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The Sunday Conversation: Tuning in to Harry Belafonte

'Sing Your Song,' a documentary chronicling the career and social conscience of the 84-year-old singer-actor, airs Monday on HBO.

October 16, 2011|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Harry Belafonte at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Harry Belafonte at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

The life of singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte, 84, is examined in a new HBO documentary "Sing Your Song," airing Monday. He talked with The Times about his multifaceted career.

Most Americans alive today didn't live through segregation in this country the way you did. Did you ever think you'd live to see a black president?

I think that our hearts were filled with hope, our goals were filled with promise. We pursued things we thought were difficult to achieve, but that did not inhibit our need to go for it, and that's what we did. And fortunately a large number of citizens and leaders and genders and races and cultures came to the table at the moment of truth and made a difference. We had a lot going for us in those days, including a very active campus, which I'm glad to say has resurrected itself in New York and other parts of the country with what's going on down on Wall Street.

Were you surprised to see Occupy Wall Street spring up?

I expected it to spring up. What I did not really anticipate was the specific location where this would take place. No matter what we could have thought of, those of us who've been in the struggle for so long, they could not have picked a more poetic environment than for these young people to show up on Wall Street. It just tells squarely, without ambivalence, here's the target, here's the problem, let's fix it.

Can you take the temperature of racial politics today?

The temperature … is a whole sight better than the temperature of racial politics in the day when I was part of the youth confrontation on issues of race. However, having said that, I think there's no question that part of what's facing Barack Obama is the institutionalized racism that resides in America's DNA, and I think we've got to continue to work on purging that. There will come a time when that will be discussed more fully and openly than we're prepared to do now, but we shouldn't be distracted by that fact. There's something else at play here that's of grave, grave importance and grave need and that is what the kids are doing on Wall Street.

The HBO film mentions that Bobby Kennedy was a lawyer for Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and when he became attorney general, people on the left were freaked out. But you helped introduce him to progressive politics. How did you do that?

By listening to his yearning for truth, because he really looked hard to find it. And much to our blessing, once he heard it and experienced it, he never rejected it.

I think we always get lost when we take what is expedient politically over what is morally honorable. And I think that's part of the problem today; one of the big things with Barack Obama is he's still looking to retrieve his moral compass.

Why do you think that's so?

I think he never really understood the tenaciousness of greed, he never understood the real wrestle of those who are hungry for power, and he never understood the real price one has to pay if you play the game. And certainly to fight to become the leader of the most powerful country on the face of the Earth, he had a very, very rude awakening when he discovered all these things before him. I think he took a road that was in many instances politically expedient but morally shallow.

Have you met Obama?

Yes, on several occasions.

Have you had a chance to sit down with him?

No, he's not given many of us who come from where we come from — I'm talking about our political hue — he's not given us much time in his circle. He has no truly progressive liberal thinkers at the table. If we had a chance at the table, he might have heard a point of view that would have given him a more balanced vision of how he could lead us than he has been able to come up with.

What are you doing these days?

I spend a great deal of time with the youth you see on Wall Street. Many of them do not reside in the places where I spend a good deal of time — the prisons of America. I go into the communities where the youth are the most underserved and most disconnected, a lot of the ghettos, a lot of the communities that are languishing from joblessness and hopelessness. I go there and I preach the gospel of nonviolence, and I tell them about the things that Dr. King and others did.

You look at these kids on Wall Street and people say they don't know what they're doing, they're misfits, except for one thing — nobody knows what to do with them because they're nonviolent. Those of us who come from the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King, it is interesting to me that everywhere you go, the thing that happened in Tunisia, in Libya, in Cairo, the violence you see is from the military. But this nonviolent thing seems to have become the code of the day, and I think they're going to have to get a whole new set of rules on how to play this one, because I think we're definitely on the right track.

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