I met Harry Belafonte a decade ago at a protest. I’m still moved by that moment. — Andscape
I found out that Harry Belafonte had gone to be with the ancestors early Tuesday morning. He lived for nearly a century, a champion and catalyst in both activism and entertainment.
I met him once – not far from my alma mater, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.
My best friend and I had rented a vehicle to go down to Tallahassee to see a student activist group called the Dream Defenders, who had begun what would ultimately be a monthlong sit-in at the Florida Capitol to demand the legislature hold a special session to address the state’s “stand your ground” law. It was July 2013. I had just turned 30 years old. And George Zimmerman had just been acquitted of murder charges for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
When I was an FAMU Rattler, I’d made the trip from Augusta, Georgia, to Tallahassee many times, seeing signs for small towns that took me back to adolescent afternoons with my grandmother, who routinely watched In the Heat of the Night. Before the show became a TV fixture, star Sidney Poitier – a longtime friend of Belafonte’s – made the role of Virgil Tibbs into an iconic persona.
While the irony of Black celebrity cops in a world full of police brutality eluded me at that time, the string of heated summers did not. The furor caused by Martin’s death intensified in August 2014 after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Florissant, Missouri. These events were the genesis of Black Lives Matter, which eventually led to the worldwide protests following the killing of George Floyd by police in 2020.
As we entered the Capitol, my friend and I were given black T-shirts with an aspirational message: CAN WE DREAM TOGETHER? I had spent the last three years as an editor at a Black-owned newspaper, so I was familiar with the challenges that faced Black people in my hometown and beyond. Still, this was different. I needed to see a youth movement like this – focused and unafraid. I needed to see my peers and younger college students loudly demand justice. One of their chants still resonates with me nearly a decade later:
I believe that
I believe that we will win
I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN
I entered the building as a journalist and left as something more. That day, I understood how journalism might become advocacy, much like it did for abolitionist Frederick Douglass, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, and others. I interviewed Dream Defenders co-founder Phillip Agnew, himself a FAMU alum, and followed him around for a bit. Eventually we came to an out-of-the-way room that might have represented a change of pace in any other building. But in this hub of ambient energy, as the spiritual goes, “ain’t no hiding place down here.”
There he was: Harry Belafonte. Sitting near a windowsill, with the sun shining on his back. I shyly gestured toward him and made my way back into the role of a journalist. It would be an understatement to say that his presence galvanized the Defenders’ efforts and later said the effect was reciprocal.
“It makes my autumn heart dance like it was spring,” Belafonte said when asked about the protest at the Capitol.
Shakespeare talked about the “winter of our discontent,” but for Black folks, that angst is year-round. My singular regret about going to cover the Dream Defenders’ protest was that I didn’t stay longer. I don’t even remember why my journey to Tallahassee was a day trip, but I experienced more in those few hours than I had during any recitation of Black history or activism. That was a moment for me.
The “moment” is something I think people fail to embrace at times, myself included. We wallow in the realm of “missed opportunities” instead of appreciating the peaks and valleys of life as the greater blessing. “In poor environment, I find great inspiration,” Belafonte once said. “Many of the men and women whom I admire as artists, the things they write, the songs they sing, the admission is filled with inspired moments to overcome oppression.” This perspective on life allowed him to always be in the moment, continually ready to be a voice for the next generation.
I am grateful that the Dream Defenders’ moment wasn’t limited to a month at the Capitol. Even now, Agnew continues to persevere and organize through Black Men Build.
Even now, as Florida represents ground zero for clashes between Black activists and an overreaching government, I am grateful for the elders like Belafonte who so graciously passed the baton to the next generation. I remain hopeful that we can continue to run this race for freedom together.
And I still believe that we will win.