You are on page 1of 4

An Evening with Harry Belafonte Reflection 10/6

Despite the fact that its 10:00 PM and I should probably be in bed because I woke up
early today, despite the fact that I have yet to start my homework thats due tomorrow (reading a
significant portion of Chaucers Canterbury Tales, although its Middle English vernacular turns
reading into more an act of laboring), and despite the fact that I am cold and tired after having
walked all the way home from Meany Hall, I find that I simply cannot allow myself not to reflect
upon the immensely moving experience I have had in the past five hours. I fear that if I were to
prolong writing this reflection even until tomorrow (let alone the four days until the weekend
like I had originally planned, or even until the end of the quarter when I typically work on my
Honors Portfolio), some significant details would slip from memorys fickle fingers and much
more importantly I would not be able to properly recapture the excitement, enlightenment,
sheer giddiness, hope, and sense of purpose thats currently surging through my body. In fact, the
time Im currently spending on this introduction threatens to do just that, so Ill just get on with
how I have come to find myself in such a state after my lovely evening with Harry Belafonte.
A week ago I received an e-mail from UW inviting me to attend an open discussion about
race and equity at the Intellectual House. I was somewhat aware that an endeavor had been
established the previous Spring Quarter, about which I had thought at the time Oh thats nice,
but then proceeded to promptly delete the e-mail and forget about it. Its not for a lack of caring
about race issues, but theres just something about these kinds of events that dont interest me.
Part of it may have been intimidation, the sense that I wasnt qualified or out of my league to
attend such events. There was also the sense that I such discussions were a waste of time. We all
know what racism is, we know there are tensions. Why gather and speak? But this time, I was
compelled by something inexplicable to take a leap and attend this discussion. It wasnt so much
that I was particularly passionate about race and wanted my voice to be heard (I still felt
underqualified to attend), but I realized that there are so many opportunities at UW to enrich
myself, to step outside of whats comfortable and familiar and take the chance to elevate my
thinking that I had missed out on before. In the past year or so, I have slowly developed a desire
to make the most out of every opportunity I am afforded, to not go through life passively, and
this seemed like something that I should do. And, in all honesty, there was also the petty reason
of getting the chance to meet Harry Belafonte, whose name sounded familiar and after a quick
Wikipedia search I was impressed to discover was an incredibly renowned musician and civil
rights activist. I feel no shame now for these reasons for going, because all that matters to me
right now is that I went at all, for it was truly an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my
I arrived at the Intellectual House short of breath having just finished working out,
scrambling in and out of the shower, hopping onto a bus, and soaring towards this odd and novel
structure on campus, trying not to be late (naturally, I wasted more time simply trying to find the
entrance of the building). To my immense relief, I arrived right on time. Yet, this was short lived
for I immediately noticed that the interior of the building was set with tables laden with fancy
tablecloths, napkins, flowers, and other assorted ornaments. Waiters in prim, black outfits were
floating about the room. Under the golden lights of the hall, it appeared that I had stumbled upon
a high class affair, not at all dressed appropriately in my plaid shirt, jeans, and moccasins (in
addition to my hair all askew after that rushed shower). This only increased my anxiety in terms
of being out of my league. However, my fears were soon put to rest as the kindly staff reassured
me that I was just one of many dressed casually, and even more so as the event began.

