Harry Belafonte was one of the first Black musicians to become a hit with white audiences. His breakout performance took place in April of 1959 at Carnegie Hall. The refrain from one of the songs at that concert — Day-O — has become a standard at sporting events all across America. I remember playing the double album of that concert on the Victrola — yes, we still called it that — in the living room of my parents’ house until the needle wore through the vinyl and came out the other side, or so it seems.
Belafonte introduced America to African and Caribbean music — and to the idea of a Black entertainer appearing on television. But under his gentle Jamaican lilt, he also introduced white America to the pain of being Black in a lily white world. One song on the Carnegie Hall album is called Darlin’ Cora. It tells the story of a Black man who grows so tired of being subjugated by his Caucasian supervisor, he punches him and then runs away. The subtext is that by lashing out, he is now subject to criminal prosecution at a time when juries were all white and justice for Blacks was unheard of. And so he wakes his beloved Cora to tell her he is leaving. “I’d rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollowed out log, than to hang around in this old town and be treated like a dirty dog.”
Belafonte has been a champion of human rights his entire life. In 1995, he starred in the movie White Man’s Burden with John Travolta. It’s a bit formulaic and predictable, but it re-imagines America as a place where Blacks are the dominant culture and Whites are subservient and despised. 20 years ago, when George W. Bush became president after the Supreme Court intervened in the election, I heard Belafonte speak at the Kennedy Library in Boston. Afterwards, I got to ask him what he thought was the greatest hope for humanity. “The empowerment of women,” he answered. 4 powerful words that have remained with me ever since.
Yesterday, Belafonte wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explainng why it is important for Blacks to vote in this election, despite the threats and intimidation policies of the current president and his enablers. It is so powerful, so eloquent, that is deserves the widest possible audience. Belafonte’s message applies to all Americans as we choose our next leader. If the current president has taught us anything it is that America is one of the most virulently racist countries on Earth. If we are to lead on the environment and climate change, if we are to have any credibility as a leading nation, we will need to include all Americans, not just white men.
Belafonte’s entire opinion piece is reprinted below. Please take a moment to read it. Then vote today. As writer David Wallace once said, “There is no such thing as not voting. You either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some diehard’s vote.” Voting today may be hard. Republicans intend to make it as difficult as possible for people of color to cast their ballots. Don’t let them steal your vote by convincing you to stay on the sidelines. Get in the game and vote your conscience. It has never been more important to do so.
Harry Belafonte Speaks
Four years ago, when Donald Trump first ran for president, he urged Black people to support him, asking us, “What have you got to lose?” Four years later, we know exactly what we had to lose. Our lives, as we died in disproportionate numbers from the pandemic he has let flourish among us. Our wealth, as we have suffered disproportionately from the worst economic drop America has seen in 90 years. Our safety, as this president has stood behind those police who kill us in the streets and by the armies of white supremacy who march by night and scheme in the light of day.
We have learned other things from this president, too. We have learned the names that we say now, over and over again, at each protest, so that no one will forget them. The names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Atatiana Jefferson and Stephon Clark and so many more. Such killings did not start with Mr. Trump, of course. But he wants us to forget them.
If we do, he has offered us a “Platinum Plan” for “Black Economic Empowerment.” The name is appropriate because Mr. Trump is a man who thinks always in terms of financial transactions and deals. A “Platinum Plan,” as if he is offering to upgrade our credit card status. The plan, which at two pages is derisively brief, offers us a hodgepodge of things that he thinks we would like. He will prosecute the Ku Klux Klan — and antifa activists — as terrorists. He will make Juneteenth a national holiday and lynching a national hate crime. He will create “peaceful” urban, Black neighborhoods, replete with school choice, increased homeownership and the “highest standards” of policing. He will begin “a national clemency project” designed to “right wrongful prosecutions” and “pardon individuals who have reformed.”
In his ignorance or his indifference, or perhaps in his contempt, Mr. Trump does not seem to understand the difference between promises made and promises kept. Another Republican president, Ulysses S. Grant, first suppressed the Klan 150 years ago (and notable by its absence is any Trump promise to suppress the right-wing “militias” of Michigan, the Proud Boys or any of the others). The United States — finally, belatedly — made lynching a federal crime in the civil rights era, almost 60 years ago. Peaceful neighborhoods with affordable homes, good schools, a police force interested in protecting its citizens instead of treating them as an occupied people; safety from domestic terrorists and mob violence, economic opportunity, the celebration of our heritage, and impartial and merciful treatment under the law — these are the rights that most white people in America have long taken for granted, not some sort of concession to be offered as if we were indeed another nation.
Too often, the victories we have won have proved to be ephemeral or incomplete, and our full acceptance as Americans has once again been denied. We have learned to trust only those who will stand with us against the worst storms, who have proved themselves to be our friends not out of electoral expediency but through our shared belief in the best principles of this country and our common humanity.
The polls suggest, we are told, that Mr. Trump has made some small inroads in our vote, that a higher percentage of young Black men will vote for him in 2020 than did in 2016. I have difficulty crediting this. But if it is so, I would urge my brothers to listen better. Not just to the false promises Mr. Trump makes to us, but also at what he says when he is “alone in the room” with his white supporters, promising them at his rallies that if he is re-elected, people of color will not invade their “beautiful suburbs” from our “disgusting cities.”
Mr. Trump is too late. We are everywhere in America. We are in the bone and the blood and the root of the country. We are not going anywhere, certainly not to some fantasy of a new “separate but equal” segregation, we in “our” cities, white people in “their” suburbs.
Perhaps the president is confused by how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his greatest speech, referred to the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as a “promissory note to which every American is to fall heir.” Perhaps that gave Mr. Trump the idea that this was all about money. Surely, money — the household stake, the money with which to buy a home, secure a good education, start a family — was a vital goal of the movement then, just as the need for Black people to be made whole, after all the years of slavery and Jim Crow, is still a pressing need today.
But I was there with Dr. King that day, over a half-century ago, in the shadow of Lincoln’s statue, and what he spoke of was “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” He quoted the most fundamental promise of the Declaration, that all of us have “certain unalienable Rights” — among them “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It seems strange that we must still agitate for these basic rights, or that Mr. Trump thinks he is being magnanimous when he offers them to us again as last-minute campaign promises — so long as we stay in our place. In the past, we have turned the wheel in great bursts of energy and faith, and in between, when we stood exhausted and bloodied, there was some sliding back. That is always how it is in a democracy and a people’s movement, but now is the time to move forward again.
Four years ago, faced with the prospect of a Trump presidency, I wrote that what old men know is how quickly things can change. Well, I am still old but I am also still here, at 93, and for all the bitter lessons we have learned from Mr. Trump’s term in office, I can tell you that the wheel is turning again. That we have never had so many white allies, willing to stand together for freedom, for honor, for a justice that will free us all in the end, even those who are now most fearful and seething with denial.
We have learned exactly how much we had to lose — a lesson that has been inflicted upon Black people again and again in our history — and we will not be bought off by the empty promises of the flimflam man.