harry-belafonte_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

MIAMI — It is said that you can never know where you’re going until you know how far you’ve come. Just ask Harry Belafonte. Singer, actor, producer, United Nations Children’s Fund Goodwill Ambassador and outspoken activist, he once called President George W. Bush a “tyrant” and a “terrorist.”

Belafonte popularized Carib-bean music in the 1950s  – mainly calypso – to pave the way for such entertainers as Bob Marley to bring their socially conscious music to the world.  His musical influences endure today with rapper Pitbull’s hit song Shake Senora, which pays homage to Belafonte’s song Jump in the Line.

In Belafonte’s memoir, My Song (currently on bookshelves), he gives a detailed account of his 84 years, from his mother Millie’s humble beginnings as a Jamaican immigrant to his current charitable works.  The 443-page memoir brought Mr. Belafonte to Miami Dade College’s Miami Book Fair International Nov. 15. Before the event he chatted with South Florida Times about his book and his views.

How long did it take you to write your memoir?

The physical writing of the book itself took two years and the research took a lifetime.  I made a documentary film on HBO, called Sing Your Song. I decided that I can tell the story in more detail as a memoir.  So, I used the film as a teaser to awaken people’s appetites to the subject matter.

In your memoir, you discuss a lot of people who were connected to the mob, as well as secret meetings.  Do you fear any backlash?

(Laughs heartily)  No. I fear no backlash. I fear no reprisals, except from those who differ with me politically. Sometimes, with some of those people, I wish it was the Mafia. They would be more humane.

You worked with Dr. Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights Movement. Did you attend the unveiling of his memorial?

I didn’t go to the ceremony, because I didn’t like the companies that made our lives hell. (Some of the sponsors of the memorial are General Motors, Proctor & Gamble, Disney, Ford, Coca Cola, GE, JP Morgan & Chase, Exxon Mobil, and McDonald’s).  During the time that Dr. King lived, they had segregation, blacklists, and fought the labor workers.  Now they’re sitting there with their names stamped on everything in the great memory of this great American, whom they tried to destroy. But, it is a monument in our country.  So, I have every intent of taking my grandchildren and I’ll explain it to them. 

After fighting so hard for blacks to have the right to vote, does it irk you that so many young blacks still don’t vote?

It irks me that blacks and whites don’t vote.  Blacks, especially, should first understand what an important gift they have and treat it in a more dignified and strategic way. 

We have not been able to select the leaders to represent us by more than just their color.  Because we have a lot of black people in the Congressional Black Caucus and most of them are ground down doing nothing.   I’ve been around on Wall Street, with these young people, making the kind of noise they should be making as we did in the days of the (Civil Rights) Movement.  None of these leaders have stepped into the forefront to try to stimulate this current economic revolution.  And, that is a clear example of how they have failed.

Do you think young African-Americans of to-day are open to learning?

I don’t think access to education and the learning process has been made easily accessible to people who live the state of upheaval that black people

experience.  If you have schools that are shutting down, teachers that are being dismissed, and programs that are being cut out, education doesn’t become a very attractive place to reside.  How do you expect kids to learn in that environment?

Do you think racism still exists today?

Um, yes.  Haven’t you noticed? Racism has been here since the Pilgrim Fathers hit this continent and it has never gone away.  The nation as a whole refuses to recognize that it exists and refuses to debate it honorably. It’s not addressed in our schools, histories, or curriculum.  It’s not being discussed in forums where methodology can be used to end the practice of racism.

How do you feel about Immigration Reform today?

We are desperately in need of it.  We are a land of immigrants, literally, the mosaic that makes this place work. Our richness as a nation comes from the fact that we have such diversity.  Without it who would we be?  Probably a continent filled with joyous Native Americans that have never heard of a white man.

Photo: Harry Belafonte