Songs were Only a Start for Harry Belafonte

By Rob Patterson

Now that it’s the New Year, the 2012 election season has officially begun. This will be a critical time of decision for American voters. For progressives the presidential race offers only one option: reelect Barack Obama.

Though I may have largely lost the hope that he evoked in his 2008 election, at least in him, I pray that in a second term where reelection is no longer a factor that he shows true leadership towards a better, fairer and more humane America. And some strength towards the forces working against the greater good for all.

To help guide him, I offer an entertainment suggestion for our president: Spend a few hours watching the HBO documentary on Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song. Firstly, there is a personal reason why he should do so. The 84-year-old actor, singer and activist was part of a group that brought Kenyan students to America for college studies, including the president’s father.

It also illuminates the Black American experience through one man’s life that should resonate with Obama’s past experience as a community organizer. And shows how a man can also transcend his class and racial status while remaining true to it and simply become a great American who uses the gifts and fortune he was blessed with towards fostering a greater good. The film is also simply an excellent and compelling documentary about a life well lived, even if Belafonte admits to his personal failings as a father and husband.

Belafonte’s art alone was responsible for changes in American society. As an actor on the stage and in movies, he helped prove that an African-Americans could be a leading man in roles beyond the stereotypes they had largely been previously confined to. And he also helped break down interracial barriers in visual entertainment as basic as a even touching a woman of another race, and as highly charged as romance between a Black man and Caucasian woman.

He also doesn’t today get the credit due for exposing American audiences to, first, the Caribbean music of the region from where his parents hailed, and later the music of Africa alongside his active involvement with the folk music scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. I grew up with Belafonte albums in our home, and feel he paved the way for the later pop success of Bob Marley and Paul Simon’s Graceland album.

Belafonte is a man who passionately believes that some human issues are more important than he and his own life. And pursues those causes with passion, intelligence, eloquence, dignity and a seemingly calm yet strong militancy. Obama could do well to emulate those qualities conveyed by this film and Belafonte’s concurrent autobiography, My Song.

When Ann Coulter makes the inane contention “Our blacks are so much better than their blacks,” I can offer Belafonte as refutation that handily trumps such a suggestion. He is a truly great human.

In my journalism career I have met and spent time with many famed entertainers and celebrities.

But one small moment that stands out above and beyond almost all others is meeting Belafonte and shaking his hand. His mere presence bursts with truly good human and moral power.

To have met the man makes me proud to be an American at a time when too much in this nation fills me with disappointment and shame. Sing Your Song powerfully and beautifully shows why he evokes that pride and, yes, hope for this nation in dark times.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2012

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