Harry Belafonte appeared dazed, struggling to stand with a cane as an aide guided him slowly to his place on stage. Having caught his breath, the 90-year-old singer and civil rights activist warned the crowd at Carnegie Music Hall on Friday night that this was likely his last public appearance.
It lasted nearly two hours. Despite appearing disoriented – a stroke a few years ago took away his inner-ear balance – and taking long breaks to gathers his thoughts, Belafonte brought the crowd to rising cheers and chants.
He also made a startling statement. In electing Donald Trump, he said, “the country made a mistake and I think the next mistake might very well be the gas chamber and what happened to Jews [under] Hitler is not too far from our door.”
For the most part, though, Belafonte talked about his life. He recounted how when he was seven his mother, a Jamaican immigrant who worked long days, made him promise he would never let injustice go unchallenged.
“It stayed with me forever” he said. “Whenever I came upon resistance or opportunities that were not offered to us because of race, because of poverty, I always remembered her counsel, her wish.
“Her counsel had a huge impact. Her tenaciousness, the way in she handled the poverty, the way in which with no skill, she faced a life of endless rejection … I just marveled at the way in which she seemed to endure and from that early experience with her, the mood was set, the tone was set for how my life would be.”
As he spoke of the injustice he endured during the years when Senator Joe McCarthy spread anti-communist repression, Belafonte began to cough and struggled to speak. A man in the audience called to him to take his time. Belafonte paused and caught his breath.
Harry Belafonte: ‘Faced with oppression, I had to act’
Beginning to relax, to cheers from the audience, he recounted the great pride he felt when The Banana Boat Song, his song about the struggles of the working class people that raised him, helped an album become the first record to ever sell a million copies. He spoke of how the solidarity of audiences around the world saved him when he was blacklisted in the US, during the years of McCarthyism, when major record labels would no longer cut him deals.
“I found this enormous force called audience and I made sure that everything that I did was given towards instructing them and informing them,” he said. “It was they who came night after night to feel the music of the world that gave me the economic independence that made me not care.”
He spoke of his mentor, Paul Robeson, and learning the lessons of his downfall. He thanked him for introducing him to Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom he traveled in the 1950s, meeting leaders of African independence movements.
He spoke of Pete Seeger and how music brought the spirit of the civil rights movement to great heights. And he spoke of the great fall America had endured by electing Trump.
However, Belafonte said he had come to feel confident that work done by his generation had laid a framework for the revival of American democracy.
“We have achieved a lot in my lifetime,” he said. “Dr King was not about nothing, Eleanor Roosevelt was not about nothing. I think in the final analysis that we shall overcome, because what we did is … we left a harvest that generations to come [will] reap. That they have not yet plowed. That they have not yet harvested.”