SPECIAL REPORT: Harry Belafonte: ” MY MISSION IS NEAR THE END…”

I reposted this interview featuring one of the icons of entertainment and  civil rights- Harry Belanfonte. Lisa Binns had the privilege to write this story of the ‘Day O’ man, the man who sang to millions and helped lifted many from poverty. Great read. Enjoy.

by    @binnsee

This year marks the 50th anniversary of many civil rights accomplishments in the United States. But even then, leaders of the movement knew the struggle would continue. The recent high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police have galvanized a new generation of civil rights leaders. In the second of our two special reports, we bring two activists together, one from the old guard and one from the new.

When Harry Belafonte looks at Phillip Agnew, he sees his own political DNA will live on long after he’s gone.r/songwriters in history. Now 87, Belafonte is an advocate for a number of humanitarian causes and has taken on juvenile justice issues as a celebrity ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored his efforts, awarding him an Oscar statuette.

Belafonte recognizes that his mission is nearing its end, but says the legacy he helped create is in good hands as young civil rights champions such as Agnew step up. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, Agnew co-founded Dream Defenders, a youth-led social justice organization, and has become one of the most prominent leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign.

The two men sat down together last month to discuss their activist roots, the roles poverty and oppression have played in their lives and the future of social change. Their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

Bridging the generation gap

Belafonte: For a long time, many people have been asking, “What has happened to our youth?” and “Where is the next generation going?” For a lot of people that has been answered by suggesting young people are indifferent, that they are directionless. Nothing seems to motivate them. With the murder of young Trayvon Martin and your response to that experience, and the development of Dream Defenders, I think you instantly filled a space.

One of the things that I enjoy in this process is the fact that the community of young people in the resistance movement has begun to look very carefully at their history – at what preceded them. For those of us who are still alive and still have some of that history in our DNA, we’ve been called upon. So for us to be able to be of service where young people are going now is a kind of a wonderful circle for me. Have you found that my generation has been responsive to you to, to get what you need?

Agnew: Yes and no. I think you’re an example of someone from a previous generation reaching out and reaching back to young people. But I think actually the ball was dropped in between, so the generation immediately preceding ours didn’t really [get as much help]. So during the civil rights movement, the dominant aim and desire eventually moved toward integration. And with integration came assimilation, so the generation that followed you all, I believe, began to reap the rewards of the fights of the civil rights movement. I think the lessons that we’ve learned have almost been unsaid; it’s that the goals of the civil rights movement have yet to be fully met.

Belafonte, right, was one of King's closest advisers. They're seen together here in April 1965.

Belafonte, right, was one of King’s closest advisers. They’re seen together here in April 1965.AP/Horace Cort

Belafonte: I’m struck by your observation that integration was the target for the movement that we experienced in the 1950s, ’60s. But integration, I think that’s a little misunderstood. We [were] looking to integrate into America, whether it was racial integration, economic integration or some type of social integration. It was that we knew that if we were not part of the fabric of what this nation professed to be about, that if we didn’t have the right to vote, that if we didn’t have the right to attend institutions of our choice for learning, that if we didn’t have a chance to become a bigger part of the American dream that was, for us, also a dream that we would never really truly touch the heartbeat of what America was about. This was about a bigger integration. But it’s always been narrowed down to just the issue of race specifically.

When black people got the right to vote totally in this country, it was not just the right to vote as a mechanical act. How do you select the individuals that are going to represent us? The only ones who were visible enough for them to say, “We can trust this individual, or that individual” are all the personalities that emerged from the civil rights movement…That left a void and in that void was where everybody began to say, “What’s happened to our young?” Well, they were no longer being instructed when the leadership went off on another mission.

Poverty

Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew listens as Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks in July 2013.
Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew, left, listens as Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks in July 2013.

Agnew: After the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Dr. King’s final crusade over the last years of his life was to shift economic policies. And to be able to sit at a lunch counter next to a white man, what’s the use of it if you can’t afford to buy anything once you’re there? I believe that was the most dangerous part of Dr. King’s legacy and what he was trying to leave to the next generation. Do you think it’s time that all of us begin to have a front-facing, very outward indictment of capitalism and to embrace that a whole lot more in the way that we talk about what we want to see?

Belafonte: I think the indictment of capitalism is not a new theme for our current history. We’ve always been talking about economic parity. It’s always about owning resources and exploiting resources that nourishes the human existence on a level playing field. What black people have always wanted was not that we were rushing to become racially integrated. That was not really what the mission was about. But the specific target was to shape the economic paradigm.

Agnew: My first experience ever with activism was in college, and it was the murder of a young man namedMartin Lee Anderson. He was 14 years old. He was killed in a boot camp in Dade County, Florida.

It was in that experience that I really began to see what a path could look like for all the anger that I had about growing up poor, and all the anger I had about looking around and seeing everybody around me struggling. Everybody around me having to work double to make ends meet, and then also going to a magnet school where everybody seemed to be getting anything they wanted, and having everything in abundance. It was the first time that I was able to see that possibly my family wasn’t just unlucky or weren’t lazy or weren’t destined for poverty; that there was something else going on there.

