Commencement Remarks
by Mr. Harry Belafonte

Mr. Harry Belafonte
Artist and Human Rights Activist
Doctor of Humanities

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 • Biography

Trustee Debbie Allen Nixon, please present Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Mr. President, I have the extreme honor to present Mr. Harry Belafonte to receive at your hand the honorary degree, Doctor of Humanities.

Harry Belafonte, activist, humanitarian, a consummate entertainer, you are indeed a national treasure. A remarkably talented and gifted artist, you have leveraged your formidable entertainment career to remove racial and social barriers. A concert singer, recording artist, and a movie, Broadway, television star, producer and director, you are one of the few and the earliest African-American entertainers whose art form crossed over and garnered broad commercial success and appeal.

You worked aggressively and publicly to achieve civil rights for African Americans in spite of the risks to your commercially successful career. The former King of Calypso, you are equally and widely known for your charitable work with UNICEF and with USA for Africa. Through your work in popular music, you have raised your voice from Alabama to Bosnia for the rights of the poor and racially oppressed.

You were first embraced by and endeared the American public in the 1950s as a singer delivering joyous songs of life and love with a wonderful Jamaican lilt. A succession of club appearances led to your first Broadway appearance in the musical, "John Murray Anderson's Almanac," for which you won a Tony Award. A recording contract with RCA followed. In 1955, against all advice, you recorded your third album, "Calypso," which became the first album to ever sell over 1 million copies.

It contained the top five hit, the "Banana Boat Song."

In 1953, you made your motion picture debut in "Bright Road," opposite the beautiful actress, Dorothy Dandridge. You again starred opposite Dorothy Dandridge the following year in "Carmen Jones."

Your other films include: Odds Against Tomorrow; The World, the Flesh, and the Devil; Uptown Saturday Night; and Island in the Sun, for which you co-authored the title song.

In 1960, you produced and starred in a stunning musical epic called, "Tonight with Belafonte," for which you won an Emmy. As a performer and human rights advocate, your most important achievements have spanned both your artistic and social interests. You conceived the idea for USA for Africa, the fundraising effort that has raised more than $60 million for famine relief in Africa.

You also helped organize the Hands Across America campaign in the 1980s, raising money for this country's poor and underfed, and played a significant role in the series of Farm Aid concerts.

The recipient of countless honors and awards for your distinguished career in entertainment and as a world traveling humanitarian, you have received, among many other awards, the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Medal; the Nelson Mandela Courage Award; the Drum Major for Justice Award; the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize; a Kennedy Center Honors for Excellence in the Performing Arts Award, and the 1994 National Medal of Arts Award from President William Jefferson Clinton for your contributions to our Nation's cultural life.

For your many extraordinary accomplishments as both a performer and social activist, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored you last year with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Harry Belafonte, world-class actor, singer, writer, producer, human rights and social activist, humanitarian, and cherished national treasure, Howard University salutes you today on this historic occasion of its 133rd Commencement. We are indeed proud to confer upon you the degree, Doctor of Humanities, honoris causa, and admit you to all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. I direct that you now be invested with the hood appropriate to this high degree, and present you with this diploma. Congratulations, Dr. Belafonte.


Mr. President, Debbie Allen, my love, to the Board of Trustees, to the faculty, to all of my fellow graduates, to all of the parents who are gathered here today, and to my fellow Honorees, I have been humbled by the experience I have been having these past couple of days here at Howard, because the degree that has been bestowed upon me not only gives me a great sense of personal pride, but it comes at a time when validation has been extremely important.

When I was born, America was a land of segregation, officially, by law. It was a place where poverty and oppression were greatly known by the masses of black people who made up the populace of this country. I did not have the benefit of being able to go through the world of academic study. Life was cut short for me at the dawning of high school. My mother always plagued over the fact that I did not get a chance to move on to higher study. But divine intervention did give me the gift of art, and also divine intervention gave me mentors that made a difference in my life and how I was to embark upon it.

Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th Century, and Paul Robeson, also one of the greatest intellectuals and artists of the 20th Century, were my mentors.

They set a course for me that was to be irreversible. In them, I found courage. In them, I found anointing. In them, I found the will to be able to commit myself to the struggles of the people in the world who faced injustice.

Paul Robeson once said to me that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. Upon his death, in attendance to him in Philadelphia, I asked him if the journey that he had been on had been worth the pain and the struggle that he went through. He said "Absolutely."

There were many victories that he wished we had experienced, but in fact, it was the journey itself that made the difference. He said he had wished that there were one thing he had known at the beginning of the life that he had come to know at the close of his life. That was that, in the final analysis, every generation must be responsible for itself.

It is true that I walked in a time when I was graced with the presence and friendship of many remarkable men and women -- Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, my fellow combatant and a great friend, Andrew Young, and so many who made up the family of my fellow combatants. We did our task. We delivered America in a new and a better way than the way in which we found it. But that America which we delivered now sits in great jeopardy, in great jeopardy.

Many gains that we have made are now in the process of being reversed. What is important about this Class of 2001 is not how well you fit into the culture of greed that you will be walking into. It is, how will you use yourself to sustain the victories that have been given to you and move this nation and all of us along.

Thank you for permitting me to be a part of you on this day. You give me authenticity, and you give me validation in everything I have ever stood for. I thank you.