In the summer of 2013, I attended a one-day lecture series at the Ford Foundation in midtown Manhattan. The event, titled “The Way Forward for Civil Rights: The Quest for Change,” commemorates the half-centenary of the civil rights movement.
My panel was in the morning, but I stayed for the lunch meeting because Harry Belafonte and activist Dolores Huerta were in attendance. I met Belafonte once before and I was in awe of him. I didn’t know the Belafonte my parents knew, the young, handsome calypso singer. I knew him as a veteran statesman for black America, and his now raspy voice only seemed to deepen his seriousness.
Belafonte, then 86, did not disappoint. His words that day would change my life. He was wearing a smart cream suit, eloquent and erudite—sometimes even poetic—and I craned my neck to see if he was reading from a prepared text. But I can’t see any notes; we’re witnessing Belafonte’s splendor in real time. His words burn like a raging fire.
Sitting in the dining room of the Ford Foundation — one of the world’s largest foundations and a bastion of philanthropy — Belafonte said, “I think philanthropy is a big part of the problem” because it fails to provide real of changemakers provide funding. As he said, he wasn’t sure he would go to the event that day because he was tired of begging charities for money only to have them send back proposals for adjustments to the new standards, and board members “tell the streets how to shape language so that we can I appeal to your generosity.”
He denounced black leaders who he believed had been seduced and silenced by the allure of self-importation, saying, “The more money they throw at our leaders, the more they vote them, the more they give their black caucuses and The more Progressive Caucus they can sit in these little rooms and dance to their tunes, they can’t see what’s going on in the community down below.”
As Belafonte puts it, “We have become shadows of need, not illusions of power.”
After the initial success of the civil rights movement, he decried the cessation of pressure on the political establishment, saying: “We surrendered to greed. We surrendered to the pleasures of hedonism. We destroyed the civil rights movement. Look at the fruitful results we achieved , all the young men and women of our community run off to the feast and big business and opportunity of Wall Street. Amid that distraction, they leave their fields fallow.”
He even took the time to comment on hip-hop music. He loved its street-level pioneers, but believed it had been corrupted by corporate greed. “Wall Street heard the jingle, and then the businessmen stepped in and started adorning the culture with all the distractions that eventually took over the culture,” he said.
His assessment of President Barack Obama, then in his second term, was harsh and unrelenting. Obama, he said, has been “a source of hope, a source of opportunity and possibility, and I think we have given that moment more than what that moment is willing to bow to.”
He said he did not believe the president would see his governance “the way we want him to see it”. Belafonte continued, “I think one of the fundamental elements that is missing in Mr. Obama’s thought machine is that he kills radical ideas.”
Here, I diverge. It’s not that Obama himself stifles or suppresses radical ideas, but his presence, for society at large, sucks most of the air out of a room when issues of race are discussed. This dynamic began to change in 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman and just days before Belafonte spoke, Zimmerman was acquitted of murder and manslaughter. The acquittal and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement would transform Obama and his presidency, including becoming the origin of one of Obama’s enduring legacies: My Brother’s Guardians coalition.
But the point about curbing radical thought runs through Belafonte’s speech, and it’s the part I remember most. “Where are the radical thinkers?” he demanded.
He explained that at that stage of his life, he spent most of his time “encouraging young people to be more rebellious, more angry, more aggressive, making people who are comfortable with our oppression uncomfortable.”
It was a warm July day, so after that meeting, I decided to walk back to the offices of The New York Times, and as I did so, Belafonte’s question kept replaying in my head. The reality took hold of me, that I’d been playing too small a role as a writer, reporting and commenting on society and its institutions instead of actually challenging them. I was in danger of being lulled to sleep by professional vanity. I was wasting an opportunity and a responsibility.
The Belafonte issue has stayed with me ever since, it changed how and how I write, and a few years ago it prompted me to write my most recent book, The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto. It was the theme of that book, reversing the Great Migration to consolidate black power in several Southern states, that prompted my move to Atlanta.
I wrote several columns that mentioned Belafonte, and he always called me afterward. I wrote an article thanking him and his best friend Sidney Poitier for their extraordinary lives around their 90th birthdays. (They were born a week apart.) Part of the book I excerpted in The Times contained Belafonte’s inspiration. Last year I wrote a column about the death of Poitiers.
Each time, Belafonte expressed his thanks. As I write this, I just hope his answer makes it clear to me that I am the grateful one. He helped me clarify my ideas and mission at times when I might have dismissed them as trivial.