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Harry Belafonte’s Address

The transcript of Mr. Harry Belafonte’s address at the launch of the Human Bondage Project follows below:

Let me first express my great sense of privilege to have been engaged in the affairs that have been buzzing around this building for the past days. When I came here I did not know quite what to expect, and I stopped to put notes together and things that I thought might be relevant to the affairs of this convention only to discover as I, each day, walked around the halls and listened to the people, that my course would have to be recharted.

When Lindiwe called, I had just seen her at a festival in London. I was in Liverpool actually with James and others at the international museum of slavery that was open there for Britain to express its recognition of the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade. And Liverpool was the greatest slave port in all of Europe. And for the citizen of that city to take the initiative to recognize and remember their involvement and their duplicity, was a fetching moment. And then I was called to come to London and to sit with, to break bread and to reminisce with the director general (Lindiwe) We embraced, we talked about things and I left and went back to America. And now to the point:

When Lindiwe Mabuza picks up a phone and says the following; Harry, darling! So good to know you’re home. How are you? Tell me, what are you doing in May?,” I’d learnt that it was an indication that it was time to fasten my seatbelt. I’d heard this voice and this greeting a hundred times. And each time I engaged her, it was always in the commitment and the involvement, in some affair, that had to do with human liberation. African liberation. Liberation for a people trapped in the abyss of poverty! She did not say to me that it was Input2008, what she did say was; “We’re having the first conference to put together a huge, triumphant manifestation of thought that will result in an afro-centric view of bondage!”

Well, how the hell do you not get all kinda ikky on that and get ready to say, ”say that again.” So I really came here because it was not the necessity to see more directors, more actors and more filmmakers. I had been in that world and still exist there – to some significant degree. It’s the work I do, and the frontiers and the world to be reversed, challenged, conquered because of how African-Americans and Africans relate to the whole issue of media, communications, language.

For me, the first thought was not so much the visiting of the history of slavery, and to hear an African point of view of what happened – as important as that is – it was really to take a good, hard look at how do we address the extensions of slavery that still permeates the globe and holds so much of the world population in bondage. A bondage that exists directly from the tenants of what slavery did to institute the language, the beliefs and the myths that we all dwell in. When I discovered that it was the South African Broadcasting Company that was the partner to this, and an important instigator, my first thought was, a mechanism of bondage has found its place in this discourse.

And when I heard that I was going to be talking to people who call themselves producers and broadcasters, I could not quite decipher what that meant. What is a broadcaster? Who is a broadcaster? Why is that the central identity? Rupert Murdock, is a broadcaster. Time Warner, is a broadcaster. Sony and BBC, they’re also broadcasters. They’re also instruments of oppression; they’re instruments of holding us in bondage. And what does the SABC bring to this debate that will change the image of what communication does? My first question to the moment is, “In this process, who sits at the head of the information chain? Who sits at the head of all that we say and do, that will make the final determination through the instruments we pay homage to of how we are seen and how we are permitted to see ourselves?”

I am taken by things that have been said – even here tonight. The young lady who said, ‘Africans have to have a sense of the importance of stories.’ And I got caught for a moment when she said that because there was no ill will in [her] statement. There was a condition that is deeply rooted in subliminal contamination. The truth of the matter is, no one more appreciates the power of story than the African! Story was, in fact, central to our survival. We had no other mechanisms but stories – stories that had to be told in metaphor, stories that had to be hidden from the master, stories that had to overlap and connect us because we didn’t speak the same language.

Africa didn’t become monolithic until slavery. There’s too much diversity here for someone to say; ‘I’m an African,’ because that describes the continent. So [one] gets into the more subtle exchanges; what kind of African? Who, in Africa, are you? How do you see yourself, and when do you choose to use the monolithic term? The most important aspect about who we are is our diversity. In that diversity, we are able to draw sustenance, and ideas and thoughts can be stimulated by what others think and say and do! One of the most important forces of tyranny in the 20th century, Adolf Hitler, understood clearly, what it had to do with the power of communication ‘cause when you read the writings of Joseph Gurgles, who was the Minister of Propaganda, he made a simple statement, “control what people know, and you will control what people do.” How are you being controlled? What are the frustrations and the things you find yourself up against that makes you continuously chip away at your passion, chip away at your love of truth because you have a need to be heard?. The SABC didn’t emerge, it was here! And its primary function was to use its power to influence oppression, to sustain class interests, to keep the racial divide; to do all the things it needed to do, to conquer Africa and to have its greed and its will prevail!

