Given the recent events involving one of my personal heroes, Harry Belafonte, and Jay Z (a staunch supporter of marriage equality), I thought this would be an appropriate time to celebrate a social justice hero. Belafonte is known world wide for his entertainment career, but I have always had a much greater appreciation for his social activism. Belafonte has used his celebrity to help and support Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, it was Belafonte who bailed King out of the now famous Birmingham Jail. He also financed the Freedom Rides, and helped our Bayard Rustin organize the March on Washington.
Belafonte’s dedication to human rights is not restricted to the borders of the United States, although it is worth noting that Belafonte was one of a handful of people who vocally opposed the policies of the George W. Bush administration. This was during the Great Silence when practically NO ONE dared to question the administration for fear of being called unpatriotic. One of Belafonte’s most famous admonitions addressed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and their implication in the violation of human rights under Bush II:
There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture.
Belafonte has fought against the neo-colonization of countries in Africa. He has helped the fight against HIV and AIDS in South Africa. Belafonte has dedicated his life to human rights and continues to interrupt oppression around the world. He also expects all people to take action and stand in solidarity with all targeted populations. He was proud to serve as one of the Grand Marshalls of the New York City Pride Parade this year in recognition of his support of LGBT rights and marriage equality.
While I do not wish to get into the particulars around what Belafonte said and how Jay Z responded, I would like and hope that these two men can come together and have a conversation away from the public, as Belafonte has suggested. They both make good points — progress requires direct action and public figures with whom marginalized youth can identify.
Belafonte is not only a treasure for social justice but he holds institutional and systemic memory. Jay Z is young and has enormous power and influence. Imagine how powerful these two voices could be if united and how many of us would support them both to help celebrate counter narratives that challenge the dominant culture. If we want the world to change for the better, we need to look towards the solidarity of targeted populations coming together in numbers too big to be ignored.