Part One can be found here.
Harry Belafonte, Source
GW: Tell me about you and books as when you were a child, and you were reading. We have lots of teachers and our focus has been on books for children. One of the most important children’s book author is Shirley Graham’s brother, Lawrence Graham.
GW: I know you have a wonderful .
HB: Yes, I do. I had a very, very difficult time. Books were of almost no importance of money. First of all, I was a dyslexic child ans [sic] since no one understood that, I was perceived as a child who was highly reluctant to living up to his potential, all kinds of tests were given to me suggested this: especially in the West Indies, where first of all, the teaching methods were very, very classic and almost primitive, with a rigid discipline to the learning process, corporal punishment was part of the penalty for not learning, floggings and beatings by the cane
I just did not get along well with books, never lived up to what was considered my academic intellectual. What happened to me was that I took to books during the period of my service in the U.S. Navy because through all experience, that only in Harlem, as a child growing up there, I did fairly well in communication which may have been part of the reason I took to the performing arts.
I would listen to men in my barracks talk about all kinds of thing that were of interest to me, ,particularly politics, black history, what the Walter White and the NAACP were doing, what William Randolph was doing with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the Mobilization of the mobilization of the slipping cot quaters [sic] and the confrontation with the whole issue of segregation (racial segregation and discrimination) and when this country would seek to mobilize itself in a war effort, how diligently and how brilliantly A. William Randolph pursued Black liberation as well as pointing out the trades of this country in that role and being persistent in their racist alienation over Blacks in this country.
All of this was going around while were were in service, particularly since we were in a war that said we were out to defeat Fascism and that the war existed for the purpose of all people of the earth. We found many loopholes in that bitter propaganda because the spoken word came nowhere near the practice. So there was a lot of dialogue; men talking about 17 years old. I listened to them, they, in their wisdom; they were lofty terms and/they were referring to very significant pieces of literature that existed and the first piece of literature that I could remember that put up in me the importance of reading and took me through excruciating paces in order to absorb the information is a book written by Dr. DuBoise called “The World in Africa.” I was given a lot of pamphlets by the people in our barracks who came from the various organizations defining various conditions not only by Blacks in this country, but the whole issue of the labor movement in this country. My father was very active in trying to have organized the National Maritime unions in America. I was struggling through this book and knowing that only 5% of it could I absorb because constantly in this book, DuBoise referred to other works. The assumption being that anybody who was informed enough to absorb what he had to say would have to have made all of his references. This led me to go to his references to try to catch up with him which was a very, very frustrating experience because to not having some guidance counselor, reading this information made the information a little bit more confusing and complex. The next encounter with reading, I think became if my exposure to DeBoise [sic] was a ragged path to a jungle and therefore it was sig-zagging experience. I did get to the other side of the forest. My next experience may have paved the way, it went straight throhgh [sic], It was then I became involved in the American Negro Theater in Harlem and we were to do a play called “Juneo & the Peacock,” written by an Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and when I read Sean O’Casey’s play, although it was written in dialogue and although some of the words leaped down the page because of the disorder, I discovered poetry and I discovered the application of language in the performing arts that gave the theater and acting a significance where it did not have and it was through that piece of literature I made the decision to become an actor, I made the decision to pursue the theater as my main interest and that in turn, led me to the New School of Social Research, the Dramatic Workshop which was the drama division of the school. The school was under the directorship of Irving Perscatta. He was a German Jew who had fled Germany because of the procecution [sic] of Jews. He came from the Max Reineheart (sp?) Theater which was considered the most advanced theater in the world and it was the home of Dr. Albraght (sp?) and many of the enlightened writers that turned me to some of the leading thinkers in the world at that time. So with him as my leading energy and later experiences in the theater, I was later exposed to Jean Paul Saitre and to Gorki, Chekov and to Shakep and all of the classic international literature, so it wasn’t until later in my years that I became exposed to books and I had all of the early readers (the things all children have, the ABC books, and the Jack & Jill, stories Sambo books. If you’re talking about that reading shaped me as a person ____________________ (?? too low) [sic].
GW: You told me how you came to know about Africa in a political sense, you’ve been an outspoken protester of the South African government practices. Could you tell us when Southern Africa first became a reality to you. When did you first know about Southern Africa?