The institution was designed, in the most subtle of application, to do that. When South Africans inherited the institution, the revolution that we anticipated would take place and be central to the upheaval of the historical conditions and those things that confined us, was in the hearts, minds, bosoms and expectations of everyone. Only to discover that 14 years later I’m sitting in South Africa, listening to South Africans bitterly complain about the extent to which the SABC has either been unable or unwilling to open the process so that South African citizens can become more greatly informed, more greatly inspired, better able to identify who they are, see the enemy more clearly. And then I have to say, ‘there is a need for service here.’ What can I bring to the table? I don’t bring any special wisdom or any special gift as an artist. There are too many people who are wise and gifted.

What I do, however, exploit, is how long I’ve been here. And I have been in so many milestones, in the liberation struggle. Most central of the struggles and liberations, being my own, as a child born in the great depression, in the USA. My first experience about Africa was based upon cinema – upon the power of the visual. My introduction to Africa was Tarzan. I sat, as a Black child, in the movie house, and what I saw stunned me, confused me, shamed me and put me into a place that was hard to extricate myself from because there were very few forces to contradict what I saw because we didn’t have the privilege and the capacity to communicate otherwise. I saw Tarzan, I saw Africa. I saw this white man swing from the trees. His greatest intellectual offering was; aaahh-yaaah! And around him were all these indigenous people who couldn’t do jack s**t! And so, the last thing I wanted to be when I left that theater was an African – I didn’t wanna know them.

(tape change)…in an admiral’s suit, and a funny admiral’s hat in the parade, and he was from Jamaica. And after we got past the costume, I tried to fathom what the passion my mother and everyone saw in what this African was saying. And when she saw me in this place of conflict, she began to move me through a system of information. … And Hailie Selasie went before the League of Nations and we saw a story in the Black newsreel. I saw an African that was quite different than any that I had seen. But, I was a catholic, and I was ordered to be subservient to the commands of the church! So I was confused when, in the newsreel, a few Sundays later, I saw the Pope bless the Italian troops going off to Ethiopia, to murder poor Black people. My world was turned upside down with all the contradictions. I was bouncing around looking for identity, purpose and for how I was going to survive in the midst of all of this misinformation. My mother took me back to the island because she saw the safe keeping in her early years when she grew up in St. Anne. It was far safer for her children that the wild street of New York City with all the oppression, anger and rage. Even as a person of color, I was still isolated in Harlem because we were Caribbeans. So we had to negotiate with African-Americans and the Black hierarchy so they could see if they could find a place to accommodate us.

Who is at the end of the information chain? Who controls that and why? And how does it feed their interests? And if their interests are fed as they desire, why is it at such an inhuman expense? Why are we constantly looking for a place in which to see ourselves and find ourselves and know who we are? When I was born, I was first identified as a colored. And not too long after that, because of Dr W.E.B. DuBois – and others who have enriched our experience with their wisdom and their power – [I was] called Negro. And not too long after that – in another case of rebellion – I was soon Black. The last of the titles became, ‘African-American!’ I said to myself, ‘we’re getting somewhere here.’ But to be in the belly of the beast, where three quarters of a century of a life, was distracted by just trying to find a title, was not what provoked others.

