Harry Belafonte, one of my personal icons, has a new memoir out this month. In “My Song,” the 84-year-old recounts both his artistic and deeply political careers. As he told NPR’s “Morning Edition” today, “I was an activist before I was a musician.” I’d say he’s excelled at both, and I can’t wait to read his own recounting of doing so.
Last year, Colorlines.com’s publisher Rinku Sen sat down for a lengthy conversation with Belafonte about today’s race politics. We initially published the interview as we searched for broader context following the 2010 elections, in which the tea party’s message dominated political debate for months. Here’s what I wrote about the interview then:
His accumulated wisdom brings invaluable context to the ups and downs of electoral politics. Most importantly, Belafonte stresses that our concern needn’t be over President Obama’s political well being; our concern must be with building a people-driven movement for justice, to which any elected official must respond.
Listening to the conversation again this morning, I found his thoughts have grown still more relevant and urgent as this political moment drags on. “America prides itself on its compassion, but it is an image, not a practice,” he said—words that have rarely felt so true, as poverty hits record levels and our elected officials debate tax breaks for millionaires.
I’ve also spent a lot of time in the past couple of weeks in tough conversations about how and why it’s crucial to talk explicitly about race right now. Among progressives, the Occupy Wall Street movement has caught fire, but the racial injustice that fuels economic inequality hasn’t been a significant part of the discussion. Meanwhile, inside black America, President Obama’s recent speech at the Congressional Black Caucus has stirred heated debate about whether he can or should explicitly tackle the growing racial disparities in our economy. Here, Belafonte artfully sums up a perspective I’ve struggled to articulate in both spaces. “You can’t wish the issue of race away,” he said. “That’s the easiest thing in the world, to become part of a colorblind movement.”
So we’re resurfacing Rinku’s conversation with Belafonte this morning. Step back from your grind and give it a listen. He’s been working for a better world for eight decades, more or less, and is a reminder that the old saw is true: We must know where we’ve been to figure out where we’re going.