression, theyre going to be central to my life. A lot of people have asked me, when does an artist like you become an activist? And I have to say, turn it around. When does an activist decide to become an artist, is a better way to look at the journey of my life. Because it was activism that led me to art.

"What I think about is ... what will I have left behind that has contributed towards instructing the generations that have come after me, and are still before me, that will help them."

HBO

You produced your own independent films at a time in Hollywood when it was unheard of for a black artist to do so.

HARRY BELAFONTE

When Hollywood knocked, we did get an edge on doing things a little differently. But it was so paternalistic and patronizing that, although it pretended to have liberal dynamics, it was merely a codification. Many of us were deeply frustrated that we were not getting out there to make the right noise, to have the right parts, to have the opportunity to reveal our human experience in a deeper way. Whats the point in playing a one-dimensional black character? I am multi-dimensional. Hollywood wouldnt allow it. You couldnt be a romantic lead because to show love and humanity and to embrace and to care reveals too much about the fact that youre quite different from what we say you are. Youre a rapist, youre preoccupied with your sexuality, with drugsso we were always held to those narrow considerations. And so I said, why don't you just take the reigns in your teeth? Put up your own resources. Gather your own friends, gather your own people and take a shot. When we started to do that, Hollywood began to yield to us more. And all of a sudden in this capacity of independent filmmaker, I overcame a lot of barriers.

HBO

At the same time you ended up being blacklisted in the 50s. Do you see any parallels between the McCarthy era and our political climate today?

HARRY BELAFONTE

I not only see America headed in the direction of great similarities to the McCarthy period and what went on in America during those crucifying days, but I see America headed to places that can go well beyond. Today, we have something that is most horrific, written under the banner of homeland security. And the extremes of those laws allow any citizen to be whisked away without anyones knowledge, without charging the individual, and holding them for an indefinite period of time. The individual can disappear and no one ever knows what happened to them. That is a nightmare. That is the basis of a totalitarian state. Do I have faith and believe that well get out of it? Yes. But its very hard to coalesce the forces that are gonna make the difference. Because the very force that can make a difference against us becoming a totalitarian state are the same forces that are so divided.

HBO

As you look at your life, what is most important to you?

HARRY BELAFONTE

I guess what I really think about is, at the time of my death, what will I have left behind that has contributed towards instructing the generations that have come after me, and are still before me, that will help them. When I made the decision to invest in the art form that Ive embarked upon, I quickly found out that my capacity to endure did not reside with the banks, did not reside with the entities that controlled media, did not reside with those who controlled whether your songs heard or not. What became terribly important for me was to make sure I maintained a relationship that would directly involve me with my public. So my investment was to stand on a stage where people could listen to me. That was where they heard me at my best. If youve never seen me perform, live, then youve never really seen me. My records do certain things, but thats not the best example of who I am. The real personification of who I am was through the experience of the theatre. I said things people never heard before. And I always made sure that by the end of a show, everybody was singing. Everybody was engaged in it. I worked for human rights, I worked against capital punishment, I worked for people who were crushed and disenfranchised. I sang the song of the Jew, I sang the song of the Arab; I sang the song of the Japanese. I made sure I sang all those songs when I went to these countries. And through this we attested to our civility, to our humanity.

Harry with Obama

HBO

Can technology help us toward becoming better human beings?

HARRY BELAFONTE

It seems clear that so much of it is about programming you to go out and buy. Buy. Buy. Buy. Its a hedonist concept. But when you see somebody holding up technology to frame a moment of injustice, and that causes hundreds of thousands of people to hit the street and say yo, wait a minute, now to what extent will that imagery displace buy buy buy, guns guns guns? And become some other form? Become some other kind of contribution? Become some other kind of conscience? Therein I think lies the great mystery of what will happen.

My wife asked me the other night, if you had this all to do over again, and you werent a singer, what would you do? I said, in an instant, Id be an astrologist. Id be in space. Because I know very little about the life I live in, and exist in. I need to know beyond. What is out there? Whats our salvation? Just the thought of it gives me the chills.

Sing Your Song