Jamaicans know who they are. Haitians know who they are – they can identify themselves with strength, dignity and clarity! But we who lived in the belly of the beast had no such accommodations. What led us to confront this dilemma took a huge turn in the middle of the 20th century when Hitler came into the picture. The tyranny that was unfolding did not hesitate in expressing its cruelty in pursuing its objectives. Although much is said about the Jews and the holocaust and the shame of that aspect in our human character, overall, there was something else that my mother alerted me to. The first victims of Hitler were not the Jews. The first victims of mass murder were Africans. Africans who had come at the end of the First World War under the French – the Senegalese troops in the foreign service of France.

The fact that the governance of the Rhineland was ministered by Senegalese soldiers – under the French government – was considered, by Hitler, to be the greatest insult ever committed against Germany. So, when he came into absolute power, his first mass murders were hundreds and hundreds of Rhineland Africans. Mass graves. And in extinguishing a group, he proclaimed that there would be no further contamination of the pure race. And while the was some question of race – should we fight the white men’s war? It changed in complexity when we learned that Africans were the first victims. So we made a choice – those of us who engaged in that war – not just to escape poverty and have a place were I could make a living and have organization to thought, but because I saw my life intrinsically woven in the mission to end him and his philosophy of those who thought like him. And my mother said, you belong in that war, you belong in that struggle. And I was encouraged, at the age of 17, to volunteer. And the propaganda that flew around about democracy and liberation and the future and that there will never be a superior race, all those things, were beaten into our heads and we believed it.

If we can defeat fascism and come back to the generosity of victory apartheid in America would end and there’d be no laws that denied us the right to vote. We’d no longer be separated, we’d have access. It would be a level playing field. And at the same time, we would engage in that war from America. We looked around, we saw Africans engaged in the war, inscripted by the democracies; England, France, the Dutch. We looked around and saw Asians engaged in the war; Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines. We looked around and found people from the Caribbean engaged in that war. And although we might have had different stories to tell about that war what was common to most of us was that this was our moment to ensure freedom and democracy for ourselves. And at the end of the war, non who returned as part of a victorious campaign saw any generosity from our slave masters and those who oppressed us. As a matter of fact, murder and mayhem was escalated. Black people were being hung by the thousand in the south of America and the world knew nothing about it because the instrument of communication suppressed that information. And as a matter of fact, relegated us to something else altogether. And when the Africans came back with their hopes and aspirations they were also relegated back to the most brutal aspects of colonial oppression. And those of us who had this taste for this idea, had a choice to make. Capitulate to this tyranny, or engage it and fight it, and most of us opted for the latter.

So, we just took care of business – let’s get it on. And most of us thought in fighting terms. I know how to use a gun I’ve been trained to be a murderer, a killer. And we became very expert at it, and so did a bunch of Africans, and so did a bunch of Vietnamese, and so did a whole bunch of other people that had that same thing in mind. And before I knew it these wars of rebellion emerged in the continent of Africa was aflame with a passion for freedom. And in parallel, us in America, and in parallel the ambitions in the Caribbean, and in parallel the people in Asia. And we found a common purpose and a common identity, and we began to re-enforce each other in how we defined each other because the master put us in every level of degradation and defined us in ways that would perpetuate his superiority.

…looking at the extension of that bondage into where we sit today, all of us. The largest prison population in the world in any country is in the United States of America. Two and a half million people anguish in the prisons of that nation more than in China, which is seven times larger than we are. Larger than in India. As a matter of public policy, we build more prison cells than we build school rooms. We build more prison cells than we build health-care centers. And in than prison population of America, seventy percent of those incarcerated are Black. And of all those who are incarcerated, a total percentage are people of colour; Latinos, Asians, Blacks.

And in that context, if you look closely at the whole science of criminality, all those people in prison, only 7% are murderers, 7% are rapists. Everybody else serving major time in America are people who got caught in the abyss of poverty and had to go to the criminal design to extricate themselves from it. And we can’t wait to build more prisons instead of using the resources to change and prevent this, we’ve decided to build prisons. And in building those prisons, as a capitalist country, we’re now turning it over to the private sector. And the private sector, being a capitalist country, nobody gets engaged in real estate and got a whole bunch of rooms and doesn’t look for full occupancy! Full occupancy, we got some tenants coming! And as we look around the tenants that are filling up the prisons, there’s a whole bunch of Jamaicans, there’s a whole bunch of Haitians, there’s a whole bunch of people from Nicaragua and from Honduras and from Brazil. A whole lot of people coming from Asia, and our system is saying something to us. Who controls the information chain? Who does what to somebody at the end of all of this to move us to a new paradigm, to a new thought?

