Mr. B’s Great Adventure and the Power of Yes

Harry Belafonte, in the 2011 documentary film 'Sing Your Song'. (Graphic: Brian Covert)

It is an autumn day in October 2002, and I strain to hear the radio in the county bus above the roar of the engine and the chatter of the other passengers, including my young son sitting next to me. As the bus winds its way through downtown Eureka — the grayest city in all of California, I’m convinced — I catch audio snippets of a news report by the radio announcer relating to the United States government and its year-old “war on terrorism”.

Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, it is reported through the static of the bus radio speakers, has just created a storm of controversy by criticizing Colin Powell, the secretary of state in the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush. In an interview with a radio station in San Diego, located on the opposite end of California from where I was living at the time, Belafonte had blasted Powell, a fellow Jamaican American, for kowtowing to the wishes of his white boss, Bush, instead of standing up on principle and condemning the dangerous direction the Bush administration was leading the USA post-911.

“[Powell] serves his master well,” Belafonte had said in the radio interview, using the American “house Negro/field Negro” analogy to drive the point home. “There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don't hear much from those who live in the pasture.”

Belafonte then brought the other prominent Black figure in the Bush administration into the conversation as well: “I’d like to see both [Powell] and [national security advisor] Condoleeza Rice show some moral backbone, show some courage, show some commitment to principles that are far higher than those being espoused by their boss.”

The proverbial shit had hit the fan, and Belafonte was now getting scolded by prominent figures, Black and white Americans alike — especially in the news media — who were calling on Belafonte to apologize. He was standing his ground and refusing to do so. It was all I could do to keep from letting out a loud cheer in that noisy, crowded bus that autumn day when I heard that news of Belafonte’s moral conviction to speak his mind and his willingness to stand on the side of the people. Belafonte was absolutely right, and he certainly had nothing for which to apologize.

Standing up for the common people and speaking truth to power in tumultuous times will be the longest-lasting part of Belafonte’s legacy, following his death on 25 April at age 96 in New York City. Singer, actor of stage and screen, media company owner, political and humanitarian activist — Belafonte wore all those hats in his long, rich lifetime. He had always impressed upon people this point: that he had been a concerned social activist first and an artist second, rather than the other way around. He lent the power of his position as an entertainment icon to the voiceless ones who needed it, whether in America or Africa or anywhere else in the world.

Like many of us, Belafonte had been opposed to the violent reaction of the U.S. government under Bush to the horrific events of 11 September 2001 and the Bush regime’s threatening noises about invading the Middle East nation of Iraq as the next target in the so-called “war on terrorism”.

Belafonte’s own fires of inspiration had been sparked at a young age by none other than Paul Robeson, the singer, actor and social activist. In the 1940s and 1950s, Robeson withstood persecution by the U.S. government and even had his passport revoked for speaking out overseas on American racism and U.S. foreign policy. “[Robeson] told us we were embarking on a great adventure,” Belafonte often recalled of the man he considered his mentor. “He said as [Black] artists we were the gatekeepers of the truth.”

Robeson gave Belafonte a valuable piece of advice to guide the young singer’s career in show business: persuade people through music to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are as a person. “I woke up one morning and the whole world was singing ‘Day-O’ [The Banana Boat Song],” Belafonte would say. “You have not seen anything until you see 50,000 Japanese people sing Day-O.” The great adventure of Belafonte’s life as a public persona in the arts and social activism over the ensuing decades became, in many ways, the adventure of us all too.

And central to Belafonte’s great adventure was not only proving the maxim of “Yes, I can” over and over again through his work and through the many social and humanitarian causes to which he lent his moral and monetary support, but more importantly: Yes, I will. The power to stand up, be counted, be concerned, be informed and be involved, whatever the risks may entail, is the power of spirit that can change the world. And indeed, Harry Belafonte — Mr. B, as younger generations of followers would affectionately dub him — held up his own life as proof of that inner power of commitment to make a positive difference in the world.

South Africa and its system of modern-day slavery known as apartheid was one area where I found myself standing on the same side of the fight as Belafonte. He had been in the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement worldwide for decades, and I joined those ranks only in the 1980s after relocating to Japan to live and work permanently. I found my voice and a higher purpose for my work as a writer in Japan; I would use the power of the printed word as well as public speeches to make my humble contribution to the cause of bringing down the walls of apartheid, both in South Africa and in my native country of the USA. Belafonte was a definite inspiration for me in that regard.

And Belafonte’s lambasting of Colin Powell back in 2002, as I heard about on the bus that day in California? Powell showed his true colors scarcely more than four months after that media controversy with Belafonte, when he, Powell, lied to the United Nations, the people of the United States and indeed the people of the world: He testified at the UN in February 2003 about Iraq possessing “weapons of mass destruction” that posed an imminent threat to the USA and its allies. The U.S. invasion of Iraq began a few weeks later. In fact, Iraq had had no such weapons and posed no serious threat at that point. Powell, Rice, Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and many others did nothing but lie about their precious “war on terrorism” during the whole eight years of the Bush reign. Belafonte had been right all along, and Powell’s credibility as an elder statesman was all but destroyed. Belafonte, on the other hand, in his passing will enjoy the love of respect of many people in many countries and cultures around this big, beautiful planet for eons to come. 

The late John Lewis, veteran politician and civil rights activist, often spoke in his lifetime of the need to engage in “good trouble, necessary trouble” in order to effect positive social change. Harry Belafonte put that into practice in his own lifetime, not just by putting his money into the U.S. civil rights movement and other worthy causes, but by always morally fighting the good fight. That will be his legacy, and that is how he wanted to be remembered. Mr. B fulfilled the “great adventure” that was his life, and in so doing, taught us all lessons about the power of Yes in the adventure of our own lives.

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