HB: I first came to know about South Africa through Paul Rober
tonson. I came to know about Africa n in general and some of its specifics thorugh [sic] DeBois [sic]. I didn’t have any human links to Africa on any significant portions until I met with Tom Mboya who was a great leader in the Kenyan Revolution/a rebellion against against [sic] the British called the “MauMouth Uprisings” and headed by general Kenyatta and when Tom Mboya came to the U.S. he had known of my political activities and civil and human rights and sought me out as someone who could become an advocate for Kenya and to assist him in placing (bright) KEnyan [sic] students in institutions of higher learning here in the U.S. Of course, they were trying desperately to develop Black leadership to be able to have the kind of infrastructure for when their independence was won and along with a great athlete by the name of Jacquie Robinson, we fundraised and brought the first marginal airlift of African students to America along with Tom Voya who helped arrange places in many of the leading Black universities (aas well as white universities), where many of these students were to go to school. With the beginning of that. I then (end of tape #1).
HB: I was talking to an African Ambassador who had become aware of this new level of consciousness that is just beginning to emerge not only in America but particularly in Black America in relation to Africa but he also pointed out that it was just now that Africa was becoming more conscious and much more informed about not only America but Black America and they’re beginning to form alliances. Because the truth of the matter for me is that prior to the Civil Rights movement [sic], and the integrationist movement, we seemed to have, in our preoccupation (our new level of evolution in this country) a preoccupation with becoming involved in and the participants in white institutions and the daily machinery of white institutions. We had abandoned our own institutions here in America, our consciousness was being raised globally (nationally? as well) and many of the youth here in this country changed their names and took on African names and raised their consciousness about Africa and went to Africa/highly uninformed and many couldn’t wait to get back to the ghetto running water. They were not prepared for what they experienced in Africa. There was beauty in their spiritual pursuit but a tremendous naivitivity in their intelligence and the cultural shock. Everything came to a holt in the 1970’s and a good part of the 80’s. It is now with the famine and struggle in South Africa daily reaching the consciousness that we find this new emergence of African consciousness. I don’t think it’s something we inherited by the insidiousness of its presence and the seeds planted in the beginning and it’s amazing that we have even come as far as we have and that was the whole stamping out of any relationship between the Blacks in this hemisphere and their history and knowledge of Africa so that the fact that most people today think that Africa is a country and not a continent and not quite know what Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Zambia, and Angloa are all about and do not quite know where South Africa is, a statement as to how complete the oppression and denial of African links have been and that have been perpetuated because there were no institutions with a place to give us not only a center of study but a kind of continuing process to the importance to the unveiling of our relationship to Africa. By the same token, the same thing was happening to Africans bu the Berlin Conference that so cruelly divided Africa at the whim of the European masters who carved it up with no regard to the African tradition, tribal tradition, and African history. This set Africa into a continent of chaos because you couldn’t be traditionally of one tribe then be required to be either Tanzanian or Kenyan or be Nigerian or…(Gerry interrupted, she’ll fill in)
The idea of these things was to set up a whole union of disruptiveness that became in many instances even violent. So Africans who upon experiencing “independence” in our modern use of the term, were so busy trying to put what the Europeans left behind from them to graple with: uneducated people, undersubscribed to the absence of technology. In some countries (Tanzania), I believe, at the time became a country four times the size of France I think only had four college graduates. How do you run a nation and set up infrastructures and clinics and hospitals if you haven’t been able to educate the masses into the use of modern technology which was required for these states to survive, so that Africa became preoccupied with its own independence needs and could not pay much heed to that relationship with Black Americans which would have been so difficult to arrive at anything and many Africans students who came into this country did not have an opportunity to relate to Black thoughts and Black relationships because they were caught primarily with Blacks who were in pursuit of their own stations and positions within the mainstream of American life. It was a very curious kind of paradox. A very complicated process but the fact that this consciousness exists and that there is this thing going on in alliance and Black churches are once again going forth sending provisions and skills to help in the holocaust in the other 26 African countries and the fact that the leadership against apartheid government and this government’s involvement with South Africa, the Black leadership is emerging with men like Glenn (?) Robinson is awesomely beautiful and the seasonal plants are now beginning to reap their rich harvest. I am very optimistic about our future that only in African and..[cannot distinguish the writing]…the U.S. and the new alliances that are taking place.
This interview can be found at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture under the Geraldine Wilson Collection.
Until the next post,