What’s the game here? I go up to my room and rush to see the television to see what’s going on, I’m focused to a very narrow place. I’m really interested in what’s going on in America ‘cause nothing terribly African is happening that grabs my interest or holds my attention – certainly nothing that I haven’t already engaged in or heard about in the media. I know Lindiwe Mabuza, we talk heavy stuff, and we knew the power of our culture and our resource and our people. I sang and put the platform before Miriam Makeba. And while others tried to mute her voice and re-direct her into becoming the great African jazz singer as she tried to sing the songs of black America, I said, no.

What we need is the voice of Africa. We got Ella Fitzgerald, we got all kinds of people to do this, we have the originators of it and none of them can sing Zulu. None of them can sing Xhosa, none of them can describe apartheid. My platform and the power that it carries is for you to seize it – I will guide you, I will infuse you with resources, sing your songs! And then along came Hugh Masekela and I heard his trumpet, and I saw little rascal self trying to wrestle with this new place and I said, ‘put your buns in school, in the school of music. Learn the scales, get into the heart of it because I don’t need a Miles Davis or that Zulu sound. How does it come through that trumpet?’ And before you knew it he was engaged in the Africa sound, and he was highly unique. And then I watched a young lady who came with her husbands, her name was Letta Mbuli. And there was Caiphus Semenya – young rascals full of talent. And I said, ‘ you know, this platform is big enough for you too. Let’s work on some songs’ And when we broke the machine of cultural conditioning, Miriam got a record contract. And when she was getting ready to sing I said, ‘let me use my international power.’

I am central to the struggle in America, I sat in the inner-circle of strategy with doctor King, Ella Baker. I funded the first major student movement and all the people that were in that. I said, ‘I’ll fund all the resources, speak your peace, don’t compromise. Don’t compromise yourself to the church, do it!’ And so we said that the first thing to do was to get her voice to places that had never heard it before, so we did an album. So I struggled through my Swahili, I struggled through my Xhosa, but it became a huge hit. Her first Grammy and our first Grammy, for what it was worth, was that album. Everywhere we went after that; London, Paris, Rome, it was a Miriam Makeba, south African thrill for the audience. And we were able to talk about apartheid, and boycott and sanctions. And the cultural armada that fell in place with that was invincible. There’s no way that South Africa can write its history without paying serious homage to its artist and the power of culture. So when I come here, as a witness to the evolution, I’m interested to what you’ve done to your artist. I don’t know, looking at that thing, what’s that thing, housewives, something housewives – the problems of bourgeois white women in the US compelling black Africans to pay attention. Come on people! What was this revolution about? Coz each time… Coz when I first got into this game, Liberia and Ethiopia were the only countries that could call themselves independent sovereign states, everything else was a colony. And I was there when Nkwane Nkrumah, at Lincoln university… (tape change)

(tape change) …heady with the sense of invincibility. Where are we now in this part of our evolution in the 21st century? All of those nations have become so dismantled. What game do we play with the enemy? Why are so many societies overthrown? Why are our children with AK 47’s, shooting one another in Sierra Leone? What are we doing in the Sudan? How comfortable are we with this disaster that has enabled us to overthrow our shackles to make a vanguard difference in what people know so that they know what to do?! And if you crush the artists and don’t give them access, and give them the right to speak in the way only they can, then you’re writing your own epitaph!