Belafonte: People ask me, “What motivated you [to] become an activist?” And I said, “It wasn’t Karl Marx. It really wasn’t Abe Lincoln. It was just poverty.”

In the early years of my old career, I was branded as being arrogant and I never saw myself as arrogant. After I examined carefully why this critique was being put in place to define who I was, it was [that] white folks just weren’t used to hearing black people speak with a sense of equality. I want to speak just like you speak to the issues and say what’s on my mind and in my heart; your sense [is] that I’m not being servile enough, that I’m not being more appreciative of how benevolent you are. So here you come and now they’re not seeing you as arrogant. They’re seeing you as something far more interesting.

Agnew: Yeah, I don’t know how they see me. I don’t know if I’m as interested in how they see me as I am. We’ve been talking a lot within Dream Defenders. We’re beginning to frame our fight. Our target is not the Koch Brothers. Our target is – and in reading Dr. King, I think he would agree – not President Obama. Our target is actually public opinion. And it’s the masses of people that we’ve got to move and shift from their place of comfort or their place of ignorance possibly, or even just their place of complicity in the system to seeing the world in the way that we see it. Then, we can all collectively build a vision for the world, as we would all like to see it.

The power of voting

Belafonte: For us, just to get the right to vote was the target, assuming that once we got that right we would now be on our way to the utopia that you referred to. But when we got that right to vote, we abused that reward, because where is the full participation in that process? Of all the things I think we could do as a people in this country, the most important tool at our disposal is the vote.

Agnew, right, and the Dream Defenders were joined by Belafonte, second from the right, as they went into their 11th day of a sit-in of Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office in July 2013. The sit-in was their response to the ‘not guilty’ verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin.
Agnew, right, and the Dream Defenders were joined by Belafonte, second from the left, to sit in on the ‘not guilty’ verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin.AP/Phil Sears

The reason that we seem to be fighting the same fight all the time is because we are fighting the same fight all the time. This generation has to now go back and pay attention to the things that we had won, [which] are now being lost because of this power play. I think this thing that we feel redundant, that we are fighting the same thing, is because the enemy has always kept us in the same place.

Agnew: For me, this has always, always, always been about my personal experience with poverty – what I saw it do to my family, what I’ve seen it do to my family in the community that I came from, and what it did to me, mentally, physically, the effects it had on my relationships and the way that I saw myself.

Anxiety of a movement

Belafonte: One of the things that consistently nourished my commitment to Dr. King was his honesty. The fact that he remained eternally vulnerable, because he always was in question about his right to lead, his right to make decisions and do things that could have such an impact on human life. One of the things that he did in order to help him stay buoyant in the midst of the storm and decisions was the fact that he gathered around him people he thought would bring him instruction or points of view that would keep him on course. When he [had] severe anxiety, it was not for a long period of time, but it was evident enough for us to be of concern because he developed a tick. I remember I once took on “The Tonight Show” and hosted it for a week and Dr. King was one of my guests that week.

I noticed in that time, 1968, that he had less of that tick and that he had somehow maybe gotten over it. I said to him, “What happened to the tick?” I think he said – I don’t remember the exact thing – “What has gotten me over it is that I have made my peace with death.” And I said, “Made your peace with death?” He said, “Yes, I put that behind me. I’m no longer preoccupied with how I live or how long I live. If I die being in the service of uplifting fellow beings, then that’s my reward for the commitment.” And in that adjustment, he got rid of the tick.

Agnew: I think we all know at some point what our purpose is, and I was misaligned with it. I was horribly just in another place. The murder of Trayvon, for me, this was after Occupy [Wall Street] and after Troy Davis, and I looked around the country, and it seemed like there were a lot of other people who were just as angry as I was about the lot that we had been cast in life. It seemed like people around the country wanted to do something about it. Really, I just followed that. I was able to get back into activism during that time and since then been on a journey really to figure out and rediscover who I am and maybe what or who I’m supposed to be. And [I’m] also on a journey to tell other people about that journey; to tell young people that, look, please do not conform. Because I think once they take that away from our children, that desire to be different, to be unique, to question everything, to think critically about what’s around them, to question everything, then that’s when they win.

Belafonte: I am really quite touched by the extent to which Phillip Agnew and so many other young people have accepted the responsibility to move for social change – by their presence and by their courage and by the astuteness that they bring to the process. My mission is near its end. That’s just a fact of life. Not maudlin. Everybody dies. But in this space I found that in Phillip Agnew, [he has] my political DNA and that he wants to do it the way he’s doing it. [That] tells me that the future doesn’t look so bleak.

THE DISABILITY ACT IS TABLED FOR WHOM, THE DISABLED OR THE PEOPLE?

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The Jamaican government has finally done something for the people it serves. In our backward political system the Disabilities Act has been tabled finally putting into law the end of discrimination and ensuring the civil rights and equal opportunity for people with disabilities. You can ask yourself, why has it taken so long?  But before you ask such a question you have to remember that this is Jamaica where the only thing that goes with any modicum of swiftness is a police officer writing a traffic ticket.

