During his recent appearance in #nerdland, Belafonte and host Melissa Harris-Perry discussed how artists in the public sphere are uniquely positioned to enact social change. Belafonte’s civil rights activism has been well noted, from his work with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60s to initiating the We are the World campaign to alleviate famine in Ethiopia.
“I think artists have a platform, they have a power, the gift – and by using that gift and that power and putting it the service of those who are being ground out by inequity and systems that are unjust, we begin to put a light and a new dynamic into what is going on with the poor and what is going on with the racially oppressed, sexually abused,” Belafonte told Harris-Perry. “And by doing this, we have heightened the consciousness of people who are being constantly distracted at taking a deeper look at what goes on in our social issues.”
Soon to be 87 years old, Belafonte remains involved in a myriad of causes. He joined the Dream Defenders in July of 2013 during their sit-in protest at Florida governor Rick Scott’s office, bringing attention to the fight against the state’s Stand Your Ground law. Later, in August of last year, he launched the Sankofa Justice & Equity Fund, described by the ACLU as “a non-profit social justice organization that utilizes the power of culture and celebrity in partnership with activism.” Also, in remarks earlier this month, Belafonte announced a new focus for his work: ending the oppression of women around the world, and asking black men to take the lead in doing so.
Belafonte, in his Saturday appearance, quoted a man in whose tradition he followed, artist and activist Paul Robeson: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” Friday night’s dialogue between Belafonte and Harris-Perry delved deeper into that notion and more on Friday night.
The discussion, titled “In the Tradition: An Intergenerational Dialogue on Progressive Activism and Black America,” was moderated by UConn historian and frequent MHP guest Jelani Cobb. The Schomburg Center and director Khalil Gibran Muhammad hope to focus the discussion on two questions: How has the landscape for social justice become more complicated? And what are the responsibilities of the black community to its advocates in times of attack?
Watch the 90-minute discussion in full below.