Harry Belafonte, who has been singer, sex symbol and actor all mixed together over his long career, was in the area last week, charming and cajoling.
I’d missed a talk he gave at the Moore Theatre in January (my colleague, Nicole Brodeur, wrote about him), but I caught up with him last week when he was in Redmond to speak at the opening of a senior housing community. At 86, he’s retired from singing, but not from political activism, and he is still playful, provocative and profoundly dedicated to social justice.
A lot has happened since he was here last, and the need for political and social engagement to protect rights gained was on his mind last Sunday, even as he shook hands and posed for snapshots.
Belafonte was swarmed by fans at the event, and he, smiling brightly, seemed just as glad to see them as they were to see him. He has a knack for making people feel good — it’s part of what helped him rise from poor kid to star. His album “Calypso” was the first recording of any kind to become a million-seller. He’s won Grammys and a Tony and blazed trails as an actor on TV and in films, becoming Hollywood’s first crossover black leading man. His career soared in the 1950s and 1960s at the same time the modern civil-rights movement was pressing the country to truly embrace equality, and he used his stardom to support the movement. He was a close friend and confidante of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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Belafonte got fellow entertainers involved — Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Tony Bennett and many more. He put his life at risk on the front lines in the South and wove his social and political conscience into his career.
When I asked what’s on his mind these days, he said Americans need to recognize that there are people trying to erase some of the progress we’ve made as a country and that we need to continue to struggle for a more just society. He mentioned the North Carolina tragedy in which a young man who knocked on a door seeking help for a car breakdown was fatally shot 10 times by a police officer. He mentioned the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against a key part of the Voting Rights Act, and the George Zimmerman trial verdict, the tea-party movement (“I think it carries with it a racist undertone in the way in which they have responded to Barack Obama”).
America, he said, needs to be aware and responsive to threats to progress previous generations made.
He said many Americans have sacrificed too much to improve the country and the world for any of us to not do our part now. I asked him about the recent memorials to the March on Washington and other events this year commemorating milestones of the civil-rights movement. We spoke on the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls and injured 22 other people, an occasion for more speeches.
“Just celebrating what we did that was heroic is not sufficient. … While I’m appreciative of what one does in the memory of the March and in the memory of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, so what?” he said, “Just remembering history, as important as it is, is not the answer to what has to be done, and I would beseech each and every one of us to be mindful of that fact.”
He said there are still enough people clinging to the negative aspects of our past, “that continue to cause us anguish and difficulty, and I think we have to meet them with a strong resistance to what the reactionary forces in this country are about.”
Then it was time for him to get back to the business that brought him to town.
I asked about his participation in the opening of the community called Aegis at Marymoor, one of several built and run by Aegis Living. A lot of celebrities participate in events like that, but given Belafonte’s record of mixing business and conviction, I wanted to know if this was more than business for him.
He said he had met the founders of Aegis a few years ago and was impressed that they were addressing “aging almost as a civil-rights movement of its own.”
Dwayne Clark, who grew up in Southwest Washington and in Idaho, is the founder and CEO and has said he wanted to build communities that treat residents like people, which is to say to treat them with respect.
It is different from other residences I’ve visited. It felt less institutional, more like an upscale hotel. One floor has a man cave, where guys can retreat when they feel the need to man up. The floor for people who have memory problems has a number of interesting touches. In one of the halls, I saw a baby carriage with a doll in it. A staffer told me they have to keep replacing the dolls because residents walk off cuddling them.
There is a door that opens onto an enclosed area made to look like a campground, complete with a camping trailer outfitted like it was actually being used by a family, and a 1955 car with luggage in the back. Residents can sit in the car or the trailer and replay their own outings.
“What I love about it,” Belafonte said, “is that you can make the right thing profitable.”
In the long run, the right thing, whether it makes money or not, is always profitable.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org