Belafonte hits one high note at Hopkins

September 23, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

I knew, before I did it, that if I did it, I'd hate myself in the morning.

As it turns out, I hated myself the rest of the week.

I caught Harry Belafonte's speech Tuesday night at the Johns Hopkins University. I went expecting to hear the same Belafonte who tried to channel the spirit of Malcolm X four years ago when he compared then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to a house slave. (Note to Harry: There was only one Malcolm X. And he's dead.)

Or at least the Belafonte of early 2006, who was in Venezuela telling President Hugo Chavez that President Bush was the "biggest tyrant" and the "biggest terrorist" in the world. Belafonte repeated his Bush-as-a-terrorist theme in his Hopkins speech, but he steered clear of the other "t" word. Nevertheless, he implied there was tyranny afoot in America.

"I've been the voice of dissent, along with millions of others," Belafonte said. "We've been put away and maligned and contained."

I'm sure exactly that has happened in the alternate universe Belafonte has constructed. The reality is quite different. True tyrants would have slapped Belafonte into prison for his "Bush is the biggest tyrant and terrorist" remarks. Tyrants surely wouldn't allow him to travel about the country speaking at the finest colleges and universities in the land.

A very cogent saying going around contends that folks are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. For Belafonte, his opinions are facts. He can't make a distinction. That's why Belafonte really believes, as he said regarding the war in Iraq, that "our Congress voted for it, all of them, with one or two exceptions."

Belafonte also believes - and he told his audience this - that there are more black men and women in prison than there are in the nation's colleges and universities.

A check of The Sun's library revealed that the congressional resolution giving Bush authority to wage war in Iraq passed in the Senate by a vote of 77-23 and the House of Representatives by a vote of 296-133. That's a total of 156 in opposition. That's clearly not "one or two."

The most current U.S. Census Bureau figures show over 2 million blacks in colleges and universities and just under 900,000 in prison. How do we account for such reckless disregard for the facts? It's almost as if Belafonte and others on the left want there to be more blacks in prison than in college. That makes it easier for those blacks content to wallow in victimhood to do so.

The Hopkins speech was all standard Belafonte fare, grist for a columnist's mill. But that's not what made the rest of my week bad. It's when Belafonte said a couple of things that I agreed with that left me downright depressed.

Belafonte asked audience members, most of them college students, how many of them had read any or all of the books in Taylor Branch's biographical trilogy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Asking people under 30 if they've read anything is risky business. I had to admire Belafonte for daring to put his sanity on the line by even broaching the subject.)

Very few raised their hands. Then Belafonte pointed Branch out in the audience and asked him to stand.

"The fact that your book is not in every library and required reading in every school is a shame," Belafonte said.

How could I disagree with that? And on what grounds?

Branch's books should be required reading. They're the finest works of American history we have on the years 1955 through 1968. It's not only a shame that Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge aren't required reading. It's egregious that all aren't on the New York Times best-seller list, considering some of the things that are.

"It's kind of an author's dream," Branch said of Belafonte's urging people to read his works. Branch added that he's all for the trilogy being required reading, "as long as there's not any force or coercion involved."

Trust me, these books should be read even if we have to force students to do so at gunpoint. They're that good. But that won't be necessary for some of the students in Belafonte's audience.

"I had a bunch of young people come up and ask me for the titles," Branch said. "So maybe [Belafonte] sold a few books for me."

If Branch has any regrets, it's that many today don't feel the civil rights movement is relevant.

"My problem is that most people think that era is ancient history," Branch said. "I see the civil rights movement as a model for how to create new democracies."

Branch, as Belafonte pointed out to the students, lives here in Baltimore. He was in Los Angeles about to give a speech when I interviewed him by phone. Branch said he wasn't expecting Belafonte to single him out, but he sure didn't mind.

"I'm really happy," Branch said about someone of Belafonte's stature recommending his books. "I wish lots of people would say it."

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