Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

On Two Giants: Belafonte and Davis

It should come as no surprise that both Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis figure prominently in the text of Keep on Pushing:  both are great American activists, with essential ties to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and the political and cultural events that shaped their times—then and now. This week I had the good fortune to hear both of them speak in person: Monday, Harry Belafonte addressed an audience in discussion with Tim Robbins, at a benefit for the Actor’s Gang, a community theater organization that also works with the prison population.  Then on Thursday evening, a talk between Angela Davis and Robin Levi was aimed at raising awareness about the prison industrial complex, specifically the California prison situation and the women in them.  Held at the UCLA/Hammer Museum, the event coincided with Now Dig This, a survey of LA African American-themed art, which is the runaway hit and must-see show of the city-wide Pacific Standard Time art exhibit.  As Davis explained, many of the visual artists on display were also “of the movement.”

Born and raised in Birmingham Alabama and educated at Brandeis University, while studying French and philosophy in Paris, Angela Davis learned of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed the four little girls with whom she’d been acquainted at home as a child.  Continuing her studies at home and abroad, she eventually returned to UCLA and Los Angeles in 1969, a time where the heat was turned up high on the Black Panthers, as well as anyone else interested in the politics of revolution; the UC Board of Regents made it difficult for her to teach peacefully.  When she was falsely accused of being an accomplice in the kidnapping and murder of Marin County Judge, Harold Haley, she served time in a California detention center.  A nationwide, grassroots campaign to liberate her contributed to her being set free after 18 months and her ultimate acquittal.  In 1972 the  Rolling Stones recorded “Sweet Black Angel” about her on their epic set, Exile on Main Street; John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band cut “Angela” on their Some Time in New York City album  (the Stones sing “keep on pushing,” while John and Yoko tell her to “keep on moving”).

In the decades since she made headlines and the FBI’s most-wanted list, Davis has continued to work as an activist, educator and author.  After teaching at one prestigious university after another, ironically, she returned to the UC system, to become a Distinguished Professor Emerita at UC Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness Department.   She also founded the prison abolition organization, Critical Resistance, “dedicated to opposing the expansion of the prison industrial complex.”

Harry Belafonte was inspired by the works of singer-actor Paul Robeson, who became a mentor.  Early in his career as an actor turned singer, he reached out to foster a cross-cultural alliance with South African artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.  On the Greenwich Village music scene, Belafonte had familiarized himself with traditional American folk songs through his work in the theater.  In 1956, he released Calypso for which he turned to his Caribbean roots; it would sell in the millions.  Choosing his roles and repertoire with precision, Belafonte was uncompromising as an artist which earned him a commanding reputation; he explained that sometimes it was difficult for his peers to metabolize his energies, though he didn’t mean for it to be this way. As it was, he was the obvious choice for Dr. King who needed his assistance organizing the entertainment communities and their financial resources for the Freedom/Civil Rights movement.  Helping to organize the March on Washington, Belafonte became not only a confidante of Dr. King’s but he helped introduce African music to wider audiences.  His relationship to South Africa and the struggle against apartheid grew deeper; he became an intimate of Nelson Mandela.  From famine relief in Ethiopia to working with the incarcerated in the USA, Belafonte’s artistic gifts landed him on the frontlines of activism, which is where he’s lived for over 50 years.

The similarities between Belafonte’s and Davis’ stories are striking, a man and woman, two different generations, one a drop-out, the other highly educated. Yet both told stories of their mothers, young country girls who had to overcome resistance, obstacles and indignities to get themselves schooled, then went on to become fierce defenders of education. Today, both Belafonte and Davis are advocates for education, especially among prisoners—the people Davis calls “the other one percent”—who need to know their basic human rights.  Education has also been proven as a solution to recidivism, and contributes to the greater good of humankind, inside and outside prison walls. Both activists also share a vocal and visible enthusiasm for the Occupy Wall Street Movement; both had visited the New York encampment, while Davis has visited and spoken at various Occupy demonstrations.  She said that on November 2, the day the Port of Oakland was shut down, she joined somewhere between 10,000—to 15,000 people on the street, some of them from her own generation, all of them cheered by the protests led by the new generation of activists.  As for President Obama, and to anyone who may be disillusioned by his performance after three years on the job, Davis offered a reminder.

“Let us not forget that moment,” she said, referring to election night, 2008, as well as the collective amnesia that afflicts American consciousness.  “It was a triumphant moment,” she said.  Reiterating that protest and pressure is an American tradition she added, “We cannot allow one of these Republicans to get elected,” she said.  While Belafonte had  a few things to say about Herman Cain…

I probably don’t need to add that Mr. Belafonte, 84, and Ms. Davis, 67, were both extraordinarily gracious while greeting their public after their formal presentations.  They took time, meeting each gaze and responding to the individual requests of handshakes and photos with them. Their love for the people, has made them much beloved by the people. The warmth generated in the rooms they occupied in LA during the blustery last week of November/first week of December  will sustain some of us through the upcoming season—the one that passes for winter around here.

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Filed under: Angela Davis, Calypso, Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, Occupy Wall Street

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