Last night I had a whole house to myself, so I planned to make a Thai stir-fry and watch some corny movie. I turned on the TV and happened upon the NAACP Image Awards. I am a sucker for any and all awards shows, so I kept watching.
It was mostly what you would expect—a few A-list celebrities, like Halle Berry and Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Quentin Tarantino, LL Cool J—mixed in with a bunch of people you kinda, sorta recognize. (Is that Buuud from The Cosby Show? … It wasn’t). And the adorable little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild with the name that no one can pronounce. And this white dude who stars with Washington on the show Scandal:
It was disappointing when people weren’t there to get their awards. Denzel wasn’t there. Omar Epps wasn’t there. Viola Davis wasn’t there. They gave Kerry Washington something called the “President’s Award” for her humanitarian work. I think she is a great actress (I mean, did you see Last King of Scotland?) but the shlocky PR video that they showed before she accepted her award was nauseatingly contrived. And I get that she is beautiful and has broken through to mainstream success, but ugh. She just ended up sounding conceited and self absorbed.
I have to admit that when 85-year-old Sidney Poitier took the stage and started slowly reading from the teleprompter, I was expecting a few sweet sentiments or maybe even a prepared speech written by some twenty-something awards-show writer.
But then something changed. He began to light up as he talked about Harry Belafonte, also 85, also one of the trailblazers of African American entertainment, also a pillar of the American civil rights movement.
It is easy to forget, in these post-politically-correct times, when we have a black president, when a we have movies like Django Unchained with a slave for a hero, just how much work it has taken to get to this point. Just how much struggle and pain it has taken. I mean it is easy for me to forget. For other people, it is absolutely impossible.
Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte remember the world before. They remember segregated America, and Medgar Evers and Emmitt Till, and Mississippi Burning, before it was a movie. When it was real. When these were real people being murdered for trying to challenge our country’s hypocrisy.
They remember the people they knew as children who told real stories of slavery. Not Tarantinoan revenge fantasies, but real-life recollections of violence and oppression that most of us will never even come close to understanding. The kind of suffering that crushes a human being’s soul.
I was impressed recently when I heard Tarantino defend the brutality depicted in Django Unchained by saying: Yes, it is violent. But what really happened during slavery was much, much worse.
Considering that slavery in America ended less than 200 years ago, we have come miraculously far toward becoming a nation that truly provides liberty and justice for all. But you need only to look at the poverty and crime statistics to see how much further there is to go. Which is why what Mr. Belafonte said last night was so powerful:
The group most devastated by America’s obsession with the gun is African Americans. Although making comparisons can be dangerous, there are times when they must be noted. America has the largest prison population in the world and, of the over 2 million men, women, and children who make up the incarcerated, the overwhelming majority is black.
They are the most unemployed, the most caught in the unjust systems of justice, and in the gun game, the most hunted. The river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our black children.
Yet as the great debate emerges on the question of the gun, white America discusses the constitutional issue of ownership while no one speaks to the consequences of our racial carnage. Where is the raised voice of black America? Why are we mute? Where are our leaders? Our legislators? Where is the church?
Not all, but many who have been recipients of this distinguished award were men and women who spoke up to remedy the ills of the nation. They were committed to radical thought. They were my mentors, my inspiration, my moral compass. Through them I understood America’s greatness. Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Bobby Kennedy, Connie Rice, and perhaps most of all, Paul Robeson. He was the sparrow. He was an artist who made us understand the depth of that calling when he said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are the civilization’s radical voice.”
Never in the history of black America has there ever been such a harvest of truly gifted and powerful artists… our nation hungers for their radical song. Let us not sit back silently. Let us not be charged with patriotic treason.
Some bloggers today have called his speech an “admonishment” of black America for not doing more to end violence. I did not hear it that way. I heard it as a call to action. I heard it as big love. I heard it as power. The same kind of power you hear in the words of Frederick Douglass, or Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr, or Malcolm X.
As Mr. Belafonte spoke, the crowd was visibly moved. Everyone who took the stage after him made reference to his speech, including Jamie Foxx, who said that while he had planned to talk about “me, me, me, I, I, I,” instead gave a beautiful, heartfelt thank you to those who paved the road for him and others. Not just in Hollywood, but every African American who suffered the inconceivable cruelty of slavery.
He acknowledged Quentin Tarantino for telling the story of Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington for the role she played in it. The role of every black woman who ever took a lashing, and worse. Before the network cut him off to show some commercial, Foxx sang an impromptu a cappella rendition of the song “No Weapon” as if singing to every sister, mother, auntie, and grandmother:
I know that a lot of people will not hear Mr. Belafonte’s words the way that I did, but it gives me hope that he said them. I do not think he was speaking only to black America. I think he was speaking to all of America, and to all artists, to be brave, honest, and radical in our compassion. We owe it to each other and to every American who came before us.