By Aram Arkun
BOSTON — The Armenian Heritage Foundation’s K. George and Carolann S. Najarian, MD Lecture on Human Rights scored a coup when it booked singer, actor and human rights activist Harry Belafonte to lecture on the topic of “Justice and Equality: Inspiring Activism.” About to turn 90 years old, Belafonte himself is an inspiration as an activist for justice and civil rights. He took the podium on November 3 in Faneuil Hall and delivered an almost 40-minute talk pointing toward the need to have a “rebel heart” in order to change the world for the better. He peppered his talk with moments of wry humor as he delivered a panorama of his life.
The evening began with Dr. Carolann Najarian’s words of greeting. She informed the audience comprising both Armenians and non-Armenians that “The Armenian Heritage Park Foundation presents these lectures as a gift to the city of Boston on behalf of the Armenian immigrants such as my parents, and George’s parents, who sought and found refuge here from the genocide which was taking place in their homeland. It is our way of saying thank you to the community that saved us.”
Roger H. Brown, president of Berklee College of Music since 2004, then introduced Belafonte.
He reminded the audience that Belafonte’s breakthrough record album “Calypso” was the first album by a single artist to sell 1 million copies in the US. Belafonte became known as the king of calypso. As an actor, he appeared in dozens of films and became the first African American to win an Emmy.
However, Brown said, Belafonte “is not an artist who took an interest in activism. He is an activist who happened to be a brilliant musician.” For him, music is not just entertainment, but the way to change the world. In the 1950s, Belafonte met Martin Luther King Jr. and became a vital force in the American civil rights movement, He paid to bail King out of Birmingham city jail in 1963, and raised funds to free other civil rights protestors. He helped finance the Freedom Riders and voter registration drives. He was among the organizers of the historic August 1968 march on Washington and was next to King when the latter delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the 1980s, Brown continued, Belafonte proposed the idea of enlisting top musicians in 1985 to write and sing the benefit song “We Are the World,” for African famine relief. It became the fastest selling American pop single in history. After retiring from performing, Belafonte continued his advocacy for civil rights and in 2013 founded Sankofa, a social justice nonprofit organization.
Brown himself, incidentally, has an impressive record of activism. Prior to his position at Berklee, he was co-director of the Save the Children relief and development effort in Sudan, and worked with Cambodian refugees for CARE and UNICEF. He co-founded Bright Horizons Family Solutions with his wife.
His presence added an Armenian connection to the evening. He said living in Belmont, Mass., he came to know “the legendary contributions of the Armenian community to our city and to the world.” Brown thanked the Najarians for their contributions to Boston and in particular for taking a chance on the first Bright Horizons center. As a drummer, Brown said he thought the Armenian community’s number-one contribution was the Zildjian Cymbal company.
When Belafonte took to the podium to the accompaniment of great applause, he began his story in measured and formal words. His mother, born in Jamaica, “came to America looking for the great American dream, and failed to find it.” She suffered sorely due to the absence of education and opportunity, while Belafonte’s father was an alcoholic. Belafonte, born in Harlem, was taken to live in Jamaica by his mother while he was quite young. Dyslexia hindered his formal education, and he dropped out during the first year of high school.
Jamaica, Belafonte recalled, taught him a lot about peasant life, the struggles of poverty, cruelty and colonialism. His mother, working as a domestic, brought home tales about the lives of the rich. She taught him how to deal with the challenges he might encounter in the world and, he said, ultimately impelled him towards activism.
He volunteered to serve in the US Navy in World War II, he related, not just to get away from poverty but to have a place of purpose. The horrors of the Holocaust were imprinted on his young mind as the ultimate price that people paid for being different. He said, “I found that those of us who were different shared a commonality in our difference. As a consequence, I began to seek out others who maybe had stories to tell that were similar to my own…”
The noble goals of the war — making the world safe for democracy and the right to self-determination — were attractive to Belafonte, but after the war, the situation for American blacks presented a glaring contrast. Returning black servicemen were lynched or beaten in the thousands. Belafonte remarked, “When I say that, I am amazed at how many Americans either resist that truth or would say that I was miscarrying the information.”
