“Had it not been for Paul Robeson, Dr Dubois, who gave us keen instruction, who put their lives on the line, who stood strong in the midst of tremendous opposition, we would not have been the beneficiary of what would be the guiding factors of our lives.
In that journey, I dare say that I found my centre as a human being, I found my centre and I found purpose for how I was to use my life. And the greatest example for me was the man who chose to mentor me; who found me very early in life and began to give me instruction that made me feel a part of the world in which he lived and by his intellect, strength and courage set my course and that was Paul Robeson.
I was a high school dropout (and that’s not an uncommon story in our communities) but I was instilled with a strong sense of loss at not getting a degree, I was not able to find a way to articulate my feelings and thoughts and ideas.”
~Harry Belafonte, Human Rights Activist & Artist
From his early life as a school dropout, who worked as a handyman, to becoming one of the greatest talents and activists, Harry Belafonte shares his thoughts on Culture, Arts, Mentorship and Civil/Human Rights Activism below:
When I came back from the second world war the best of my skills was to be a handyman. I worked as an assistant janitor’s assistant in a building; I took care of the garbage, I took care of the latrine, I took care of mopping the hall, I took care of repairing things that needed repairing…, and it was on one such occasion, as gratuity, I was given a tip; 2 tickets to the community theatre in Harlem, New York, called the American Negro theatre.
When I walked into this place, I sensed there was a reverence about it….It was OUR theatre, our voices were to be heard. There was a silence, a silence that suggested we were in a place that was sanctified. There were expectations. When the lights dimmed and the curtains opened, that expectation was revealed to me.
I saw black men and women standing on a stage, I saw them digging into the poetry of black voice and I saw them articulate a sense of hope and future and purpose ….And I sat riveted throughout that evening and I knew I had come upon a place and a moment where my life would forever be changed.
I begged to be a part of that group, I asked to be permitted to stay, to do anything, just to be in the environment, to hear, to be touched by the purpose that these young men and women were immersed in. And a handyman working, I eventually wound my way into being part of the classes, to listen to the lectures.
And one night we’d decided to do a play called Juno and the Paycock, written by an Irish playwright, by the name of Seán O’Casey, to be done by this black cast. And this play was about the Irish resistance to British domination. And we from the Caribbean, and in our black community in Harlem, felt very much in sympathy with the content of that play, and so we performed it with great relish.
On the second night of our performance, in came a man to visit us. His name was Paul Robeson and we were quite stunned that in our humble environment, this giant should have decided to come visit. And at the end of the play he stayed, and what we thought would be a polite protocol visit, stretched into a two-hour visit, with Paul Robeson, him impacting his sense of culture, theatre and the power of the arts….
It was he who taught me and showed me that the power of the arts was perhaps the most powerful force on the face of the Earth. After all, it was indeed the arts that held the black family together. It was culture; it was our ability through the arts, and through the voice of artistic expression, that we had handed down our history from one to the other; it was in our music, in our songs that we had language that talked about our liberation, our joys and our expectations in life…it is through our oral history that we understood who we were as a people.” ~Harry Belafonte
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