Harry Belefonte's 2003 World Citizenship Award Acceptance Speech
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I am deeply honored and privileged to be the recipient of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation's World Citizenship Award. More than what it does for my ego and my self-esteem, the most important thing about all of this is its validation. It validates the things that I work for and struggle for. It validates hundreds of friends that I have made, many of whom have passed on, and others who still linger and who most of the time are on the cutting edge of what's new and what's going on. In that context, we are sometimes caught in the wave of movements, which in their beginning are not very popular. Many people do not hesitate to let us know that, and others tenaciously put more obstacles in our way because they see us as mischief makers.
I do not know when I first entered the world of activism. It seems to me that many of us who were born into poverty possess activism as part of our DNA. My parents came to America like other immigrants, except they were people of color. They had a great sense of hope for what America could offer and what they could do to find a life of dignity.
Unlike the experiences immigrants from Europe had, America was not quite so accepting of, or quite so generous to my parents. Coming from the cruel life of colonialism, they came to America thinking what they had heard of the opportunities here were true, and America would be the place they had hoped for. That was not the way things turned out for them. My mother was basically a single-parent who had no formal education. She was a domestic worker and part of the throng of people who were trapped in the terrible dilemma and cruelty of the Great Depression. Citizens of America were struggling for a new day and a new order while trying to find a fresh way to direct the politics and social values of this nation.
The circumstances of my childhood were not very different from those of a lot of other young people in my community. My father was an abusive alcoholic and absentee parent, who left my mother the burden of bringing up her children while struggling to make a living higher than what home relief or the welfare system offered. In the defense of our lives, she decided that she would take us back to the Caribbean because even in that oppressive environment it was still a safer place for us to be than the streets of New York .
This shift to the Caribbean gave me an opportunity to see my family work on the banana and sugarcane plantations. The work was grueling and they had difficulty trying to make ends meet. I was constantly aware of how similar their plight was to those who I had grown up with and known in the streets of New York and, in particular, Harlem .
My mother brought us back to the United States at the outbreak of WWII. The swiftness with which Hitler moved through Europe made everyone believe that England , merely a small island, would be conquered in no time. My mother, not being 'sophisticated' enough (although sophisticated is not an appropriate word; she was very sophisticated in many ways) had little knowledge of England 's strength and, like many, thought that England would be dominated by Germany . Places like the Caribbean , formerly controlled by England , would be under German control. Therefore, she thought that the best place for us would be back in America .
When we got back to America , my mother was constantly instructing us about what our aspirations should be and how we should not succumb to the oppression of racism. She would haul me off to meetings with her to hear Marcus Garvey speak and I would always listen to her interpretations of the news of the day. She pointed out to us that Adolf Hitler and the War in Europe was not to be viewed as some distant adventure, but more as an event squarely in the midst of our own future.
As difficult as things were in America racially, we had to lend ourselves and our support to the efforts being made by the allied powers to overcome Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. For that reason, while in the midst of my adolescence, I decided to volunteer for the armed forces, and I worked through the Second World War as a munitions loader for the United States Navy. I didn't join the Navy just to get off the streets of New York or to find an opportunity to move up the rungs of the social ladder. I truly joined with a passionate belief in democracy and the need to struggle against fascism. I thought that by displaying our commitment to the war we would come back to an America that would be enlightened, and would be more compassionate and more generous to its citizens of color. But when we came back, that was not the case. There was no generosity here for us because those who sat in the seats of power decided to actively demonstrate how serious they were about maintaining the status quo.
This situation resulted in a brash emergence of beatings, arrests, and violence throughout the length and breadth of the United States . Men like Isaac Woodard, one of the most decorated heroes of African-American descent who served in the European theater, came back to this country having survived the battlefields of Europe and was treated no better than when he had left. On the day he was on his way back home to South Carolina to celebrate with his family, who were deeply rewarded and pleased with the fact that he survived, he got on a bus heading south. In the middle of the journey he was told by the driver that he would have to get to the back of the bus. In response, he said, "You don't understand. I've just come from a war that settled all such questions and the back of the bus will be no more." For saying that, for that resistance, he was hauled off the bus, severely beaten, and both of his eyes were gouged out with the blunt end of a billy club by the sheriff. Isaac Woodard died not too long ago. He died a broken man. He died as a guest of the benevolence of the state. He died with great anonymity, but he lingered forever in the memories of those of us who did not suffer the same fate. He inspired us to pick up the new phase of the struggle against oppression.
I'm not quite sure why Eleanor Roosevelt sought me out when she did, in the threshold of my own ascendancy as an artist, and brought me into her world and the intimacy of her hopes, aspirations, beliefs, and struggles. Under her mentorship, I watched her deliver the declaration on human rights that she had helped create to the United Nations.