After finding a seat, official introductions began. Vice President of Minority Affairs and
Diversity Gabriel Gallardo invited a man (whose name I cant recall) affiliated with one of the
Native American tribes up to the stage. What this man said allayed much of my anxiety. He
explained that the Intellectual House was built as a tribute to the Native American people, on
whose land the University sat. But, and this is important, he then welcomed us home. He said
that this house was a house for all, everyone was welcome. And that really set the tone of the
night for me. I immediately felt welcome, included, comfortable, and safe. That simple gesture of
making me feel not like a guest but like a resident, like I was MEANT to be there, affirmed that I
had made the right choice in deciding to come, and allowed me to join in on the discussions
following in earnest. Its at this moment, when I arrived home, that I realized I had stumbled
upon something truly special (also, it didnt hurt that they served us grilled cheese sandwiches
and tomato soup, which is quite possibly the most homey meal there is).
Then of course came the discussion itself. I had the opportunity to engage in a round
table discussion with a diverse group of individuals. There was ASUW President Tyler Wu,
Associate Vice President of Student Life Lincoln Johnson (who I had actually met 2 minutes
before the event as we both tried to figure out where the entrance was), among other members
both faculty and students. We talked about why we were there, what our stake in the matter was,
and what our thoughts on activism was in terms of how we could get involved and how we could
make the campus an environment that can be a place to speak about these issues. I myself talked
about how Ive sort of lived in an ideal world for much of my life, where issues of race havent
seemed particularly pressing. I knew they existed, but they seemed more like a temporally
displaced issue, part of history. Because of everything Ive learned growing up in school, the
civil rights movement, how people should be treated, whats simply right and wrong, Ive kind of
taken for granted that racism and race tensions could really exist today in the way they did once
before. Which is why its so astounding for me to see what feels like a sudden resurgence of
hostility, particularly in the Freddie Gray case among other recent events. What I told the group
is that I was really here to learn from others what race relations looks like in our modern
society. I put that in quotes because as much as it seems like weve advanced as a society since
the eras of slavery and segregation, the fact that we have to have these kinds of discussions
shows that were still in the midst of understanding who we are and learning to respect our
differences. Mr. Johnson actually said that it feels like as a society, weve taken several steps
back. But our generation (he pointed to me and the other students at the table) gives him hope
that were moving back on track. Its not easy though. One of the women at the table (Marisha?)
talked about how in other cultures and countries, people are blatantly or openly racist and dont
think much of it. But in America, we have adopted this very hush-hush culture when it comes to
race, and the near obsession with being politically correct all the time. One of the students called
this passive racism, which I think is so true. I think weve become afraid to speak because of
how we perceive well be judged. Its as unsettling as those people who are openly racist,
because even if we dont verbalize it, racism can still exist in our minds. And its almost worse
when its allowed to germinate in secret.
One of the last things we talked about was how we could engage more of the campus in
these kinds of discussions. A point that came up from the student leaders was that when these
kinds of events are thrown, the people who show up are usually the ones who are already
invested in the issue rather than the people who dont know anything about it (case in point,
every single person at the table except for me was affiliated with some student group or special
department at the UW that would be concerned with such issuesexcept for me). I suggested

that we try to provide more opportunities for students to gather, not explicitly for the purpose of
fostering conversation on this topic but just as a community. If we have one point of contact, one
point of similarity, in that we are all Huskies, people will come together and find it easier I think
to communicate. I cited my time at Dawg Daze, where regardless of race, religion, background,
all these kids came together because they were all Freshmen, they were all excited for their first
year at college, and we had a lot of fun TOGETHER. We need more things like that happening
on campus. Because as the years wear on and we all become busy with our lives, everyone falls
into a niche and never gets the chance to expand beyond that. So I think before we can come to
explore what makes each of us different, we have to be able to come together first.
Thats just what I can remember off the top of my head of what we talked about. We had
someone taking notes, which I wish I had on me right now. There was some really wonderful
points made and fine stories shared about the nature of race relations in this country and how it
really does affect each and every one of us in some form or another. We spoke for about an hour
with each other, but the time just flew. We all expressed how we could have spoken together for
several hours, and I agree. I would consider this event a success, a success which hinges upon the
way it was set up. Its not like Ive never discussed race and race relations before, but if it was
for class or something, it usually felt forced and artificial. This was organic. This was
welcoming. I felt safe enough to share and not feel like I was being graded or judged. There was
no superficial purpose for the discussion, not discussion for discussions sake, but the invitation
to express some genuine human sentiment. I hope that more students can have the opportunity to
take part in this kind of discussion, because its something unlike Ive never experienced before
and Im sure few others have either.
And now I cannot tarry any longer. I must speak to the immense figure that is Harry
Belafonte, a man whose name alone conjures such power. There are some people in this world
who carry a presence, and this is one such man. Despite being a somewhat frail looking 90 year
old man who had to find his seat on stage with the aid of a cane someone holding his arm, he
exudes a sense of peaceful energy, a harmony, a transcendent grandeur. The man glowed on stage
with a special radiance. But for all the outward manifestation of his greatness, it was his manner
of articulation, his tranquil state of mind, which really moved me. One of the reasons that I have
felt a little hesitant to become involved with these discussions of race is because of the negativity
that seems to surround it, the kind of gung-ho hard core sentiment that can be a part of it. I watch
people on the TV yelling Black Lives Matter! and see all the strong rhetoric being utilized on
social media, and I cant help but cower a little. Its not that I dont believe in equality, its not
that I dont believe racism is wrong and unjust, but when its got this kind of stomach wrenching
hatred fueling it, it can be a little off-putting. Which is why I found Mr. Belafonte so damn
refreshing. Heres a man who was a personal confidante of Martin Luther King Jr., who is
heralded as one of the greatest civil rights activists, who is a figure stripped straight from the
history books as pivotal in shaping the way for the civil rights movement, and yet I didnt get the
slightest sense of that ferocity or anger from him. Dont get me wrong, it was very clear that he
was passionate about it, but he did it in a way that was tempered with rationality rather than pure
This came about clearly when he provided his opinion on the Black Lives Matter
movement. He explained that its a double edged sword. On one edge, its wonderful to see black
people rallying together, unifying in a meaningful way, to do something necessary and create
change. But on the other hand, its limiting its inclusivity. He went on to say that All Lives
Matter. You could tell from the crowd that this phrase is a point of contention. Almost every

