The Carnegie Museum of Art Welcomes Harry Belafonte

Image by: Brian Cook via Pittsburgh Courier

By: Jordyn Gillard, contributing writing

On Friday October 20th the Carnegie Museum of Art invited actor-turned-social-activist, Harry Belafonte, to discuss the place of the arts in social activism. Known for his roles in Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher, and Odds Against Tomorrow—to name a few—Belafonte became a household name before he dedicated his life to fighting injustice. He even worked with the famous Martin Luther King Jr. He shared his life story, discussed his involvement with the civil rights movement, and elaborated on his views of social activism to the attentive crowd.

The event kicked off with a local jazz band called the Tania Grubbs Trio. They performed in the lounge as people filed in and waited to be seated when the doors opened at 7:30. By 8:00 everyone was seated, and the room swelled with the anticipation of hearing civil rights hero Harry Belafonte speak about his experiences.

The moderator for the evening was none other than Janice Wilson, the president and CEO of the August Wilson Museum. Wilson began the event with a thought-provoking question: “would you risk your life and career for your neighbor sitting next to you?” While the audience was left to ponder the question, Wilson began reading Belafonte’s biography. As Wilson introduced Belafonte the crowd gave a standing ovation. Although he needed assistance taking his seat and he moved a lot slower than he used to, his spirits were still strong. While taking his seat Belafonte took the mic and thanked everyone for attending what he expected to be his last public appearance.

Belafonte began the lecture by updating the audience of his recent stroke. The 91-year-old said while he was entering his local grocery market when he leaned against the wall and grabbed his chest. The stroke caused Belafonte to lose hearing in his inner hear, and his sense of balance. Although the stroke physically affected Belafonte, he was still able to describe the important events that had impacted his life.

Born in New York City to Harold George and Melvine Bellanfanti, Harry is the eldest of three siblings. Belafonte’s family lived in Jamaica before his mother left the Caribbean to find a better life in Harlem, New York. The single mother struggled and fought against poverty and racism while raising three boys. Although Belafonte said his mother was “much too young to be having children” at the time, she instilled resiliency in them. When he was seven years old, Melvine gave Belafonte words of wisdom that he has lived by for over 80 years, “Do not come upon injustice before you pause to fix it. Those words set the tone for what my life would be.”

Belafonte was a high school dropout and he struggle with dyslexia. Even with the odds stacked high against him, he never gave up. He worked as a janitor’s assistant to make ends meet. While at work one day a woman, who Belafonte would later reveal as Ruby Dee, gave him two tickets to a theater production. Belafonte joked he “really wanted two dollars, not two tickets,” yet he acknowledged “it was there that my life started.” The theater made Belafonte feel like he was “in a place of remarkable power.”

“I loved the way the actors captured emotions” Belafonte said with a smile. He fell in love with acting, and began taking acting classes. When it became evident that he could no longer afford his acting classes, his friend Lester Young told him he should start singing. Belafonte began singing at the Royal Roost as an intermission singer. The first song he sang was “Pennies for Heaven” in that moment Belafonte “never looked back.” He went on to share the stage with Al Hank, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Belafonte soon found himself auditioning for Village Vanguard, which he calls his “first real job because I got to sing songs that meant a lot to me.”

Belafonte was performing in the Irish play “Juno and the Paycock” when he first met Paul Robeson; they became close friends. Robeson told Belafonte, “artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” and because of this. Belafonte made sure that he always spoke his truth. “I noticed how punished people were for speaking out against injustice,” Belafonte said. “I made sure I did not have a relationship with the industry that could silence my voice.” Because of his popularity, Belafonte soon realized he did not need a big-name company to back him, he had his fans. “Because of my audience I had the economic independence to stand on my own.” Belafonte has used his platform to become the voice of minorities who are oppressed by America’s long-standing systems of prejudice and injustice. In view of the current political climate, he said, “If America doesn’t change after Trump I will have no appetite to see 95.”

The evening concluded with a question and answer portion followed by a sold out VIP dinner with Mr. Belafonte.