Harry Belafonte sat down with Roland Martin for an exclusive Washington Watch interview from his New York office.
During the interview Mr. Belafonte discussed his friend Marlon Brando and some of the amazing times he witnessed during his life.
MR. ROLAND MARTIN: Well, first off, Harry Belafonte, so glad to sit before you and to [have you] join us here on TV One [sic].
MR. HARRY BELAFONTE: It’s good to see you again.
MR. MARTIN: I read your book, and – read your book My Song: A Memoir. And w- — what was really interesting was when you talked about why you needed to do this book, why you needed to do the HBO documentary – because with Marlon Brando, your long-time friend passing away, all of that history died with him.
MR. BELAFONTE: Yes, there’s a whole culture in America that’s deeply committed to – to the politics of progress, and a lotta people play a role in that culture, but they play it quietly, and a lot of them have celebrity status. And Marlon and I grew up together. I met him when I was 19. We were in school together, and our careers kind of – our lives paralleled one another’s. ‘S a matter of fact, he introduced me to my second wife, and –
MR. MARTIN: Someone who he used to – who he was dating.
MR. BELAFONTE: — yeah. As a matter of fact –
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. BELAFONTE: — I – I met her while he was dating her, and I said, “This is too good for you, Marlon.” [Chuckles.]
MR. MARTIN: That’s a good friend.
MR. BELAFONTE: Anyway, he did a lot. He did a lot with the Black Panthers. He did a lot with SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He came and met with Dr. King any number of times – came to New York along with a host of other celebrities to raise funds and to raise consciousness.
I think America needs to know that they have citizens who do this on a much larger scale than the press is able to report – or, chooses to report. 00:08:51
MR. BELAFONTE: So, when he passed, I saw the void that – that – that was there as far as my soul was concerned, ‘cause I lost a very good friend.
But then I understood that he went away without ever telling America what he did, and America needed to know that there’re a lotta citizens that make a difference. 00:09:08 So, I decided that I would go out ‘n’ find people who knew him, knew the history and could comment on it; and [when I], like, started on that path, I ran into a lot of other people that had parallel histories to Marlon, and I felt they should be in this story that I was attempting to tell. 00:09:28
MR. BELAFONTE: And so consequently, we came up with “Sing Your Song.” When I got through making the film, I realized that we had about 7- — close to 800 hours of interview footage, and we only had an hour 40 minutes –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: — in which to tell the story. So, the idea of a book to become more subtextural [sic], to talk more deeply about the context of the history of the period, was required. So, then I went off and started to do the book at the – at a parallel time that we were editing – as we were editing the film – and both came out at the same time. 00:10:06
MR. MARTIN: I am – I’ve always been fascinated with history, but specifically African-American history. When Gordon Parks died, when I read these obits – and you’re sitting there sayin’, “Man! He did all of this!” And I began to get DVDs and began to get books to really understand who he was, and in many ways – as I felt reading this book – I mean I’m sitting there goin’, “Man, I’ve known a lotta stuff,” you know, “about Harry Belafonte, but, wow! This is amazing!” And what really stood out was that you literally were at the intersection of so much history: Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois – goin’ to dinner, Dr. King – goin’ through SNCC and all of those folks. And so when you think back on that, do you even tell yourself, “Man! Those were amazing times”?
MR. BELAFONTE: I really didn’t get into the fact – oh, I knew they were amazing times as I was living out the history. You can’t have over a quarter of a million people show up on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and don’t know that somethin’s goin’ –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: — on.
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: So, things like that which were outstanding o- — obviously g- — t- — stood out, and I was aware of[?] the[?] – of the fact that I was with men like Dr. King and John Kennedy and – [slight ambient noise] – Nelson Mandela and women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, who were – who had their hands on the pulse of our time; and that to be in their service meant that I was doing something that had historical value. `00:11:43
MR. BELAFONTE: It is in that spirit that I was able to sustain and maintain a life of social commitment that satisfied the earliest instructions that I got from my mother, which was, “Never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could do to stop injustice and didn’t commit yourself to it.” She said, “Make sure you always wake up every day doing something to help enhance justice.”
And with that instruction, which I got quite young – it just stayed with me all my life and became the thing that I measured most of what I did in my life –
MR. MARTIN: You –
MR. BELAFONTE: — against. 00:12:22