Harry Belafonte, singer, actor and civil rights activist, preferred the role of a American Revolution patriot Monday.
Belafonte told the 535 people in attendance at McCain Auditorium that he wanted to play “a little bit of Paul Revere” to alert the crowd of troubles ahead caused by some failings of previous generations.
“I think that which you’re going to inherit will not be a time of joy,” he said. “It will be a time of disease and a time of pestilence and a time of destruction. Perhaps most regrettable of all, it will be a time when you all turn on each other.”
The K-State Black Student Union hosted the Black History Month keynote address from Belafonte.
Belafonte said he’s in the midst of a global tour, primarily speaking to young people.
“Before I check out, I just want to know that up until the very last minute, I was saying with the breath of my body, ‘Let’s wake up,’” he said.
Belafonte used hip-hop as an example of where people need to be more alert to change.
He has a connection to the genre, producing Beat Street, a 1984 film based on hip-hop culture.
Belafonte said early hip-hop was filled with social messages, but that changed after corporate interest and money became more involved.
“Before you know it, hip-hop turned itself almost 180 degrees from being a culture of content and information and inspiration to a culture of absolute obscenity and degradation and pain and racial suffocation,” he said.
Belafonte said this is troubling considering its influence on society.
He said this is a part of an overall trend in which black people have lost their voices.
“Truly the greatest betrayer of black interest and the greatest betrayer of the black cause is black people,” Belafonte said. “We have abandoned ourselves. We have abandoned our truth. We have abandoned our missions.”
He said race continues to be the thing that undermines America as a whole, although it’s a different struggle now.
“You don’t see signs that say ‘no negroes,’” he said. “All you see is that our prisons are being filled up because it’s done quietly.”
Belafonte referred to Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who has called the prison system “the new slavery.”
“I do not shy away from that terminology because I think something is askew in America,” he said. He mentioned instances of children younger than 10 being arrested for classroom disturbances.
He said America often presents itself as a model of what the world should be following.
“There’s a difference between the image of what we’d like people to believe we are and what we in fact practice,” he said.
Belafonte said an example of this came after World War II when black people still struggled to gain rights. He fought during the war.
“We who were of color and participated in that war understood the issues of race in America,” he said. “But we also understood that we participated in that struggle in Europe.”
Belafonte said they hoped to be awarded with “some simple generosity” after fighting a war that led to the collapse of Nazi Germany.
“Instead of America expressing its generosity, what it did was super-hyped itself into oppression not seen since the days of slavery,” he said.
Belafonte, a confidante of Martin Luther King Jr., participated in the Civil Rights Movement that followed to gain and protect those rights.
He said King told him in one of their last conversations that he categorized the situation for black people at that time as “integrating into a burning house.”
When Belafonte asked King what should people do, King said, “I think we’re just going to have to become firemen.”
Belafonte said part of the reason he’s still around at 86 is there are few voices saying the things America needs to hear.
“I have looked around, and I saw after all of that, America went silent and became distracted,” he said.
After his speech, Marcus Briggs, KSU Black Student Union president, presented Belafonte with the organization’s Stacy Hall Humanitarian Award. Members of the audience gave Belafonte a standing ovation.
Two Black Student Union members said they felt Belafonte’s message was needed.
Justine Floyd admitted that she didn’t know as much about Belafonte prior to his speech.
“We were a part of history,” she said. “We were in the same room as a man who walked with Dr. King and fought in the war.”
Ronesha Cobb said it was a “mind-blowing” experience.
“It was definitely motivational,” she said. “It wakes up African Americans and makes us want to do more for all of his dedication for us.”