It's been 60 years since singer Harry Belafonte released The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) on vinyl. He had spent much of his youth in Jamaica and has said he chose to sing the traditional island work song as a way to challenge negative cultural assumptions about people of the Caribbean.
The legendary musician, actor, and outspoken civil rights activist is now 90 years old, and he is still challenging Americans to rethink their assumptions about their world.
He’ll be in New Haven next week – not for a concert – but to talk about issues of social justice. Here are highlights from a recent conversation he had with WNPR’s Diane Orson.
On gun control
Why not take a look at America’s propensity for violence? The fact that our culture and our history has been so rooted in an attraction to violence -- so much of our art, so much of our entertainment, so many of our television programs geared towards our children, just talking about stopping the sale of guns is not enough. As important as that is, there also has to be another debate: a debate on what does America do about its attraction to violence?
On the moment we're living through in the U.S.
I believe that the nation is at the crossroads of probably our most challenging moment in history. I think that this country has to take stock of what it’s doing to itself and what it’s doing to the world at large, and begin to take responsibility for making sure that our discourse, our debate, our exchanges on ideas of how to develop as a society is rooted in subject matter that has to do with the absence of violence.
I think that there is no greater example on what can be done on the issue of violence and the practice of violence than was given us by Dr. King. His whole theme of a non-violent society and for us to take stock of the fact that if we did not step away from the use of violence, we would ultimately be destroyed by violence. And I think we’re on that slippery slope.
On his life as both an artist and an activist
It's very simple. When I first stepped into the arena of the practice of the arts, it was in a little group up in Harlem called The American Negro Theatre.
In that environment, young artists were visited by a very renowned figure in our time, a man by the name of Paul Robeson. And Robeson instructed us as to the fact that since we’d chosen the arts, that we should be mindful that it was a sacred place to reside, and used words, like telling us, “Artists are the gatekeepers of civilization’s truth.” We are the ones that are the moral compass to society. So that when artists do what we do, we instruct, we influence, we inspire.
That gave me room to understand that as an artist, I should spread the word and an aspect of the word and the truth was non-violence.
There’s much to be done and much that can be done. The question is do we have the will to do it?
Harry Belafonte will speak on October 18 in New Haven in a benefit for Christian Community Action.