When I first entered into the theatre and decided to be an artist, I had a stroke of good luck in that of all the places I petitioned to attend, I was accepted at the New School of Social Research. The man who was our instructor came from experience in social and political theater, and he saw art not just as an instrument that should show life as it is but as an instrument that should show life as it should be. The kind of theater that my instructor and others had created before Hitler took over was brought to America and under his instruction, I saw art as a social force and an instrument of power. No one in my classes ever suspected that we would make it. Ironically my class included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, Bea Arthur, and Tony Curtis (or Bernie Schwartz as we all called him). There we were looking at life, looking at theater, looking at what we could do to make our mark. We were led deeper into the study of the works of Shakespeare, a great revolutionary and a man whose work was constantly filled with rebellion, poetry, and illumination. We were fortunate enough to study Chekov, George Bernard Shaw, and Sean O'Casey as well as to come upon instructors like Arthur Miller, Clifford Odetts, and Lee Strassberg. Our class was the first in the American cultural scene to introduce Jean Paul Sartre to America when Sartre gave us the privilege of being the first group to perform his plays, such as "Agamemnon," "The Flies," and "No Exit." What a world! What a place to be!
My first performance as a young student was an incredible joy. At the end of one evening, a man came to see the play by Sean O'Casey, a great Irish writer, and this man was an African-American with enormous credentials. He sat and watched the play and at the end he stayed behind to give us the benefit of his thoughts and instruction. From that moment on, he not only became a part of my life, but, for whatever reasons, he embraced me and brought me into his fold as well. Paul Robeson was his name and through him I was given the honor to sit with Dr. W.E. B. Dubois, who inroduced me to many more activists. What a place to be for a kid like me who was a high school drop out! What an environment with which to be able to draw sustenance from and thought for what to do with my life!
These experiences helped give me a place from which to be heard, and when I had decided to turn to music, it was Paul Robeson who said, "Harry, get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are." So, with that rather remarkable thought sitting squarely in my sights, I found a chance to do mischief, and I designed ways in which to do subtle things that would wind up having profound impact on the culture of America and the world.
"Day-o. Da-ay-ay-o. Daylight comin', me wanna go home."
" Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are ."
Another person who embraced me was an Austrian Jew by the name of George Merrick. He was the head of RCA and a man of profound thinking. He was a great student of the classics, writing about the lives of Beethoven and Schubert. He was touched by genius, because it was his personal decision to sign Leontine Price and a young man who I believed would never make it by the name of Elvis Presley. He also signed me and a host of others to RCA.
When I sang the songs of the Caribbean , it was just the first part of my journey. " Get them to sing your song and they'll want to know who you are ." When I came to America , I remembered the way in which most Americans viewed those of us from the Caribbean . Most white folks looked upon us as an interesting group. How charming we were. How sweet, how wonderful we were with our rather passive characteristics. How simple we were. How we loved the simple things of life. How we never rocked the boat too much, and how we were so accommodating. How wonderful and humorous we were, so preoccupied with our sexuality- especially the men. I listened to all of these things but I saw us in a very different way. How do you change perceptions like these? " Get them to sing your song and they'll want to know who you are ."
One of the first songs I offered was "Day-o." "Working all night on a drink of rum"; that was what my parents did. "Come Mr. Tallyman, tally our banana," portrayed how much we relied on the United Fruit Company and our managers who would count the tonnage and the hands of bananas that were delivered because we were paid by the bunch. How often my aunts, uncles, and cousins used to carry the food to the men at night because it was less crowded than the dayshift, and also much cooler. All of these things made up our people along with the constant rebellion that was happening on our islands against colonialism. How much of it was not known? How much of it was swept away by the interpretations of Eurocentric viewpoints? It was our task to put another view on the table.
It was an amazing thing for me to see 50,000 Japanese singing "Day-o." I was using myself as a vehicle and a communicator to tell the story of other cultures and other oppressions. It was wonderful for me, as an African-American of Caribbean descent, to stand on the stages of Germany and lead 50,000 Germans in "Havah Nagila." How lustily they sang it. How loudly they wanted themselves to be heard. How interesting it must have been for many of them, thinking to themselves, "I wonder where that song came from." " Get them to know your song and they'll want to know who you are ."
The Peace Corps was the first of my encounters with the Kennedy Family. What happened can be read in some interesting books, like Parting the Waters , by Taylor Branch (in my opinion one of the best history books on the last half of the 20 th century in America .) Under Dr. King's instructions, we were charged to take one of the Kennedys and win him to our cause, a man who we believed it was impossible to sway, Bobby Kennedy. He was a lawyer. He served McCarthy. He hounded thousands of people and did the work of those who were villains in our time. When he became the Attorney General, we saw it as a dark day for us. While we bemoaned the appointment, it was Dr. King who said, "We may look upon him and know him to be what you have all defined, but I suggest to you there may be something else in him and it is your responsibility to find that something else. Find his moral center and, when you do, bring him to our cause." I dare say, with no bragging intended, that through our movement we did make the difference in what Bobby Kennedy became. We were able to bring him into the sphere of poverty and racism. He looked into the faces of the destitute white people in the mountains of West Virginia and Appalachia and he went into Alabama and the black communities of the south. After these encounters, he slowly began to use the power of the Attorney General and the Justice Department, to serve our movement. What a remarkable human being he became!
