‘Day-O’: An Interview Between Harry Belafonte and Geraldine Wilson (Part 1)

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Geraldine Wilson, date unknown

When I first arrived at the Schomburg Center in 2013, I was full of many emotions. I was happy to research the Flowers family in such a prestigious archive, yet I was unsure of how to search through eighteen boxes of information in three days. Hours deep in Box 2 and 3 of Geraldine Wilson’s Papers, I came across a rather lengthy interview Geraldine conducted with Mr. Harry Belafonte. Most people would have fainted, but not me. The name did not register in my mind at the time; therefore I continued on with my research for my focus was finding papers and records of her aunt, Rachel Flowers. Three weeks later, I was back in college preparing for my senior year and preparing to attend the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Prior to leaving, my supervisor handed me a Time issue commemorating this event and one of the first images I saw was of Mr. Belafonte. My jaw hit the floor.

Rule #1 in research, always retrieve copies of everything even if you do not think that it is important. 

Following this mishap, I returned to the Schomburg a year later to retrieve this interview. Now (two years later), I am finally reading and posting this interview. The original interview was given on a radio show in 1985. The copy located in this collection was typed and edited by Geraldine. For this blog post, I have used her edits, marked in bold, and kept it in its original form. With that being said, you may see grammatical errors. If she put in an extra space, I put in an extra space. If she spelled his name one way and then another, I did the same. I have also attempted to decipher her handwriting to the best of my ability.

Enjoy!


The Interview
Geraldine Wilson (GW) and Harry Belafonte (HB)

GW: Can we talk about that recording that everybody sings. It’s been on the radio. I understand that you had a role at bringing that together.

HB: Yes, I did. I was, first of all deeply disturbed by hunger, starvation and holocausting in many of the African countries and I was feeling a great sense of impotence because of the enormity of the problem and I also felt a great deal of frustration because I didn’t feel that, in particular, Black citizens of Black artists were responding as fully as I thought we should do that quest. I don’t mean to define the cure to the problem, or the their cause of the problem as racial but I just thought that as African descendants, if we did not express as passionately and deep a concern about that problem as we should, it would be somewhat an imbalance to expect the white community then to exercise itself of the whole problem.

So, reducing all that it its most duable character for me, of course, was due to perspective from me within the arts community.

Because Since Black people are so prominent to live. I felt that we had taken the initiative to get something going but we wd then perhaps ___?___ ...a greater outreach in the arts community and generally to the nation. It was in that context that I began calling around to see how we could put something together and I link that with a man by the name of Ken Gragan who is an artist representative and a manager of a lot of prominent artists. Due, because of his relationship with a folk artist and a man of whom I had respect by the name of Hai Chapen, who died about 4 years ago in an unfortunate accident. Hai Chapen was managed by Ken Gregan and Hair Chapen committed his life to eradication of world hunger, and I felt that since Ken Gregan represented Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers and people like that, <blank space> I felt he would be the path of least resistance and it turned out to be so, I called him and set up a mobilization of the collections of these artists and then Lionel Richie wrote the song along with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones did the arrangements and produced the album. All the artists gathered together in California when it was still young??

GW: Are you pleased with the record? Did you expect to do so well so quickly?

HB: No, not at all. As of this day, it has made twenty million dollars. There even greater expectations for it, the economic…

GW: Could you tell us something about you, who you are, who your ancestors are, where you come from?

HB: I was born in the U.S. of West Indian parents. My mother and father came from Jamaica. My father was a seaman. Because of the absence of employment, he became a chef and eventually became a first class chef. He was a great cook, my mother was a domestic worker and a mother and my parents separated when I was quite young; both remarried. I had two brothers and sisters one of my brothers died. My sister and mother are still alive. My sister Shirley Cooks was the Director of the Cultural Commission in Atlanta. My brother Raymond is a political broker and they constantly shift him/from firm and job to job, it turns out he’s very busy with tink tank, he’s very much the __________ type. I expect that all my infancy in the U.s. with all the formative/developing years were spent in Jamaica because my parents took be back there.

