Harry Belafonte*As I prepare to address students at Grambling University about the importance of giving back and having the courage to fight for social justice, my mind is drawn to the words of our predecessors who paved the way for all of us to have the freedoms that we enjoy to this day.  At the top of the list is the legendary entertainer, Harry Belafonte.

This week, Belafonte laid down the gauntlet for black entertainers, some of whom have become ecstatic about selling their souls to the highest bidder (or the lowest common denominator).  Belafonte, saying things that probably make half of the entertainment industry wish he’d been killed with Dr. King, stated that the indifference of celebrities to black suffering is “unconscionable.”

This is the second time that Harry has said something to undermine his love within the black entertainment establishment by actually asking entertainers to be accountable to something other than buying bottles at the club.  Just a few weeks ago, Harry asked Beyonce and Jay-Z (aka the royal family) to do something for the black community that didn’t including blogging about Blue Ivy’s new line of baby sneakers or tweeting pictures of themselves on vacation.  This is a tough task for people who’ve been led to believe that the world is their oyster, and that poor black people simply don’t exist.

Harry Belafonte is in an uphill battle, especially when it comes to the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce, who’ve become the prototype of the new “Greed is Good” philosophy that has taken over black entertainment.  Jay-Z, the man who attacked the Occupy Wall Street movement even as he tried to make money from it, was raised with the mindset of a hardened New York crack dealer who doesn’t seem to have learned the value of caring about anyone other than himself.  Jay-Z still sees himself as a product of his environment, rather than a man who can control his environment, like a 7-foot giant with the mind of a four year old victim of child abuse.

Beyonce, on the other hand, was raised in a suburban, affluent community in Texas, where poor people are simply the ones that you manipulate for your own economic gain, not those for whom you make significant sacrifices.  The psychological slavery of some black folks in the deep south can be so frighteningly insidious that you want to send out emails announcing that slavery ended nearly 150 years ago.   Rocking the boat is the last thing you’ll ever see out of many black Texans, especially those who’ve been accepted by white people.

But the fact is that, in spite of the resistance he is sure to receive, Harry Belafonte is nothing less than entirely heroic for doing what he is doing right now.  As an 85-year old man, Harry shows more courage for the black community in one week than most celebrities show in an entire lifetime.  Most members of the black entertainment industry just don’t get it, and the truth is that many of them never will.  In their minds, making money makes you into a decent and relevant human-being, nothing else seems to matter beyond that.

When Harry says, “I need you to help alleviate black suffering,” he’s speaking about the trauma being experienced by millions of black youth due to urban violence, the prison industrial complex, black unemployment and unequal educational systems.  But when he makes his critique, people from Beyonce’s camp might reply with, “But we DID help with Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative and we also supported gay marriage, so take THAT!”

Celebrities don’t understand that cute, polite and uncontroversial forms of activism, like anti-obesity initiatives (you know, things that are designed to keep white people from getting upset with you), are not even in the same ballpark when it comes to the type of empowered activism being requested by men like Belafonte.  That’s like someone saying, “Our nation needs a stronger military,” and another person replying with, “Well, we just bought 400 water balloons and a sling shot and we’re training all of our soldiers to prepare for massive pillow fights.”

Harry is talking about saving that illiterate teenager in South Central Los Angeles who is worried about being shot on the way to school, who comes home to an empty refrigerator after seeing her father sent to prison for 150 years for drug distribution.   The last thing this kid needs is to have Beyonce and Michelle Obama show up to tell her to eat her vegetables.  This reminds me of missionaries that go to starving villages in Africa with a stack of bibles and no food or medicine.  Perhaps the next time Beyonce rubs elbows with the Obamas, she can ask them to use the power of the presidential pardon to send that little girl’s daddy back home so she can have her father in her life again, or to change the gun laws so that teenagers can’t buy AK-47s and blow each other’s heads off before their 16th birthday.

Topics like anti-obesity and gay marriage are perfect reflections of the Beyonce-Jay Z activism that has long been adopted by members of the entertainment industry.  The goal is to be seen with the black elite and other members of the political aristocracy who gladly elevate themselves above the masses.  The Carters love taking pictures with the Obamas and appearing at joint events with them, as the rest of us sit back and marvel, fantasizing about enjoying just a piece of the empty, materialistic life that most of us will never have.  All the while, the willingness to engage in truly impactful sacrifices to slow the suffering of black people is virtually non-existent, for members of the black elite feel obligated to sacrifice for nothing other than the size of their bank accounts.

If scientists could invent a fountain of youth, they should give it to Harry Belafonte.  He’s simply in a class by himself, and represents something that almost no entertainer could ever be.   Harry’s mind is operating at the doctoral level, while many black celebrity brains refuse to leave the third grade.  Harry is saying to all of us that many of those we profess to care about are struggling in ways that we simply can’t imagine, and that it is up to us to use our platforms to truly liberate the entire black community and not just rap about being a “Nigger in Paris.”

Maybe one day entertainers will get it.  But even if they don’t, the rest of us should.  Harry Belafonte is nothing short of extraordinary, and he won’t live forever.  It’s up to those of us who respect him to relight and carry this torch forever.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. He also appears in the Janks Morton film “Hoodwinked.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

boyce watkins

Dr. Boyce Watkins