definitive statement Mr. Belafonte made was followed by raucous applause. But upon saying All
Lives Matter, there was a mere smattering, which I think is because people associated with a
certain white politician saying that. Its true, All Lives Do matter, but in saying that it can be
skewed to marginalize the movement. HOWEVER, that was not Mr. Belafontes intention at all.
What he meant to illustrate was that in narrowing our focus, we begin to push people away
which is counterproductive because he worked so hard in the civil rights movement to
desegregate people in the first place. The narrow focus also makes it so certain root causes are
ignored, in that not color, but conditionclass is the heart of these racial tensions. He cited
poverty and the lack of education, and at this point the applause was uproarious. The way he
explained this so matter-of-factly, with such grace and gentility, is what really moved me. I found
myself smiling and cheering with the crowd because I felt like he had opened my eyes. Or at
least, allowed me to see what I needed to because I wasnt squinting from all the vitriol that my
eyes usually have to strain against. What the man exudes, now that I think about it, is
Which brings me to another one of his key phrases that really connected with me. He
explained how Nazi Germany was the pinnacle of civilized order. It was a time when Germanys
economy was booming, the best educated people were being produced and contributing
astounding work (Freud, Einstein, etc.)until the day the German people opened their eyes and
wondered how they had come to be the pinnacle of villainy in the world, and opened the gate to
one of the worst calamities ever inflicted upon the people of the world. Mr. Belafonte went on to
say that America had knocked on that door several times throughout history, with slavery and
McCarthy-ismand that America was knocking on that door now. Weve always recognized the
slippery slope and caught our footing at the final moment, but there could come a time when we
dont and fully become a totalitarian state. And the issue, he says, is the mindless pursuit of
power. We have to think about where value truly lies, in our pockets or our people.
A final note on Mr. Belafontes conversation that I will try to always remember is a
recollection he had about his mother. A woman who suffered greatly at the hands of an abusive
husband, a woman who was an immigrant and uneducated, who told Mr. Belafonte as a child to
never, ever go to sleep when there is injustice in the world without doing something about it. I
loved this, because it really encapsulates the spirit of Mr. Belafonte and the reason why I found
him and his lecture so touching, so moving, so uplifting, and so inspiring. These issues of racial
tension seem so complex, so bogged down with intricate areas of gray and matters of politics and
so on, when really it is so very simple. So simple that a child understood it, and lived his entire
life by it. And that simplicity, sparking a simple sense of sincerity, is what I loved about Mr.
Belafonte. He tells it how it is. He sees it how it is. He is mindful, open. There is something pure
and earnest about him which carries through his work as an activist. THAT inspired me. THAT is
what had me smiling from ear to ear when I left the auditorium, gushing with a sense of hope and
purpose. I can say that Ive always believed in civil rights, but until today, that has felt like a
passive sentiment. For the first time in my life, I feel awake and active. I feel compelled to go out
and do something, to say something. And thats all thanks to Mr. Belafonte. When I got to meet
him afterwards as he signed me a copy of his autobiography, I looked into his eyes and shook his
hand and thanked him, told him what an honor it was to meet him. Those words seem paltry now
that I look back on it, because they dont come close to describing the emotions he has inspired
within me. Its absolutely crazy to think that a week ago, I had no idea who Harry Belafonte was.
Now, at 12:04 AM, as I bring this reflection to a close, I find it unlikely that Ill ever forget.