I’ve learned a lot and I’ve said very little ‘till this moment and I’m through saying what I got to say, I cud stand here forever. But I’m privy to so much, and most of my time now, in my engagement in the US, is deeply in the heart and in the business of the young, and mostly in prisons of that nation. I work with thugs and gangsters all day. I go to their homes, I go into their solitary confinements – and we talk and we plot. And I tell them how they can use their prison experience to a higher purpose coz they never heard of what nelson Mandela did in Robben Island as a prisoner and as a terrorist and as a communist, and all the things that the media and the white folks called him. Only to find that at the end of the day he was the greatest moral force at the end of the 20th century and the world was inspired by him. Where is that legacy when I look up and see this SABC? And even more importantly, it’s not in Jamaica, its not in Kenya, it’s not in the Sudan!

We’re all suffering from some malady here and the contamination is at a critical place. We’re all caught, and we’re all responsible for the solution! And James, you’re absolutely right, that young lady who raised the question of reconciliation and where do we go with this, ‘cause you are an African, I know for a fact that until you’re liberated, I’m not! Until you can come to grips with the history, because my mission, is not to find reconciliation through the use of vengeance. What do you know and what has the system done to you that you know so little about what white folks really did? Because this bondage picture got in deep into the psyche, into the motives of what white people did into their own degradation, to their own loss, which permeates still today because the slave/master mentality is all over the place!

Now lets end by saying this, black people are in mass – and certainly in the US, we pray and hope that our children coming out of poverty will snatch a little piece of education, and get into the university and move on up the ladder to become somebody, and to have a role in the shaping of human affairs! Each time a black person achieves, we feel personal pride. And with that pride we have expectation that this new elite, this new force, will bring new messages and new design. More often than not those who have accessed this opportunity have failed us, have failed us considerably. ‘Cause those people who sit in truly high places have become the face of the enemy.

When in America, Collin Powell and Condoleezza Rice got to the place of power – we had never sat anywhere near there before those two in that country – it was so big a slice of the inside order. And when they dismissed us, and when they did not speak for us, we did what people always do when people achieve, we closed ranks as a tribe – don’t speak out, don’t speak against one another! And I bought that and I still see it. But when those people who achieve that power become critical in the instrument of my oppression, become a vote and a participant in lying to the people of the world so you can raise up in an immoral invasion of a people who did us no harm – and a black man stood at the head of that charge to lead it in front of the public forum in the UN it was time for somebody to say something!

And black people didn’t want to be critical of their own, and white people didn’t want to be politically incorrect! And in this place, since I’m who I am, I said, this is really serious. What part of this puzzle can I step in with. And because Collin Powell has a Jamaican heritage, we had some similarities. Because he was born in America and lived in the bronze, we have similarities. I was in Harlem. I lived in the Bronx too, I was a janitor, doing hallways and hauling garbage. And when it comes to global profile, I got my share of it.

So I said, I can’t wait for consensus. I don’t care who this disturbs, ‘Collin Powell, you’re a liar! Collin Powell, you serve your master well!’ And people said, master, what are you saying. I said, ‘Collin Powell serves the master well and the rest of us in the plantation are paying for it!. And then everybody got upset. Black people ran for the hills. And all of a sudden I became an untouchable. So I said, ok, if you’re distancing yourself from me, you think I’m contaminated. I said all you guys do when you wake up in the morning all you do is talk to your bank account, all you talk to is your agent. And when I wake up every morning and I talk to nelson Mandela, I’m talking to Lindiwe Mabuza, I’m talking to Fidel Castro, I’m talking to Hugo Chavez – I’m talking to a whole bunch of people that you can’t even equate yourself to coz you speak the masters language so well. What are you angry at Venezuela for, what the hell did they do to you? They kicked your oppressor in the bun, threw him out of the country and took over.

I’m not making a case for a personality. I don’t know whether Hugo Chavez will turn out to be the Mabuto or the Mandela of his people. But in the process, we have common cause; oppression! And if you got some oil brother and you can throw a few barrels my way, we can use it in this ghetto and build something and maybe get our own station because listen, you got Telesol, one of the most powerful satellites in the world. And you talk about afro-Venezuelan’s power and history and you’re stimulating that black voice, ok, I like that. I’m coming down to talk to you. And when I went down in the middle of Katrina coz our country failed – not just because of economic greed – it failed because it was black lives. They would never let that happen in Ireland. They’d never let that happen to the Swedish communities of Minnesota! Black people was the reason why we couldn’t find resources! And Condi running down there in her Armani dress and her fingers well done and saying, ‘oh, we are really concerned about those people. Those people, ok.

