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Harry Belafonte on Obama: “He Plays the Game that He Plays Because He Sees No Threat from Evidencing Concerns for the Poor”

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We speak with legendary singer, actor, humanitarian and activist, Harry Belafonte. “I think [Obama] plays the game that he plays because he sees no threat from evidencing concerns for the poor,” Belafonte says. “He sees no threat from evidencing a deeper concern for the needs of black people, as such. He feels no great threat from evidencing a greater policy towards the international community, for expressing thoughts that criticize the American position on things and turns that around. Until we do that, I think we will be forever disappointed in what that administration will deliver.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 21, 2009Harry Belafonte: Obama Presidency “An Opportunity to Force Our Voice in Decision-Making Process”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah. For a response to President Obama today, we also have a unique voice to turn to. I’m talking about the legendary singer, actor, humanitarian, activist, Harry Belafonte. A film about his life called Sing Your Song, that was co-produced by his daughter, Gina Belafonte, premiered and opened the Sundance Film Festival this year.

Well, this weekend I had a chance to sit down with Harry Belafonte here in Park City for an extended conversation, which we’ll be playing for you in the coming days. But at the end of the interview, I asked him about President Obama and his upcoming State of the Union address.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a headline, as we sit in Park City, Utah, today, from the front page of the New York Times, and it’s before President Obama gives his State of the Union address. And the headline is “Obama to Press Centrist Agenda in His Address.” What is your assessment of President Obama?

HARRY BELAFONTE: If I take a shift from how confused and how complicated the politics of this country is, I’d have to first of all say that the fact that the collective power of the voters of this nation, among all of its citizens, should have chosen to elect him as the president of the United States says something about America’s deeper resonance. Where really lies Americans’, America’s passion? What does its citizens really hope for? Having said that, I must then say that I am somewhat dismayed that there has not been a greater revelation of the use of his power to make choices, not only for legislation, but for public discourse and debate, in a greater way than he has availed us of.

And I’m reminded very quickly of a story, sitting with Eleanor Roosevelt, told us one night up there in Hyde Park after dinner. We loved — we reveled in her stories. And she told me the — told us the story of her husband and his first meeting with great, powerful labor leader named A. Philip Randolph, who was the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a job that was quite menial but very critical to the American railway system. And she loved A. Philip Randolph and his intellect and his evaluations as a union organizer, and in bringing him to the White House for dinner, invited A. Philip Randolph to tell the President his view of the state of the union from the Negro perspective and from the perspective of the black workers. And as a great mind and thinker, very much engaged, A. Philip Randolph held forth, and Roosevelt listened very carefully, and very stimulated by what Philip Randolph had to say. At the end of that moment, A. Philip Randolph was waiting for a response. And Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said to him — of course, paraphrasing, he said, “Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you have to say, the way in which you’ve criticized the fact that I have not used the power of my platform sufficiently in the service of the workers of this nation, and particularly the Negro people, that I didn’t use my bully pulpit more vigorously. And I cannot deny that that may be the case. As a matter of fact, I believe that is the case. And in that context, I’d like to ask you to do me a favor. And that is, if that is so, I’d like to ask you to go out and make me do what you think it is I should do. Go out and make me do it.”

And when you ask me about Barack Obama, it is exactly what happened to Kennedy. We, the American people, made the history of that time come to another place by our passion and our commitment to change. What is saddened — what is sad for this moment is that there is no force, no energy, of popular voice, popular rebellion, popular upheaval, no champion for radical thought at the table of the discourse. And as a consequence, Barack Obama has nothing to listen to, except his detractors and those who help pave the way to his own personal comfort with power — power contained, power misdirected, power not fully engaged. And it is our task to no longer have expectations of him, unless we have forced him to the table and he still resists us. And if he does that, then we know what else we have to do, is to make change completely. But I think he plays the game that he plays because he sees no threat from evidencing concerns for the poor. He sees no threat from evidencing a deeper concern for the needs of black people, as such. He feels no great threat from evidencing a greater policy towards the international community, for expressing thoughts that criticize the American position on things and turns that around. Until we do that, I think we’ll be forever disappointed in what that administration will deliver.

AMY GOODMAN: And to those who say, “If you want President Obama re-elected, you will undermine him if you criticize him; and consider the alternative”?

HARRY BELAFONTE: I think we will not only undermine him, but undermine the hopes of this nation, if we don’t criticize him. Absence of protest in the times of this kind of national crisis — Theodore Roosevelt once says, “When tyranny takes over the national agenda, it is that time that the voices of protest must be awakened. And if you don’t raise your voice in protest, you are a patriotic traitor.” And I believe that patriotism is betrayed by those voices that are not heard. Those who would detract you from that fact are those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Nothing will happen but good for Barack Obama and the United States of America, and indeed the world, if everybody stepped to the table and said, “This is the course we must be on.”

AMY GOODMAN: Have you let President Obama know your views? You have been with him.

HARRY BELAFONTE: Every opportunity I’ve had to put that before him, he has heard. I have not had a chance to put it to him as forcefully as I would like to, because he has not yet given us the accessibility to those places where this could be said in a more articulate way and not always on the fly.

But he once said something to me during his campaign for the presidency, and he says — he said, you know — I said, “I’ve heard you” — he was talking before businessmen on Wall Street here in — there in New York. And he said to me — I said, “Well, you know, I hope you bring the challenge more forcefully to the table.” And he said, “Well, when are you and Cornel West going to cut me some slack?” And I got caught with that remark. And I said to him, in rebuttal, I said, “What makes you think we haven’t?” And the truth of the matter is that we were somewhat contained even at the extent to which we criticized him during the campaign, in the hopes that it would energize his capacity to get elected and that, once he was elected, that burden would be off his back and he would use this new platform to do things other than what we have been experiencing. And I think any further retreat from bringing truth to power and forcing him to hear the voice of the people would be a disservice to this country and all that it promises to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, singer, actor, humanitarian. A film about his life and about grassroots movements of the 20th century premiered at this Sundance Film Festival. It opened the festival. It’s called Sing Your Song.

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