The Peace Corps was a wonderful opportunity because it was more than simply serving two years in a distant country. I believed very strongly that when it was time for all those Americans to come back and go to their communities in Wyoming , Nevada , New York and Florida , they would be able to tell people of the beauty of diversity. What remarkable things one could discover through differences. Through the experience of the Peace Corps, I believed people would see how much of us were in them. Americans would be able to look through the prism of those who served in the corps, and find a future that would be armed with truth and insight.
With that, I went marching off to places in Africa that were not yet independent. Young men and women came to the United States for the first time as students, on scholarships that many of us in the Peace Corps helped create. Many of them went back to Africa and became heads of state or ministers of government. When I went back to Africa , I was given a lot of privilege, a lot of access, a lot of places at the dinner table. I listened to them exchange views on some very sensitive subjects and come up with ideas that sparked my own sense of what it meant to be part of the international community. How remarkable it was, not only to be able to know these people, but to be able to share moments and victories in their struggle for independence. It was wonderful to imagine Kennedy, Johnson, and the way in which America was headed and to have the belief that we could look towards the 21 st century as one of the greatest periods in human development that civilization had ever known. After all the times I was arrested, all the times I delved into places that were not anointed by the approval of consensus, all the flack we took for doing those things that only communists and malcontents would do. What a journey we had, watching one thing after another capitulate, watching Africa become independent, watching Asia come into its own, watching the United States go through the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and learning each time that war was just not the answer.
In Vietnam they were forced to fight not only the Japanese, who were their first conquerors, but the French, who were their second conquerors, and then us. Of all the places in the world, Ho Chi Minh, should have been able to look to the United States of America for support. What a missed opportunity, that instead of pulling him into our fold, bringing him to the table with honor and equality and debating, discussing, and analyzing each other, we so rudely and cruelly rejected him, as we have done with Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, and so many others across the world. Ho Chi Minh was a Jeffersonian student. As a matter of fact, if you read the Vietnamese Constitution it's written after our Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal." He loved Jefferson and saw in America great hope as did Fidel Castro in Cuba , Salvador Allende in Chile , and many others.
A friend of mine once said, "Life comes in eight cycles of ten." After five drinks, he told me, "Harry I just want you to know you just used up seven of them." With this thought in mind, it was the family fantasy that by the time I reached 70, I would be in the Caribbean on the beach, hopefully under a coconut tree, watching the sights, remembering my history, running off every now and then to put a note or two on to paper, and just really celebrating a sense of accomplishment because the world would be free of nuclear weapons, there would be no more borders, no need for passports, doctors without borders would really be without borders, and medicine, education, and everything else would be on the table with the world feasting on it. Nothing in my fantasy suggested that at the age of 70 we would be in the world in which we are in, facing so many of the same dilemmas, trying to overcome so many of the same hurdles. Here we are, yet again at war.
Most people in this country only know what is on the front pages of the newspapers, what they see on CNN, or what Peter Jennings says on ABC. We talk very little about the over 3 million people who have already been murdered in the Sudan - the war that's been going on longer than any other war on the planet. You don't hear too much about them. After all, they're just happy natives and that's the way they are. They're very primitive. They have that Neanderthal kind of behavior. We Europeans, we Americans, we the fortunate ones, we will just wait for the inferior countries to catch up, and when they're ready and they have earned our preoccupation we will go help them in some way.
And, of course, there is Columbia and all that we've done to crucify that nation, turning it from a rich, agricultural, productive state into a begger nation forcing tens of thousands of children to come into the world deformed and plagued by malnutrition. There are so many things that go on in so many places in the world that we hear very little about. The world is engulfed in war.
The struggle with the United Nations to end borders seems endless. How many more borders are now being created? Israel, a new promising nation, was seen as a wonderful experiment in democracy. I sent my brother there to live, to look at this new experiment, to be touched by what he would learn, and to come back here and give instruction. It was so wonderful that in our daily exchanges, Dr. King should have seen so much in the future of Israel and the future of so many other nations that were in formation. How sad it is that he was taken away from us in the way in which he was.