He lamented, “We did not have the right to vote, and we had just won the war for others to have that right. I couldn’t make the kind of choices I would like to make because the oppositions of race played a big part and I resented it. I didn’t understand why just based on color there should be such an absence of opportunity and I rebelled against it.” This provoked him along with many others into activism. A second consequence of the war was that some of the people in the armed services inspired his interest in the theater.
Belafonte declared that “I often said that if I had to take one word in the English language to describe my path in life and the word that most enabled me to meet the challenges of life, it would be coincidence. A lot that happened to me I never planned. …. I advantaged the moment.”
When he came out of the military, a high school dropout, he had no skills and therefore he became a janitor’s assistant. He said he tried to become the best janitor that any building in New York City had ever seen, keeping his brass shining bright and his hallways spic and span. By coincidence, he was rewarded for a particular repair with two tickets to the theater. Somewhat unwillingly, he went, and experienced an epiphany. He decided he wanted to be part of this. He took acting classes, and ended up with classmates like Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis.
At nights he went to a jazz club within walking distance of the acting class, and listened to Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis and other great performers. He became familiar with the great saxophonist Lester Young, who invited him to sing some songs to work his way through acting school, and hired him. For a time, he stopped singing and opened a restaurant — a hamburger joint — but though another coincidence, the Village Vanguard was down the street. He started going there night after night to hear singers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, who told many stories of human nature through their songs. This inspired Belafonte, who then perfected his own craft and, he said, “worked very hard to find out how to move the human heart, to touch the human mind, with a song. And not only to get the audience to listen to the songs, but, better yet, to inspire them with what those lyrics have to say.”
Belafonte met people in the theater who were activists, and he realized that this was what he wanted to use his craft to do. He said, “Black artists did not have such role models. We did not have big stars then. We are overrun with them now.” As an actor, he said, “I was just an instrument through which things happened, and I enjoyed being that tool.” His idol Paul Robeson would say that artists are the gatekeepers of truth, and Belafonte added, “We are civilization’s moral compass.” He used stage and song for instruction and the presentation of the stories of many different groups.
Despite all the obstacles that Belafonte faced early in life, by a certain point, he had achieved such success that he found his way into the White House, and sat with a young president named John F. Kennedy. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, asked his opinion about civil rights because Belafonte had committed himself to movement and struggle, in the process befriending Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. Belafonte related that the more radical he became, the more he was rewarded.
Today, he bemoaned, black artists are in large part “absent from social truth and the opportunity to inspire people to say and do things, because we have taken art and turned it into an instrument of hedonistic pleasure. We harvest all the rewards of an audience, their glee and support of us, and we give nothing back.” He concluded that “we must retrieve history and interpret in a way that inspires people to behave in a way that inspires people to be the best of themselves. Part of why I am here tonight — and thanks for the invitation — is to help find the rebel heart.”
After Belafonte took his seat to a standing ovation, Dr. Najarian told the audience that the talk would soon be online and exclaimed, “You have given us, Mr. Belafonte, perspective which we need to hear…I think everybody here tonight has heard your call for action.” She stressed that we who have so many gifts must use our opportunities.
After the event, Najarian said, “Mr. Belafonte has never forgotten what happened to him — but he never spelled it out. He quietly drew the picture so that the listener understood and by the end we all understood the man and what drives him, even at this age of nearly 90 — the need for justice and vigilance.”
The Najarian Human Rights Lecture committee seeks out major human rights issues that they feel Armenian-Americans should be knowledgeable about and hopefully care about. In Belafonte’s case, Najarian said, “His experience of being ‘the other’ is the same as Armenians in Turkey experienced. Although he didn’t address that issue, he did talk about all injustices and the need for vigilance. That is what my father talked about for years and why the lecture series is dedicated to him. First, he said, watch for injustice because when it happens to one, it happens to us all, and second, never forget what happened.”
For more information on the Najarian Lecture or the Armenian Heritage Park on the Greenway, see www.armenianheritagepark.org.