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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

The Gift of Harry Belafonte | April 30, 2023 Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake

She lay in bed with him holding his hand. When morning dawned, she awakened. He slept on.

Dr. Howard Thurman wrote that a good death is made up of the same elements as a good life. A good life is what a man does with the details of living if he sees his life as an instrument, a deliberate instrument in the hands of Life, which transcends all boundaries and all horizons. It is this beyond dimension that saves the individual life from being swallowed by the tyranny of present needs, present hungers, and present threats. . .. It is at the place where Life has been long since accepted and yielded to, where the private will has become infused with the Great Will . . .

The opening quote is my translation of Harry Belafonte’s wife’s description of the passing of Harry Belafonte. It certainly is no surprise that he is having a good death. For what an exemplary life he led infused with creation’s demand to keep working on the unfinished creation that bids each of us to trust it and do our utmost to repair it with a greater sense of fulfillment, and wholeness. He incarnated the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that all may not be guilty, but all are responsible for our world. And therefore, each of us is called to employ our resources – mind, heart, and spirit – to create a world of dignity and beauty that uplifts and binds us all in sacred relationships. Yes, we all have resources that are needed.

Belafonte was there at critical times in the Civil Rights Movement. During the Birmingham campaign in 1963, where three hundred people remained jailed and fifty more would join the next day, Good Friday, along with Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. A message came. King spoke of the message. We received a message so distressing that it threatened to ruin the movement. The city had notified the bonds person who had been providing bail that he could no longer do so. King declared “It was a serious blow.” Would these marching children of Life be stopped at the Red Sea? Harry Belafonte raised $50,000 and sent the counter message that he would raise whatever else was needed. Belafonte was able to help remove or at least work around the obstacles placed on the journey to freedom.

Dr. Howard Thurman relays that as a child when we needed comfort and support, he would go to the oak tree in his backyard, lean his back against it and share his troubles, anxieties, hurts, and disappointments with the oak tree. He knew somehow that the oak tree listened and heard him providing acknowledgment and affirmation. The oak tree “had his back” personifying the rod and staff of the caring shepherd (God) in Psalm 23.

Belafonte was that for King, King’s standing stone providing both practical and ritual support.

The need for standing stones today is great. As we continue the work of human uplift, there are many detractors and distractions. Complacency and indifference immobilize the needed next step. Fears erode our souls, backlashing our moments of high resolve.

The connection between Dr. King and Harry Belafonte was a soul connection. Not only were they soul brothers, but they were also soul mates.

Belafonte describes their initial encounter.

He called me and introduced himself over the phone. He said, “You don’t know me, we’ve never met, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” And… I was waiting for the joke because everybody knew who he was. But it wasn’t a joke. He said, “I am calling you because I think you might be of service to something I very much believe in.”

I went to see him speak at a church in Harlem. Afterward, we adjourned to the basement and sat at a little card table where the ladies used to play bingo, and he told me his mission. We talked for… well, it was supposed to be 30 minutes, but it turned into nearly five hours. He would not release me and… I would not be released.

The first time I was in Mr. Belafonte’s presence was at a concert at Brown University where I was an undergraduate student. What an electrifying experience that was, leaving the audience caught up in a sense of mystifying community. He introduced the wonderful Greek singer, Nana Mouskouri. He supported so many artists including Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masekela.

Belafonte was mentored by Paul Robeson who held exacting standards for artists. “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice. Every artist, every scientist, every writer must decide now where he stands. The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

Some of the lyrics are:

Day-o, day-o Daylight come and me wan' go home Day, me say day, me say day, me say day Me say day, me say day-o Daylight come and me wan' go home

Work all night on a drink a rum Daylight come and me wan' go home Stack banana till the mornin' come Daylight come and me wan' go home

Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana Daylight come and me wan' go home Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana Daylight come and me wan' go home The song is from the perspective of workers who have done taxing work all night. Now, their shift is over. The tallyman needs to tally what has been produced and pay them so that they can go home to rest, to experience sabbath.

Belafonte described it as “a song about struggle, about Black people in a colonized life doing the most grueling work.”

Here is an interview with Belafonte.

I invite us to focus on these words:

A group of young Black students in Harlem, just a few days ago, asked me what, at this point in my life, was I looking for. And I said, What I’ve always been looking for: Where resides the rebel heart?” Without the rebellious heart, without people who understand that there’s no sacrifice we can make that is too great to retrieve that which we’ve lost, we will forever be distracted with possessions and trinkets and titles. And I think one of the big things that happened was that when Black people began to be anointed by the trinkets of this capitalist society and began to become big-time players and began to become heads of corporations, they became players in the game of our own demise.

Wow! How often through our wanting to get along and receive the trinkets and titles do we become players in the game of our own demise?

Are there rebel hearts today? There must be rebel hearts somewhere. It cannot be that there are no rebel hearts!

An awesome presence he was among us. We are benefactors of his remarkable contributions to our world.

Harry Belafonte assured Dr. King of the nearness of God, the nearness of the help and resources, he needed in times of trouble when it seemed that the forces of evil that preyed on the oppressed were about to conquer. Belafonte was a human agent affirmation that the God that had led King and the movement had not and would not abandon them.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

- Isaiah 43:2

Allow me to return to the Banana Boat song, Day O.

I think Belafonte could have rightly said, I have worked not just the night shift, but many night and day shifts for most of my 96 years. Come Mr. Tallyman, God, Reality to whom I am accountable, access my work, what has come from my life, and give just compensation, for daylight has come, O Holy Presence, and I want to go home.

If I've impacted on one heart, one mind, one soul, and brought to that individual a greater truth than that individual came into a relationship with me having, then I would say that I have been successful.

- Harry Belafonte

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