I heard the singer Harry Belafonte give a speech today. Boy, is he ever “in the fray” at 85!
He covered his life story: the journey from New York to his mother’s Jamaican relatives to be raised by a poor but big-hearted village; service in WW II; involvement in black theater in Harlem; acting training at the New School with classmates such as Marlon Brando; and social justice activism with people like Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
His “monologue” was loaded with intriguing and amusing anecdotes, and his face lit up in that wonderful youthful smile that many will recall.
I was interested to see where the talk would wind up, because it was clear that helping the poor and combating injustice still make him tick. He moved on from his own story to honoring the youthfulness and nonviolence of the Occupy movement and then zeroed in on his current concern, our prison system.
He asked why the country has more people in prison than any other country and why we spend more to build prisons than schools. He acknowledged that states like California and New York are beginning to find better ways to deal with underlying social ills. Belafonte himself volunteers at SingSing to help inmates get a college education.
Bruce Springsteen, he said, once asked him how to deal with some of the issues the country faces, and Belafonte answered that when someone knocks on his door, he opens it. He thinks it is important to hear whatever the knocker has to say.
I can attest to that. As a young teen I myself knocked on his door, and he opened it. I wish I could say I was knocking about social justice, but it was something mundane. That summer people were circulating petitions to keep a road from being built on Fire Island, which we loved partly because there were no roads. Harry Belafonte signed the petition.
Here he is, just having fun.