Harry Belafonte is not backing down. He says his recent incendiary comments about Secretary of State Colin Powell on a San Diego radio talk show were “metaphorically, probably even more accurate than I suspected. The extent to which people have responded, both pro and con,” he says, demonstrates the country’s great unmet need for healthy debate on issues of “history, race and economic oppression.”
Belafonte sounded almost gallant in a phone interview from his New York office, accepting his role as lightning rod -- a respected public figure and recipient of many human rights awards who opened channels for a pent-up populace to sound off on subjects they generally don’t have a chance to tackle.
Slavery, for example. It is not your usual talk-show fodder. It is too complex, emotion-charged, and, for many, too antique a subject. Belafonte, 75, opened that floodgate when he used Civil War-era language, likening Powell and, later, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to “house slaves” who must do the bidding of their “master,” meaning President Bush, or be kicked back out in the fields.
Those words traveled around the world, eliciting a barrage of news stories, editorials, TV and radio discussions, many of which ridiculed Belafonte’s use of the slavery analogy. Civil rights leaders also took Belafonte to task even as some politicians began distancing themselves from the singer, who has long been an outspoken civil and human rights activist.
Powell responded with a gracious dismissal on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” calling Belafonte’s slave reference “unfortunate” and “a throwback to another time and another place.”
In a classic case of understatement, Belafonte admits that “to some people, my words may have seemed extreme.” But he says he has no regrets, is not uncomfortable or embarrassed, and does not wish he had chosen another analogy.
In fact, he is incensed by a letter he’s just received from Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, who requests that Belafonte “refrain from references to slavery,” no matter how the entertainer-social reformer feels about positions espoused by Powell. Slavery references “demean and degrade and contribute nothing constructive to the serious and important policy debate in which our nation is currently engaged,” Foxman’s letter states.
Belafonte’s outrage leaps through the phone:
“Why are references to slavery demeaning? ... Slavery is an important part of this nation’s history. An absolutely critical part of any analysis that is done in defining black Americans. Not only the oppression and degradation of it. But our character, our courage, our spirit, our language, our songs and our culture are all born in that environment.
“This nation has never really confronted, debated or had any fair exchange on this issue of slavery. We went from the strict confinement of physical slavery -- with chains, shackles and whips -- to the spiritual and psychological chains of slavery in the following century of legal segregation in this country.”
George Holmes, executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the nation’s oldest civil rights groups, says he respects Belafonte’s right to make the comments he made on the radio. “But I disagree with him, and I am embarrassed by those comments. We cannot start name-calling simply because we disagree with someone.”
Holmes says the controversy is especially disturbing because up until now, Belafonte’s credentials have been “so impeccable. The guy has a tremendous history, he stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the ‘I have a dream ...’ speech. He has spent his life fighting for human and civil rights, for freedom of speech and association. For the 1st Amendment.
“That means a person has a choice to be Democrat or Republican. If Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell choose to be Republicans, that does not make them house slaves,” Holmes says.
Belafonte, who popularized calypso music with his “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” in 1957 and went on to explore a variety of musical styles and film roles, sees it differently. He was not name-calling, and it was not a personal attack on Powell, he maintains. He has genuine political differences.
“When somebody comes from the history I’ve just described, when that somebody in our ranks is able to break through and acquire positions of power and influence, our expectation is that this person will serve and bring relief to people still trapped,” he explains.
“This administration is wrecking the economy, making people unemployed and leading us into war,” he says. “These are very critical, serious issues. And Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell are part of that. I expect them to take a stand. I expect everyone to take a stand.... Even if it leads to them being fired,” he says. “That’s my expectation of the human family.”
Jesse Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, believes first reports in the media “seemed to make the attack more personal than it was. Harry was not attacking a person. He was attacking the side of history that person is on.
“Bush represents anathema to our struggle for social justice. He would not permit Powell to go to the UN conference on racism in South Africa; he has sought to stock the courts with anti-civil rights judges; he is anti-affirmative action; he has taken us from budget surplus to budget deficit. We are simply on different teams,” Jackson says.
“Think of it like this. If you’re watching the Lakers and the Bulls, you may admire Michael Jordan but you are rooting for the other team.”
Belafonte, opposed to unilateral military action in Iraq, says that “most of what’s going on right now in the Middle East is all about oil. That is the bottom-line truth.” And that’s how this whole controversy got started, he says. Radio-show host Ted Leitner “asked what I thought of Powell’s apparent silence on his position toward the war. I said he serves his master well. He asked me what I meant. And I went into the metaphor of slavery. It was not meant as a personal attack on Powell. I am tired of being told to leave politics to the politicians. I believe politics is part of the civil order, it’s how democracy works.” Belafonte says he has been swamped with calls and letters from around the world since his remarks. “This has gone much farther than I ever could have imagined. And I have no idea how far it will continue to go.”
On Thursday, Belafonte is scheduled to receive the 2002 Bishop Walker Humanitarian Award “for outstanding contributions to humankind” at an event to be held by Africare, a nonprofit African relief group. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is listed on the dinner invitation as a patron of the event, along with Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.).
Africare President Julius Coles confirmed late last week that Lott “has advised us he will not attend the event. Before all this happened both Lott and Daschle had graciously consented to be honorary co-chairs. We have not heard from Sen. Daschle.”
Belafonte says he doesn’t care whether people are for or against his position, as long as they are spurred to do some serious thinking about issues he has raised. That seems to be happening.
An article in the Baltimore Sun said that “if there is a plantation here, it’s the one Belafonte is on: where all blacks are supposed to act, think and vote a certain way.” A Boston Herald editorial says Belafonte is “still trapped in another time and place...” and it is “a little sickening that he cannot realize that all black Americans are free to make up their minds.”
The Chicago Sun-Times called for Belafonte to apologize, and Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News Network’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” called Belafonte “despicable.”
Anna Perez, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, calls Belafonte’s remarks “unfortunate” but has no comment on what members of the administration may have thought of them. “To tell you the truth,” she said, “these are really busy people.”