The Ideals of Harry Belafonte — and Obama? — Part II

By Nick Braune

My column last week discussed the new autobiography of Harry Belafonte, who was raised in poverty and considerable misery during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and who joined the U.S. Navy at 17 years of age during WWII. He wanted to do something important with his life, as well as to escape poverty. In the autobiography — I read every word of it and studied the pictures — there is a photo of Belafonte in uniform, looking proud and really young.

With his aspirations awakened, Belafonte became disturbed as he watched how blacks were used and abused in the segregated military. (He himself was falsely accused of some infraction by a racist officer and was thrown into a cell for two weeks.) But after serving his country well and reentering civilian life following the war, he was far more mature than when he left and he viewed the poverty of those around him and the continuing racial discrimination in the country more methodically. He knew he personally had to escape poverty, but he also knew he must spend his life fighting for social justice for others. And he did.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, Belafonte became America’s most prominent black entertainer: a singer, an actor and an important civil rights activist and strategist, playing a formative role for racial justice, particularly in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s. And he also played a later role in the fight against South Africa’s Apartheid. I was gripped by his book and his life — yes, he is still alive, almost 80, and still an activist.

I savored his comments about his decision to use his music and acting training for the liberation of mankind. He could have been a successful crooner like Frank Sinatra, but he explains clearly that he rejected singing about how the moon is blue and I ‘m in love with you. He rejected becoming either a crowd-pleasing slick operator like Sinatra or a self-effacing Sammy Davis, Jr.

I waited for Belafonte’s comments on Obama, our first Black president who might have represented the audacious hopes of the 1950s and 1960s. True, Obama in his first month of office would appoint a black Attorney General (Erik Holder) and soon would put the first Hispanic (Sonia Sotomayor) on the Supreme Court, but has Obama represented the audacious commitment to equality and justice that he seemed to promise? Not according to Harry Belafonte, one of the great living progressive figures from that decisive mid-twentieth century period:

“For all his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the disposed, be they white or black. Frankly, I would have thought the first black president would work especially hard to alleviate the plight of inner-city black Americans. I appreciate the passage of the stimulus package. I understand that a national health insurance bill helps us all. But why, I have kept wondering, hasn’t he used his power to bring more humanity to a justice system that imprisons one out of every three black males in America, giving us the largest prison population in the world? I would like Obama to say forcibly that racial problems exist. Show some heart, put some skin in the game. By tacking to the political center, disassociating himself from the left, he has all but abandoned the poor. And who else, after all, speaks for the poor but the left?”

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