October 24, 2002
Perhaps, like most Americans, you believe you’re entitled to your own opinions and no one can dictate your thoughts. Wrong.
We now know, thanks to Harry Belafonte, that this isn’t the case. If you want to know what to think, check your skin color. If, like me, you’re black, it’s your duty, among other things, to disagree with the Bush administration’s policies. That’s the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from Belafonte’s infamous critique of Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice. Speaking first on a San Diego radio station and later on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” the singer called Powell and Rice “house slaves” for their work on behalf of a conservative administration. He likened Powell to a plantation worker who curries favor “to come into the house of the master” and slammed Rice for her “abdication of moral responsibility.”
Their main crime, it seems, is to favor going to war with Iraq, something Belafonte fervently opposes.
Compounding his attack, he also has boasted of ensuring that Rice was struck from the guest list of a high-profile charity event. Africare, an African-aid lobbying group, disinvited Rice to its annual fund-raising dinner, which will pay tribute to Belafonte’s humanitarian efforts. She had agreed to give the keynote address, but Belafonte, who has compared her to a “Jew” who was “doing things that were anti-Semitic and against the best interests of her people,” told Africare he didn’t want Rice in attendance. When asked about his comment regarding Powell, Belafonte stated: “This was not a personal attack on Colin Powell. However ... speaking on behalf of so many African-American citizens, I have found Colin Powell to be a tragic failure.”
A tragic failure? We’re talking about a man who gave up a $6 million-a-year income in the private sector to go back into government service as the first black secretary of state. A man who worked his way up the ladder of the military to become the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. You can disagree with him, but you can’t call him a failure.
And this alleged “house slave” hasn’t been afraid to go against the grain of the administration when he feels strongly about an issue. Earlier this year, for example, he spoke on MTV advocating birth control and sex education for teenagers. Those statements weren’t popular in the administration, but they didn’t diminish his impact in the Bush cabinet.
Belafonte -- who marched in the civil-rights movement and has been honored by the NAACP, the National Urban League and many other organizations whose mission it is to try and expand the roles of minorities -- is not without accomplishment. But he should realize that he speaks solely on his own behalf. He never was invited to speak for all blacks. Yet he seems to believe that we all must think the way he does.
As Rice put it, “I don't need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black.” Doesn’t it make sense to have a wide and varied spectrum of thoughts in the black community? Times change, and our leaders will and should become more diverse. Yet when individuals such as Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice or Education Secretary Rod Paige attain positions of authority, too many of us act like crabs in a barrel -- reaching up to pull them back down.
Powell remains gracious. “If Harry had wanted to attack my politics, that’s fine,” he said on King’s show. “But to use a slave reference, I think is unfortunate, and is a throwback to another time and place that I wish Harry had thought twice about using.”
The secretary is used to criticism. Conservatives say he’s too centrist; liberals say he’s not representing a certain cookie-cutter image of a black leader. And that’s fine. Both criticisms are well within the bounds of normal political discourse. Belafonte’s comments weren’t.
Like Powell, he’s free to stand up for what he believes in. No one likes war. But to liken Powell, who has made so many sacrifices for his country, to a house slave is indefensible.
As a role model, entertainer and leader in the black community, Belafonte should demonstrate care in his words. Colin Powell is an American hero and a role model who deserves to be emulated.
Until he’s ready to apologize, Belafonte should keep quiet -- or at least just stick to singing.
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