So when I went down to Venezuela I took 15 of us. I took a good number of ex-cons. I said, ‘we need all ark of ears here, to hear what’s being said ‘cause when they isolate me and call me a liar and a mis-carrier of info, you were in the room. And while I was standing on the platform, speaking to 8000 Venezuelan farmers, a large number, in the thousands, who were part of that crowd, I said, ‘I’ve come to just say that I am pleased to be here in Venezuela. To see your evolution being born, to see your choices being made. And I will tell you right now that no matter how they try to misinform, that in the USA, not thousands, not hundred thousands but millions are in step with your aspirations and your evolution. And no matter what the greatest tyrant in the world would say, G.W. Bush, most Americans are in your favour.

It took an hour and 12 minutes for that international press court to get the video on air and America wasted no time in the attack. I was all over CNN everywhere in the world, and the indignity of the people who said, ‘did u hear what he said about our president,?! Black people. ‘How dare he do that with our enemy.’ Well, first of all, how come he’s the enemy? You ain’t declared no war, no treaties have been broken. You just don’t like the guy coz he’s talking about socialism. You don’t like the guy coz he’s talking about re-ordering the economic divide. He’s talking about another method and you’re gonn’ kill him coz you have showed us you got the pathology to kill. You killed Kennedy, you killed Malcolm, you killed Dr. King, you killed Lumumba, you killed Allende. You kill a lot of people when they get in your way. So that’s expected, everybody’s got a bull’s-eye on him.

So when I came back and I was invited on their platform, Wolf Britz on CNN, primetime. I got on there and he says, ‘b4 we open this interview lets take a look at the backround to all of this.’ So they roll the tape. After that, the first question he asks me is, ‘would you like to take that back?’ and I paused 4 a moment and I said, well, I have to reflect on it, but not really. I said because, the way I may have misused the moment is that since I have not met every terrorist I really had no basis on which to call him the greatest. But until I’ve met them all, he is no.1 on my list. And that caused a whole bunch of stuff.

I’ve said enough. My question to this whole convention, this process, to those who say we are filmmakers… you know not everybody who’s got a camera is a filmmaker. And not everybody who claims to be a filmmaker, is an artist, and not everybody who is a filmmaker and an artist is committed to the rebel thought and to evolution and to living outside the box and provoking. But if you look at all those who have been the greatest in cinema, you will see them way above the fray. The artists, the technology, the information, the actors, the story. You saw them in battle for Algiers. You saw them in come back Africa – where I saw Miriam Makeba. You saw them in all of the movies that came out in early Italian renaissance; shoe shine and the eyes of a thief. And you saw this and you saw that, and you saw things all over the place. They are the guide to what the greater truth is about. And the enemy will not let you prevail. So while you’re hunting for how to get and stay in the room… (tape change)

(tape change)…but pay the rent at what price? Furthering the oppression? Furthering the slaughter of a child in Darfur? Furthering the oppression coz u got to make a living? In fact, why do you need so many millions of dollars? Why doesn’t you camera move in the strangest of places to do the most remarkable things? It’s a cop-out. It’s an excuse for your indifference, for your greed for your comfort! And so you don’t deal with that coz it’ll wrestle your conscience so you come up with all these excuses; it’s the master, it’s the system. ‘It’s the system’ means what?! It was the system under apartheid and you overthrew it! Where does the buck stop here?

I just wanna make one last not here to the young lady who was concerned about reconciliation. You see young lady, you can ask any question you like, but also ask the same to other white folks. And the last thing here is…ok…what was I gonna say…ok. Don’t give up the struggle, re-direct your energy in this field. Don’t leave it too long. Get to the real deal of the game, what is the current oppression saying and what are you doing about it?