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Tally Mon Come, Name Belafonte

At 79, calypso legend Harry Belafonte is vocal as ever -- as a critic of the Bush administration and the president in particular.
At 79, calypso legend Harry Belafonte is vocal as ever -- as a critic of the Bush administration and the president in particular. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

But now look how far the mainstream edge has moved: "Dr. King is a holiday."

Belafonte spoke of this latest phase in the arc of his life in several conversations over his two-day visit to Washington for the foreign policy weekend of TransAfrica Forum, the advocacy and policy group he helped start three decades ago. He traveled alone from New York, where he lives with his wife, Julie, in the apartment building he bought after he was refused admittance more than 40 years ago. Bald now, wearing a hearing aid, he carries himself erect and resolute. His famous voice used to be a whisper embracing a growl. Now only the whisper remains -- a rich, expressive whisper. He squints with the same fierceness of the characters in his racially proud movies. But when the familiar sun of his smile comes out, decades drop away from his features.

"Sometimes I step into [controversy] to provoke it," he says. "That gives me a chance to have rebuttal. That has worked very well for me. I feel most of the resistance is really from the progressive forces themselves . . . They move very cautiously, whereas the right jumps right in and lets me have it. They're careless enough to give me a platform to get on and speak. Thank you, Mr. Blitzer. Thank you, Larry King."

Belafonte is happy to accept another platform on which to elaborate.

"Greatest terrorist"? He discounts the intentions of an Osama bin Laden or a Bush, instead holding them to the effects of their actions. "It's not just bin Laden and the 3,000 people caught in the twin towers, it's the thousands of Americans who are dying in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. It's the tens of thousands forever maimed and wounded, and the hundreds of thousands of people in the region who are just called, quietly and decently, 'collateral damage.' "

It was Martin LutherKing himself, of course, who once said the U.S. government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

"Gestapo of Homeland Security"? Belafonte focuses on the warrantless surveillance, the chargeless detentions and the alleged torture being carried out by the United States.

Belafonte is in the back seat of a car riding up to Takoma Park. He is going to visit Luis Cardona, the Montgomery County Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator, and others involved in programs to counter gangs and ease tensions "between the black and the brown," as Belafonte says -- African Americans and Latinos.

This is typical Belafonte, say those who know him. Unlike many celebrities who offer checkbook support for causes, he returns to the trenches. Belafonte knows Cardona well -- Cardona was on the mission to Venezuela. They met through work with Barrios Unidos, the award-winning gang-prevention program out of Los Angeles. Belafonte is more than casually interested in the immigrant debate. He is the son of immigrants from Jamaica, and his mother was undocumented.

One of the purposes of the trip to Venezuela -- lost in the din over who's the greatest terrorist -- was to lay groundwork for a trade cooperative between former gang members in the United States and farmers in Venezuela. Later on his visit to Washington, Belafonte meets privately with Alvarez in the ambassador's residence to further these plans.

Over the years, there has been a price to being Harry Belafonte. That price is part of the bargain of living out on that edge. He has learned so much about America from the things that unsettle it.

In 1957, what was scary to some was the movie "Island in the Sun," with Belafonte playing a dashing politico who flirts with the rich blonde played by Joan Fontaine. "You never had to fight stupidity and prejudice," he tells her. "As long as you're looking for something real, you're not lost." Southern theaters balked at showing it but finally agreed under heavy Hollywood studio pressure.


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