The history of the path to full citizenship  of the Disabled began back in  1981  when the impotent United Nations declared something called  the UN “Decade of Disabled Persons”. In 1987, a global meeting of “experts” recommended that the UN General Assembly should draft an international convention on the elimination of discrimination against persons with disabilities. The political ‘experts’ were as usual on opposing sides of the debate  as some saw the disabled as having a fair path in society while others thought otherwise. Politicians are always very good at arguing for people and issues they have no knowledge or ever experienced what the people they are debating go through.

It was not until December 2006 that the Treaty was finally ratified at the UN level, signed by the member countries except for a few,notably our big friend to the North and the Act came into effect in 2008. But individual governments had to initiate their own Act for their own country and it is to this that Jamaica had its own internal fights trying to convince the naysayers that disabled persons are people just like the able bodied people and not a sector of society that only gets help through  ad hoc charitable events. They just do things differently, through no fault of their own.

imgresJamaica, this little island in the sun has an intrinsic cultural flaw in its DNA. We laugh at anyone that looks different , speaks differently  or acts differently. I remember as a child numerous persons were ridiculed by us kids because we were ignorant. We may get some scolding but really it was not that serious. Our society, including the Government,   look down on persons with disabilities with disdain and one blatant example is look at how we design our buildings, our schools, our churches, our apartmentS, whatever. Public places were not designed to accommodate persons with disabilities. In recent years there have been some improvement but it was not a national policy and if it was it was never enforced.  Which brings me to the crux of the matter, enforcement.

Its not that we don’t have laws on the books that point to numerous inadequacies and discrimination in Jamaica. It is a fact that we do not enforce laws, period. The political experts will huff and puff and promise to blow your house down if you are caught breaking the law but is he enforcing the law? In a country that is still governed by who is who, where do you live, who are your parents, who do you know, what are your political connections,  law enforcement comes down to these questions. It is therefore a travesty to think that this law will have any effect for the people it serves.

I hate to bring the hopes and aspirations of  the disabled community to this simple fact but we have to face the brutal truth. We know the animal we are dealing with. Jamaica does not have the infrastructure in place to effectively and justifiably ensure that the disabled persons will achieve the civil rights they deserve.  It is encouraging that some business have started to make a change before the Act was even tabled and some buildings now provide coded access for the disabled. It is also encouraging  that the Combined Disabilities Association has not stopped fighting for their rights but this association has little bite in their bark and will need funds to establish an effective lobby to sustain its ideals.   But the Jamaican population needs its own lobby to understand and change the cultural perception that being different means you are an outcast and a puppet for ridicule. And this is just one piece of the pie. There are other persons and organizations whose civil rights are violated in this country so whiter them?

There is no reason for Jamaica to pull its feet in joining the rest of the civilised world in ensuring its people enjoy human and civil rights. If the reason is our culture, well that can change if we want to change. As we move from 2104  and beyond our government , teachers and businesses  must ensure the people of Jamaica  are not left lagging behind the vast knowledge of information and social rebirth. We simply cannot be an island with backward thinking people in 2020  giving ourselves a reason for our backwardness by calling it a ‘third world’ problem. We choose to be ignorant to civil rights because we want to be ignorant. We choose not to extend civil rights to other members of the society because we still live under a system of white supremacy , failing to develop our own strategies like the white man did to ensure his society move ahead as one, educated and  informed and through time and action become a so called first world nation. Our politicians are not our leaders to this promised land, this land of equality for all. We have to do it ourselves, together, with one aim, one purpose.

A reporter once asked a noted intellectual Asian to address the concerns of the Black man and his existence. Here is his response:

The INTERVIEWER: “And the Black man Mr Chin, what about his concerns?”

MR. CHANG: “He does not count into our situation. He is simply here. We do not hate the Black man. We just love the Asian man most. Real love–not cliche. We want to see Asian man happy, so we employ him. We eat together. We spend time with each other. We want his kids to be educated, so we invest in our own schools that offer our children the technical abilities to change the world’s power structure in our favor. We want to see the Asian man safe, so we purchase and organize our own communities. We want him to remain Asian, so we reduce the outside influence of others ideologies and cultures. While he fought to sniff behind the White man, the Black man has had the opportunity and every right in the world to do the same, but he chooses to indict people like me for not hiring him over my own brothers. For me to do this would be foolish and that would not be Asian love. In contrast, the Black man will fight for the right to be up under everyone else other than other Black people who he should feel the most love for. If our indifference to their situation make us racist, then what would you call the Black man’s indifference to his own situation?”

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Why do I think that despite the attempt to pass this Act,  the real life of the Act will be killed by our  own bias and prejudices for the disabled? I hope I am wrong as I am not worried about the disabled. No, they have managed to ably live with little help from the government and country for years. It’s the people of Jamaica that concerns me, their stubborn and colloquial lifestyle that to this day we hide behind as our excuse for not doing the right thing. For me this attitude symbolises the true disability in a way the wheelchair does not.