Harry Belafonte and Elaine: In Praise of Unassuming Heroes
[Note: this is a guest post from one of my favorite authors, Bob Katz. The heroic true story of Elaine referenced in this post, alludes to his book Elaine’s Circle: A Teacher, a Student, a Classroom, and One Unforgettable Year. I highly recommend it.]
For many years I ran a speakers bureau, which I would often describe as a rung on the show business ladder. Among other things, this business brought me into contact with a number of people who were fairly well-known and a few who verged on the famous. Which caused me some discomfort as I tend to a skeptical attitude toward the category of person labeled a “celebrity.” I don’t necessarily defend having this attitude. In some cases, it is indefensible. In other cases, however, I believe my skepticism is entirely justified.
My book Elaine’s Circle is, at heart, an anti-celebrity story. It depicts the courageous heroics of a fourth-grade teacher in rural Alaska who never thought of herself as anything but ordinary, even as she was accomplishing the extraordinary. That sort of person rarely gets much attention in our chest-thumping, headline-grabbing, shamelessly self-promoting culture. Indeed, the humble and unassuming among us may represent a kind of endangered species.
Enter Harry Belafonte
For that very reason, my one encounter with Harry Belafonte, the recently deceased international superstar, left an indelible impression.
In the early 1980’s I was just starting my speakers bureau and my first “client” was a former CIA agent named John Stockwell who’d recently come out as a bold critic of the agency and especially the US role conflicts then raging in Central America. A few days prior to a talk Stockwell was scheduled to give at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, he was contacted by Belafonte, who said he wanted to meet him.
Stockwell flew into Boston and I drove with him down to URI. It was a standard campus lecture hall, filled to capacity. Belafonte was seated without fanfare among the students. He’d hired a driver to bring him the three-plus hours from New York City. At the conclusion of his talk, Stockwell, a dashing and gracious presence in his own right, noted there was a special guest in the audience and asked Belafonte if he would say a few words.
Belafonte was at the time among the most celebrated entertainers in the world. I remember him as initially reluctant to come onstage but eventually consenting almost out of politeness. What I also vividly remember was the way Belafonte spoke. He spoke in a whisper so raspy and soft that his words could only be heard if everyone – everyone! – throughout the auditorium remained perfectly quiet. Therefore we did. Which of course he knew we would.
Belafonte’s remarks were neither brief nor gentle. A UPI dispatch on the event (I looked it up!) quotes Belafonte as telling the crowd, “Why are we always on the wrong side in the Third World? Why are we always on the side of the oppressor?”
Having a Beer with Harry
Afterward, the student group hosting the event asked if we’d like to grab a beer and we wound up at a lonesome tavern on the edge of town. Belafonte and his driver joined us. For the next two hours, he and Stockwell sat at a corner table vigorously discussing US foreign policy, surrounded by a tight circle of awed college students that kept growing larger as word got out.
At closing time, Belafonte shook hands with students, made arrangements to stay in touch with Stockwell, and was driven back to New York City. End of story. No paparazzi. No autographs. No follow-up tweets. Belafonte struck me as that rare superstar who, like the teacher in Elaine’s Circle, did not require limelight or the prospect of applause to display his worth.
We could use more of those.
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