Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Introducing Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte arrives in the RISD Auditorium, January 29, 2013. Photo by John Maeda, via Twitter
I've had an ongoing interest in the power of oratory since I started researching "cultures of hearing" in the 19th century. Anti-slavery activists, temperance reformers, Lyceum lecturers, campaigning politicians, evangelical preachers--19th century urban Americans were not only surrounded by speech but believed in the potential of an utterance to transform one's life. This history really came alive for me last night, when I had the honor to introduce--and hear--singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who was visiting Rhode Island School of Design as part of its 2013 celebration of Martin Luther King's legacy.
Where can I possibly start to introduce you to the exceptional achievements of Harry Belafonte?  
For me, the best way to sum up this work is to think about the voice. The voice, of course, is the key tool of any singer and actor, and Mr. Belafonte's emergence as a star in the 1950s was centered on it--a controlled baritone, textured with a slight rasp, punctuated by sharp articulation, capable of explosive, raw emotion. His voice could work wonders with audiences. Starting out as a jazz crooner, he soon expanded to a broad repertoire of spirituals, calypso, gospel, the blues, and folk; in all, he transformed the melodic simplicity of traditional songs into passionate declarations of a diverse world. In movies, Broadway, and television, too, his voice became a recognizable element of the sonic landscape of America. He was the first African American to have a million-selling record, the African American to win a Tony, the first African American television producer, the first African American man to win an Emmy, the first African American to host "The Tonight Show"--the list of superlatives reflecting his boundary-breaking achievements as a singer and actor goes on and on.  
The idea of the voice, of course, also emphasizes the importance of Mr. Belafonte's social and political activism. More than any other entertainer in the latter half of the twentieth century, Mr. Belafonte has given his voice, enhanced by his celebrity, to the cause of global equity and human rights. It's another version of that Kevin Bacon "six degrees" game; name a social justice movement since the 1950s and you can connect Mr. Belafonte to it.  
He was a confidant of Martin Luther King and strategist for the Civil Rights Movement. He was a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps and liaison between leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and of liberation movements in Africa. He was a public advocate for the American Indian Movement. He established TransAfrica, a group instrumental in shaping the anti-Apartheid divestment movement. He was the founder of USA for Africa and its benefit album We Are the World, which addressed widespread famine in Ethiopia. He was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, conducting fact-finding in Rwanda just after the 1994 genocide and later working across Africa to promote public education and awareness of HIV and AIDS. He organized Nelson Mandela's triumphant tour of the United States in 1990. More recently, he organized the Gathering for Justice to address the crisis of youth incarceration, and he led the movement against U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And I'm only touching the surface, here, of his remarkable record of activism. 
This is not just about Harry Belafonte's voice, though. All voices are central to a functioning democracy. America is a country with a robust history of declarations, public hearings, presidential debates, oral arguments, mainstream voices, minority voices, dissenting voices, free expression. We all want a "chance to speak" and to receive "a fair hearing." It's why Walt Whitman celebrated "America singing" in 1850 and also why some of the most deeply troubling historical moments in U.S. history have involved silencing, from the sedition act of 1798 to the electoral exclusion of women and minorities. In this light, Mr. Belafonte has done something quite extraordinary throughout his career--not only has he raised his voice in song, not only has he given his voice to the cause of social justice, but he has, in doing those things, created new spaces in which those made voiceless can speak themselves and participate anew in public discourse.  
In Protestant Christianity, there is a tradition of being called to service, of hearing a voice that guides one to speak and act in the world, sometimes in ways that are contrary to worldly assumptions about value or success. However you might feel about the religious nature of this phenomenon, its basic idea has also animated democratic activism and change for centuries: voicing, hearing, and action are deeply intertwined. In that spirit, let us listen now, in the hope that we might find the inspiration to speak and act ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, let us give a warm welcome to Mr. Harry Belafonte.

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