Remarks by Harry Belafonte’s about Paul Robeson to the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
Harry in his late 70s. A towering example of commitment to higher values. [This is a reposting of our first special review in the Outstanding Artists & Performers Series.]
[Note: The event was intended to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s arrival in Spain. The reunion took place at Boro of Manhattan Community College, 199 Chambers St at West St, New York City, on Sunday, April 27, 1997, at 2:00pm. What follows is a transcription of an audio tape recording of the event. Harry Belafonte was introduced by Henry Foner, Master of Ceremonies and Retired President of the sponsoring union.]
Harry Belafonte:[prolonged applause] Thank you very much. Thank you. When I came in, and looked around, I saw groups of people related to this afternoon’s events, most of them looking somewhat older than myself … [laughter] … all smoking! I mean, I never saw so many cigarettes in my life! And I was thinking, you know […] when you’d have generations of future anti-fascists [??] set a better example! As a footnote I would like to tell you that I, selfishly, would like to see each and every one of you, live for another hundred years! [applause]
I’ve had occasion to say this before, and I’ll make it very brief, as I say it again. As a young boy growing up in the streets of Harlem in the United States, the idea that fascism should be everyone’s concern, and should be confronted vigorously, came to me very early on.
Central to that understanding was the heroism, and the bravery expressed, by the thousands of men and women all over the world who volunteered to be in the International Brigades to fight against fascism on the European continent.
They have been compared, on such excursions, as romantic adventurers. Certainly, to those of us who were profoundly affected by that contribution, there was no romance to it, although there was great adventure.
There was something almost…more profound. It was a truth that engulfed the universe. It said that fascism anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. [applause]
And I, much to the consternation of many of my fellow servicemen, I, at the age of 17, volunteered to fight in the Second World War. I joined the United States Navy knowing fully well that what I was doing was only enhancing and carrying forth the mandate that had been given by those who had fought in Spain. (applause]. When I came out of the war .. I was mustered out of the service . . and thought that being an artist would be my calling . . . or the calling to be an artist was my thought . . [laughter].
It is interesting to me that I should have been blessed in those early years of decision-making by having been embraced by a man who had a profound effect on my life . . . Paul Robeson. [long applause] And it was from Paul that I learned [singing]: “Viva la Quince Brigada, Rumbala, rumbala, rum-ba-la.” And it was from Paul that I learned [singing]: “Los Cuatro Generales.”
Paul Robesons in the 1930s.
And it was from Paul that I learned that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. And that if art were put into the service of the human family, it could only enhance their betterment.
Paul said to me, he said, ‘Harry, get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are. And if they want to know who you are, you’ve gained the first step in bringing truth and bringing insight that might help people get through this rather difficult world.’
Shortly before he died, I visited him in Philadelphia. He was living at his sister’s. And I looked at this giant of a man who was, quite frail in body, but still strong in spirit. And through all that had engulfed him — McCarthyism, the difficult times that he faced in this country because of his beliefs, because of his resistance to oppression — I looked at him, and I said, ‘Paul, I must know. Was all that you have gone through, really worth it? Considering the platform you had gained, and how easy life could have been for you, was it worth it?’ And he said, `Harry, make no mistake: there is no aspect of what I have done that wasn’t worth it. Although we may not have achieved all the victories we set for ourselves — may not have achieved all the victories and all the goals we set for ourselves, beyond the victory itself, infinitely more important, was the journey.’
To the men and the women [applause]…to the men and women whom I’ve met along the way, Paul made the difference. Paul’s strong center, his strength, and his power, and his gift, was the fact that he stood, in Spain, with the Lincoln Brigade, and sang in Madrid, at the height of the war in Spain.
That valor, and the valor of all the men and women who fought there, lives on. I’ve been to Rwanda. I’ve been to Zaire. I’ve been to South Africa. I’ve been to many places in the world. Wherever I see the resistance to tyranny, the resistance to oppression, I know that a banner is being carried forth, and will be waved high…the banner waved by the predecessors who fought in the International Brigade against fascism. There is nowhere in the world I go, where I see people resisting oppression, that I am not led to understand and believe, and know, that the standard was set for all of us by the Volunteers and what they did to bring to the world the bigger picture about where we were headed in the 20th Century.
I appreciate the invitation that was extended to me to be here, not just so much to make you feel good about yourselves, but to make me once again have the privilege of moving among you and feeling good to myself.
Thank you — and long live the Brigade and what it stands for — and long live each and every one of you — and give up smoking![Turning back to the audience as he exits to long applause]: Fidel Castro gave it up, you can give it up!
Harry Belafonte, one of the finest artists of the 20th century is also a distinguished and courageous political activist, a major force in the civil rights movement, and more recently a vocal critic of George Bush’s crimes and US government policies in general. If patriotism means anything, he personifies it. The world is indeed fortunate to have Harry Belafonte.