The audience immediately stood up and tired their hands with applause for Harry Belafonte as he approached the lectern awaiting him at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium Monday night. He spoke about the past of human rights and received immense favor from the crowd for his political and social criticisms of the present.
Belafonte started by saying of visiting universities, “It’s my favorite thing to do in life these days.”
At a press conference before the speech, Belafonte said, “Being around youth is my game … I think there’s a lot stacked against young people.”
He used over a dozen names to illustrate the fights of black people to escape oppression through the Civil Rights Movement, saying of their actions, “Some call it courage; I call it an absence of choice …” The crowd responded with affirmation and clapping, something that occured often during the talk.
He discussed how, throughout his life, he’d seen the impact youth had on world events, describing the young as people of passion and concern. He said after the Civil Rights Movement, youth have been reaping the harvest but not doing what it takes to preserve their rights, which they assume will not be in jeopardy again. He compared the generation change to a faltered baton pass.
He praised black culture for its victories but also criticized its failures as he saw them. He said something was lacking in the training of children.
“Who was to stay in the neighborhood? … We became possessed of materialism … power,” Belafonte said. He said he blamed parents for educational deficiencies and character deficiencies.
Then he addressed problems he saw in the present.
Though he spoke of the victories of integration, Belafonte shared the last thing Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to him about, saying, “I think we’re going to be integrating into a burning house … We’re just gonna have to become firemen.”
At the first criticism of the war in Iraq, when he said America had no legal or ethical reason for it, the crowd erupted with clapping and cheering.
“We were lied to about weapons of mass destruction,” Belafonte said. He talked about the opposition he had received for calling President Bush a terrorist.
“I called Bush a terrorist (recently), and I received …” Belafonte said before being cut off by the enthusiastic cheers of the audience. He continued discussing the criticism he had received.
“I said let us examine the case; let’s take a look,” he said. Belafonte went on to examine and detail the wrongs of the terrorists who perpetrated the attack.
“Justice should be done,” he said. There was no question that precision should have been used to hunt down those who plotted the attacks, he said. Then he turned to the subject of Bush for comparison.
“How do you define someone who steals a presidency,” Belafonte said, “who lies to the citizens of the nation … and then sends off our sons and daughters to die in a battlefield of a war that’s unjust and at the same time killing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands …” He was delayed by applause.
Belafonte said the loss of American lives is approaching the number of those who died in the 9/11 tragedy.
When asked about his expectation of criticism for his remarks on the Iraq war during the question and answer segment after his speech, Belafonte responded, “Bring it on.”
He said dissent is central to any democracy, but he moved on from politics to social critique.
“We’re building more prisons than we’re building schools,” Belafonte said. “We watch our young people going off defacing the magnificence of who we are with some baseless sexuality that permeates the popular face of culture in America, and we call that the right to free speech. Something’s wrong here.”
Belafonte said rap music has always been about protesting social oppression, but he criticized those who he says use things contrary to original intent. This is rewarded with trophies and artists who say, “Bring on the (large gold chains), bring on more mindlessness.” Some turn rap into a “social disgrace,” he said.
Belafonte spoke about his views on why HIV/AIDS should be addressed, since it greatly affects black women.
He said of these social ills, “We don’t see it because we don’t want to interrupt the jingle in our pockets.”
He also criticized education curriculum. “All the humanities have been struck from the timetable of learning … Forget art, music and culture and philosophy. All of our students are running off to business, Wall Street, banks … our souls are missing.” Institutions should challenge students to “higher thinking,” Belafonte said.
He said Chancellor Loren Crabtree should be embraced for letting all voices have a chance to speak.
“We are in a dark place,” Belafonte said. “It does not mean there’s not light. We just have to find it.” He challenged the poor and the rich alike to step up and make changes.
Belafonte used a Jamaican accent to imitate how his mother encouraged him never to go to sleep at night without having done something for justice.
At the close of the night, Belafonte was presented with a large hand-drawn portrait and a lettered jacket. He immediately took off his own sport coat and put on the gift. He then lightheartedly posed and strutted in the jacket as he prepared to leave. Belafonte was again delayed by applause.