My feed has been full today of the news, and reaction to, the death of Harry Belafonte. Many people have pointed out his long history of activism as well as his music, talents and so on. He was 96 — born one year before Malcolm X and two years before Martin Luther King Jr., men who are among a cadre of radical Black men whose lives were stolen far too soon because of their politics and activism.
Belafonte was, of course, from a different era. I’ve seen some people say that he knew how to marry activism and celebrity well, a comment that in and of itself is just too 2023 for me. He comes from an era where activism was internationalist, cohearant and organized. We couldn’t be further away from where things were. (Lizzo, inviting drag performers on stage in Tennessee very much aside.)
But for me, Belafonte’s death makes me think most of Paul Robeson. In fact, I’m hearing his voice right at this moment singing “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” live from Royal Albert Hall on August 10, 1958. I think about Robeson a lot. I remember reading Gerald Horne’s biography of Robeson in my Nonna’s kitchen a few years ago. She asked what I was reading and she said, “He was the most famous American in the world for awhile.”
Just yesterday, I came across a recording of Paul Robeson’s testimony to the House Committee Un-American Activities. Listen to it here.
Here’s an excerpt:
Mr. KEARNEY: The witness has answered the question and he does not have to make a speech. . . .
Mr. ROBESON: In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.
Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?
Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.
Mr. SCHERER: You are here because you are promoting the Communist cause.
Mr. ROBESON: I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. You are like the Alien [and] Sedition Act, and Jefferson could be sitting here, and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here, and Eugene Debs could be here.
Belafonte and Robeson were artists in different generations and the two occupied opposite ends of the vocal register. But when I went to read more about Belafonte, it wasn’t a surprise, at all, to see Robeson’s name quickly referenced: “Paul Robeson had been my first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone,” Belafonte is quoted as saying.
On April 27, 1997, Belafonte spoke at the 60th anniversary of the Lincoln Brigade’s arrival in Spain. The Lincoln Brigade was the American’s Mac-Paps — the brigade that went to Spain to fight against fascism. Belafonte’s speech focused on his friendship with Robeson. He said:
And it was from Paul that I learned that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. And that if art were put into the service of the human family, it could only enhance their betterment.
Paul said to me, he said, 'Harry, get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are. And if they want to know who you are, you've gained the first step in bringing truth and bringing insight that might help people get through this rather difficult world.'
Robeson’s life was cut short at the age of 76. He had seen an incredible international career destroyed by the United States who repeatedly pulled his passport from him, making it impossible for him to perform around the globe. Belafonte said:
I said, 'Paul, I must know. Was all that you have gone through, really worth it? Considering the platform you had gained, and how easy life could have been for you, was it worth it?' And he said, `Harry, make no mistake: there is no aspect of what I have done that wasn't worth it. Although we may not have achieved all the victories we set for ourselves -- may not have achieved all the victories and all the goals we set for ourselves, beyond the victory itself, infinitely more important, was the journey.'
Belafonte was blessed to have 20 years beyond the age of 76. And we are so much worse off for all the Black lives stolen too soon because of their activism and state repression. And so, today reflecting on the art and activism of Harry Belafonte, we’re called to remember that art, performance, beauty and living an engaged life are not just important things, but they’re all we might have.
The testimony of Robeson is simply awesome. Thank you for partaking it with us.
Thanks for informing me more of Robeson (and Belafonte) and reminding me of how fascist our North American ruling class has been. Also how musical performers/artists were at one time more engaged with politics/activism or maybe they were less engaged with it solely as a capitalist venture to grow/maintain their brand.
It seems like history is rhyming (as opposed to repeating) and the remnant of the former USSR empire is now a white supremacist Russian empire with expansionist aspirations with future FF dominance. Meanwhile the USA is a collapsing capitalist empire with a civil war brewing between armed white supremacist that want to conserve FF dominance, reject democracy and exterminate/neutralize the brown/non-binary hordes versus a population of humans that have been impoverished (their wealth “redistributed”) by FF domination and surveillance capitalism. What I see is a century of white empires (communists/capitalists) fighting against each other only to destroy, or reach the capacity, to completely destroy the planet.
Are there any charismatic performers/artists now of Belafonte/Robeson stature to represent humans anymore? Has the digital era and mass communications destroyed cultural hegemony or our means to organize against it?