By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006
Even friends who most appreciate the complicated package that is Harry Belafonte hark back to that simple soundtrack of America getting its first black matinee idol -- cheesy as the calypso sweetness might seem half a hip-hopping century later.
As Belafonte enters a banquet hall at Howard University Friday to receive an award from TransAfrica Forum, there it is, sea-breezing out of the sound system: Day-o, day-ay-ay-o . . . Come, Mr. Tally Mon, tally me banana; Daylight come and me wanna go home . . .
The luncheon crowd of 225 civil rights activists, foreign policy idealists, celebrities (Danny Glover) and ambassadors (Hugo Chavez's emissary from Venezuela) gives a hip-swaying standing ovation. A big screen flashes snapshots of a career -- Belafonte with Martin Luther King Jr., Jack and Bobby Kennedy, a giant bunch of bananas. But what the crowd most wants to hear is more of the stinging, controversial jeremiad that Belafonte has been laying down this year, red hot like today's news.
He does not disappoint. At 79, the entertainer still knows his audience. He may discomfit -- in fact, he likes to discomfit -- but he never disappoints.
In January he led a delegation (Glover, Cornel West, Bloods, Crips) to Venezuela, met with leftist president Chavez for eight hours, and called President Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world." Back in the United States, he referred to "the Gestapo of Homeland Security." A few years ago, he compared then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to a slave who "was permitted to come into the house of the master."
After each rhetorical detonation, he was duly interrogated by the likes of Larry King and Wolf Blitzer, asked if he wanted to take anything back.
Here at the lunch, speaking for 39 minutes without notes, he takes nothing back.
"George W. Bush will not be in office forever, Mr. Ambassador," Belafonte says, addressing Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez. "It is hard to ask you and the rest of the world to be patient with our brutality . . . Be patient. America is awakening again."
A moment later, working his way into the rhetorical red zone, he adds, "I knew what I was saying when I referred to George W. Bush as the greatest terrorist in the world." (Pause for rising applause and cheers.) "And he has done nothing to try to improve his image."
Such talk has inspired some columnists and editorial writers to suggest that Mr. Tally Mon needs to count whether Belafonte is losing his bananas. Even some allies on the left have wondered whether the old man is going too far. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation, recently called on people, including Belafonte, to drop the Nazi analogies because, she wrote, they demonize more than they encourage debate.
But if anything, Belafonte is crazy like a fox, and his critics have forgotten that the radical calypso singer has always staked out political ground on the edge of what the mainstream was ready to handle. The edge keeps moving, and Belafonte keeps moving one step ahead of it, afflicting the comfortable.
"It's always the same old thing," he says. "People feel jeopardized if ruling power speaks. When I took up the cause of Dr. King" -- as counselor, fundraiser and bail-poster -- "I was a threat for my middle class and white audience . . . White women ran through the house singing my songs while cooking dinner, their husbands came home and they danced all night to the calypso . . . [Then] I support the 'upheaval.' Oops."
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.
A few years later, the head of Revlon canceled a series of television specials because Belafonte insisted on having integrated acts in every episode. Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover was keeping tabs because of Belafonte's leftist organizing and association with King.
Along the way, Belafonte turned down potentially career-making roles in "Lilies of the Field," "To Sir, With Love," and others, because he considered the black characters "neutered," with little sexuality or humanity. Sidney Poitier, one of his best friends then and now, became a star by accepting some of those roles.
Belafonte sometimes has been too much for his friends: In the mid-1980s, he quit the board of TransAfrica when it wanted to accept Bill Cosby as a board member. Cosby was allowing "The Cosby Show" to be broadcast in South Africa during apartheid, and TransAfrica was leading the fight for divestment and sanctions. Belafonte saw hypocrisy in his own organization.
"I said, 'I'm out of here,' " he says.
But look how the edge moves: Apartheid is gone, Cosby is not involved with TransAfrica, Belafonte is back on the board, and he's receiving an award for lifetime service.
He gave his last concert three years ago, though he says he may go back in the studio this summer. A documentary is being made of his life. He just shot a film with Anthony Hopkins about Bobby Kennedy's assassination that is due out later this year. He earns as much as $20,000 per speaking engagement.
Some of those dried up this year. Kansas City Young Audiences canceled his engagement to headline a fundraiser in May because corporate and philanthropic sponsors objected to his statements, says Harlan Brownlee, executive director. He says his organization could not afford to risk funding because 150,000 children served in arts programs would be the losers.
Belafonte disagrees: "The children are the losers, for not having somebody stand up," he says.
In February he was disinvited from speaking at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The shock of that slap is still reverberating in civil rights circles. Belafonte says he thinks the Bush administration applied pressure. Yesterday afternoon the King family issued its first statement on the controversy, blaming an unnamed volunteer for both inviting and disinviting Belafonte without the family's knowledge. The family apologized to "one of our father's strongest supporters, and one of the giants of our freedom struggle."
Looking back, Belafonte remembers a piece of advice he got early on from his role model, the blacklisted Paul Robeson.
"Get them to sing your song," Robeson told him one night at the Village Vanguard in New York, "and they'll want to know who you are."
"Sure enough, I woke up one day and the whole world was singing 'Day-o,' " Belafonte says.
Now he's hoping for the edge to move again, another lurch forward. Waiting for the mainstream to catch up to Harry Belafonte, so that one more time the controversial doesn't seem so anymore.