Three days before he was murdered, Dr. King was in New York , in my home. My home was where he did a lot of his writing and where he framed many of his speeches. We had an intimacy and we shared many moments of thought and reflection together. On this particular night, just a few days before he went to Memphis , he seemed very troubled. He was troubled quite often, but this time he had a peculiar look. I said to him, "What's troubling you, Martin?" And he said, "You know, Harry, we worked hard and long for our cause, to fix segregation, and now we're moving full force into the future of integration, and hopefully we will be able to shift from what we're doing to the new campaign for economic rights and economic freedom and to get rid of economic oppression. But I'm troubled." I asked, "What troubles you?" He said, "I've come to believe that in our movement, looking for integration, we are integrating into a burning house." When I heard him say this, I realized that it wasn't that we had not thought about how you shape America as a country, but we had not thought about how you shape America 's citizens in the wake of all that had gone before us and during our day. After some exchange on the matter, he said he had to go to Atlanta first, before Memphis . I said, "Listen, in this view that you have of us integrating into a burning house, how do you suggest we fix it?" He said, "It's very simple. We're all going to have to become firemen."
As abstract as that may appear to be, I never realized how prophetic that moment really was because we are living in that burning house. We are living with pollution. We are living with devastation to our planet that has such momentum that many astute and well-meaning scientists will tell you they're very concerned and almost sure that the process is irreversible. We are caught in this process that will not end. And then, of course, there are all the wars that are going on in the world. I cannot tell you how frightening it is to have a head of state stand before the peoples of America, and the peoples of the world, and in his appetite for war, make remarks like, "Bring 'em on." It's really quite hard to describe in words that are sufficient, but it is a tragedy of enormous proportion.
In the face of all that is going on in our world - how many wars we have been in, how many times we've sat at the brink of annihilation, how many times nuclear force was a threat in the days of the Cold War (and some days since), how often nations have fought for independence and instead come upon long periods of tyranny and oppression and have been forced to go back to the drawing board - it is wonderful that so many nations should be on a new course.
In the midst of all this, there is an awakening. Everywhere I go I find youth. Everywhere I go I hear new ideas, new thoughts, exciting utterances. How unfortunate that these enthusiastic youth do not know each other as well as they should because communications and those who control it do us no such service. As a matter of fact, they'd rather have us believe we don't exist. They'd rather have us believe that we are somehow a relic of the past. They'd have us believe that the only thing that is important today is globalization, trade agreements, the banks, and all of the institutions that come to carry so much influence. They'd have us believe that Enron, Halliburton, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft are the real voice of the future and the hope of an America that will spread democracy around the globe. Well, I think a lot of people have come to see it all very differently - that there's something terribly wrong with America today. These people are looking for opportunity to do things in a very different way. Herein sits our chance. Herein sits what I delight in. Here's where I spend most of my time. I am delighted to see the young people who are here at the invitation of our sponsoring organization, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. But you have to take note of their presence because it suggests that there is not the rhythm or the kind of familiarity that there should be in how they work with you on a daily basis. No criticism here, just an observation because you don't stand alone. I can't tell you how many institutions, from the left or the right, that are guilty of only talking about the youth of this nation as an abstract group but have not yet discovered how to integrate them as a full part of our daily menu.
The United States of America has the largest prison population in the world. Much of the population are young. Most of them are African-Americans and Hispanics. There are more young African-American men and women in the prisons of America than we have in our universities. As a matter of public policy, we build more prisons than we build schools or health care centers, and now, as quickly as possible, we are turning over this real estate venture to the private sector so they may keep the prisons filled and extract profit in how they deal with the prison culture and the prison economy. All this goes on and we are in a struggle against it.
No one can say, "I really don't know quite what to do." Our canvas is filled with so much to pick from. The challenge is finding a marvelously defined way in which we can all come together in the same place to let our voices be heard. Just recently across America and the world hundreds of thousands of people turned out into the streets to let their voices be heard against our adventure in Iraq . Too many of these people just ebbed away and blended once again into the landscape. You don't get to see that energy being displayed with any great sense of immediacy. Certainly there's very little activity on any of the college campuses I go to, at least activity as compared to what it was on the campuses in the 1950s and 1960s - when the campuses led America . What happened that made that change? What happened to the youth of America ? What happened to the information they were being given? How did all of what we worked for so hard become negated, and how do we regain it? Dr. King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Bobby Kennedy all left this place with a great sense of hope that the America that we all dreamt of would be a reality in our lifetime. Well, the 20 th century has come and gone but the 21 st century does not have to be the same. Each century something new happens that makes it all a little different, a little better.
It was Teddy Roosevelt who said that when those who are responsible for the leadership of state begin to move in villainous ways, when they begin to destroy the fabric of our nation, and when they violate the constitution of our nation and begin to do things that are false to our dreams and our hopes, it is incumbent upon every citizen, by right and by responsibility, to challenge that administration, to raise their voices in vigorous descent and to change the way in which the state is doing business. Those who fail to do so should be charged with patriotic treason. I am hopeful that on my epitaph it will say, "He cannot be charged with patriotic treason."