Emory Report
February 26, 2007
Volume 59, Number 21

Emory Report homepage  

February 26, 2007
Belafonte calls for action against social injustice in keynote speech

BY chanmi kim

Legendary actor, musician and social activist Harry Belafonte challenged the Emory community to take action against the racial inequality and social injustices that are “deeply, deeply troubling” our society today.

At the 25th annual Heritage Week banquet held last Thursday, Feb. 15, in the Cox Hall Ballroom, Belafonte spoke to more than 120 students and faculty about the need for action to follow passion.

“For too long we have left our oppressor in the place of comfort . . . [but] our harvest is really quite bleak,” he said of the people who have stepped up to fight racism and social injustice. “There’s no Martin [Luther King Jr.] to call at this moment.”

Belafonte therefore emphasized the need to respond to the “urgency of our time.”

“Don’t tell me your good thoughts,” he charged. “Tell me what you did.”

Sponsored by the Black Student Caucus of the Candler School of Theology, the theme for this year’s Heritage Week was “Sankofa: Encountering the Divine through Black Expressions.” It combined the West African principle of “sankofa,” an Akan word that emphasizes the need to retrieve one’s roots in order to move forward, and the celebration of black expressions in the form of music, dance and spoken word.

In light of this theme, highlights from the week included an African dance workshop, a black-owned production called “The Black Man-O-Logues” and a worship service. The banquet also featured spoken word and a musical interlude from Candler students Sarah Poole (‘08T) and Delesslyn Kennebrew (‘06T) respectively.

Belafonte began his 80-minute address by almost apologizing for his lack of a written speech. “I don’t speak with notes because they get in my way,” he said. What followed was an honest yet eloquent expression of Belafonte’s passions and life goals that clearly needed no pre-meditated words.

Belafonte reflected on his personal growth into an artist and activist who would devote his whole life to not only celebrating his cultural heritage but also fighting for social justice. Through friendships with such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, Belafonte said he understood at an early age that he had a calling to serve humanity.

“There was just no question wherever I went that the best of the human heart in the universe was mine for the taking,” he said, “and also mine for the giving.”

Having served as UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador since 1987, Belafonte has traveled extensively to support humanitarian efforts around the world. He spoke of the child soldiers he saw during his African travels and “the violence that has embraced so much of the African continent.”

But this “contamination of our humanity,” Belafonte said, exists at home as well. He recalled watching on TV as police handcuffed and dragged a 5-year-old black girl for unruly behavior in a Florida classroom in August 2005. In that moment, Belafonte said that he saw not only the collapse of the church, the collapse of justice and the true issues that face us in race, but also his own weakness.

According to Belafonte, each individual is responsible for what happens to humanity. “One thing must always be on the forefront of your thoughts … every generation must be responsible for itself,” he said.

Belafonte emphasized the need for educators to encourage younger generations to take action in pursuit of social justice.

“I know what my rights are,” he said. “The failure came when no one told me what my duties are.”

For this reason, Belafonte loves addressing students, joking that he likes to take advantage of their naiveté, arrogance, sense of future and mindlessness – “so I have a playground,” he laughed. He encouraged students to seek out passionate teachers who force them to see their own humanity and their calling to serve that humanity.

“If you’re not touched by that kind of wisdom, that kind of passion, then what are you studying for?” he asked his attentive audience.

But Belafonte also warned that the journey in pursuit of social justice is a grave one. “There is a price to be paid,” he said. But he stands strong, he said, because he was never driven by consensus.

“I don’t do what I do because it’s popular. I do it because it’s right, and I will pay the consequence,” he said.
Heritage Week co-chair Brooks Pollard said he was impressed by Belafonte’s passion, spirituality and modesty. “He had a level of humility about himself that is just rare with people of his stature, which I think speaks a lot to who he is and made his words ring even more powerfully,” Pollard said. “Hearing him speak was like a shot of adrenaline.”