My parents still live there although there are quite a few of them here in the U.S.. I stayed in the West Indies until 1939 when the war broke out between Germany and England and not trusting the outcome oft that encounter, my mother brought me to the U.S. some consternation, some problems were hard because she just did not want her boys loose in the streets of Harlem in New York but like all women trapped in that condition, she put it together and that endowed all of her children with a great sense of purpose. The life around us endowed us with a great sense of purpose. The life around us endowed us with a great sense of dignity and the concern and commitment to humanity and taught us to do that with. She always thought that anger was important but because of that anger you’d have to be determinedly subservient; but anger in, on itself/another? was only a healthy force if it was directed toward its proper goals.

And so those early years I understood that social commitment, social activist, political commitment. If only in its most earth-like, in its most basic sense, it didn’t become a sophisticated role for me until I became acquainted with men like Dr. Bentoni (sp.) Dubois and particularly Paul Rosen who’s my mentor, kind of like surrogate father in a way, although we didn’t ever live together, we were constantly exposed to one another, I was a great supporter of his. I had learned so much from him that much of the way I conducted my own life was based on all the experiences with Paul Rosen and then. Subsequently, my association with Dr. Martin Luther King was a long and meaningful one.

GW: Would you say you were greatly influenced then by Paul Rosen?

HB: Oh, there’s no question about it; greatly.

GW: Did you meet Dr. DuBoise and what was he like?

HB: He was quite awesome. He was a gentle man but you also knew that there was room for people who refused to be informed. He had very little tolerance for those. I met him through a writer friend of mine bu the name of John Killens. I got to know him much better through John’s visits to Dr. Duboise’ home since he lived in Brooklyn after he married Shirley Graham.

I’ve known Dr. DuBoise prior to his association with John Killens becuase [sic] I was very active….the young progressives in America which was around the year 1948 when Dr. Duboise ran for the Senate of the State of New York and Paul Rosen was busy campaigning for Henry Wallace in the Progressive Party. We tried at that time to create a viable third party in the U.S. to give an alternative to both the Repubcn [sic] and the Democratic party machinery and, as history show, we didn’t do very well with this party, but we did set a level of political consciousness in this country which did not exist prior to that time, at least, for many of us in the Black c [sic]. We began to have because of Dr. DuBoise and     Pan Africanism, a rich and global view, particularly in our own quest for information and knowledge about who are we and as well as who we are.

in the African ____________ where do we come from, where we are and where we’re going because there was no recorded history and what history was was [sic] was unavailable to those of us who have the problem of access to having books in general and for those of us who did not quite understand the importance of Marcus Garvey in our lives, especially since I was a young child. But I’d say that the exposure to these men add their presence in our lives, was, perhaps, the singlemost important infusion from external > outside mymother [sic] and my influences on my own community experiences. Also, I served in the U.S. Navy during the time of the second World War almost 2 years and in that experience I also learned a great deal about the conditions of Black people because of his environment conditions and because they, in the Armed Forces, appeared segregated so we were contained in exclusive Black units in my Batallion and my assignments were always within the Black parameters in the service and I learned a great deal because I saw a tremendous diversity in Black people that I didn’t know existed. Of course I understood that we had diversification because of my West Indies experiences and also with my experiences in Harlem.

It’s been a cosmopolitan and it’s been the great center of our lives but in that community we kind of related only to our own tribal interests and moved primarily within the West Indies community. But in the Navy I got to know Blacks from Alabama, Miss. & Tx, and found out that we have enormous variety in our existence and I’ve also come to understand that through Dr. Duboise and my experiences with my Black colleagues through my tenure in the armed services that Africa and the world was infinitely more different and qualitatively than the Tarzan interpretations that I had grown up with from the ruling elements in our country, permitted that myth to be the most prevalent perception of Africa, which in itself, has shaped many early complexes that I think many of us developed about our blackness, about our Africanness and when I speak to my mother and people like DuBoise and Rosen, with tremendous courage and forthrightedness, dignity. I don’t know whether we would have come as far as we have known that we have today.


Part II will be posted quite soon.

Until the next post,

CJ

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One response to “‘Day-O’: An Interview Between Harry Belafonte and Geraldine Wilson (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Part II: Interview Between Harry Belafonte and Geraldine Wilson | Diary of a Historian·

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