Mr. Harry Belafonte, 88, a legend among men, a king among kings, is the embodiment of Black resistance. A born star, and Hollywood royalty at its very finest, his life—and living—is a testament to the wonders of will and the power of art and principled action. For EBONY’s 70th anniversary, the activist-actor passed the mighty baton of purpose and hope to two younger generations of Black socially-conscious stars who admirably follow in his path: Jesse Williams, 34, and Zendaya, 19. Between the eldest and the youngest photographed here, just shy of 70 years. Kismet.
As told to Kierna Mayo and Jamilah Lemieux
Perhaps none of us meant to lose our breath, but when Harry Belafonte, 88, strolled into the studio—his cane doubling as a proud village chief’s walking stick—that’s exactly what happened. Harry Belafonte is still, without question, Harry Belafonte. The body may move slower these days, but the mind is agile as ever.
That Black power fist you see on the cover? He raised it with the might of a man half his age. The charm that made women weak in his first film, Bright Road, 62 years ago, remains. The living legend held court with all the women on set, including his beloved Pamela, whom he referred to as his “fourth wife” (when she reminded him that she is his third, he joked, “Just keeping her sharp!”).
Like his young mentee, Williams, however, the looks and swagger will be but a footnote when the final chapter on Belafonte’s wondrous life is written. As a performer, he appeared in no less than 20 films and recorded dozens of albums, and as the first Black man to win a Tony Award in 1954, he is still regarded as one of the most successful Caribbean American artists of all time. A son of Harlem with roots in Jamaica and Martinique, his activism has spanned the globe, from the Mississippi Freedom Summer, to Cuba’s political hip-hop scene. The man is nothing, if not a freedom fighter. His resolute clarity on political issues that affect the dark and the poor has been as profound in recent years as it was when he was in the streets marching with his comrades in the fight for social justice so many decades ago. His willingness to name names, and to call out those he believes do not stand for said liberty, challenges even the most radical of today’s Black activists.
You will recall the time when Belafonte essentially branded General Colin Powell a house n*gger in 2002: “Powell is permitted to come into the house of the master, as long as he will serve the master according to the master’s dictates,” said Belafonte in a CNN interview.
You will recall, in 2006, Belafonte pegging the newly formed Homeland Security Department as the “new Gestapo,” and his alliance with controversial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, before his 2013 death. Belafonte said to him with seemingly no fear of retribution, “Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution.” This, only after blasting then-President George W. Bush as the “greatest tyrant and terrorist in the world.” Belafonte is not here for your milquetoast agendas and oppressive politics, no sir.
Also in 2013, because Black lives have always mattered to him, the venerable statesman founded the Sankofa Justice & Equity Fund, an organization that recruits artists and influencers to address issues such as income inequality and the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore. Usher recently partnered with Sankofa and Tidal (we see you, Jay Z) to release “Chains,” a single addressing police violence against Blacks and Latinos.
Here, in his own words, our beloved elder speaks on the intrinsic, forever connection between Black art and revolution. —KM
I was very fortunate in my earliest of years. I was touched by the presence of a man named Paul Robeson. He was a mentor to me, one of the great figures of the 20th century. It was he who connected with a group of then-young artists—Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier—at the American Negro Theater in Harlem and would help them to become some of the world’s most engaged activists. Robeson said something that made an indelible impact on my life: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They are civilization’s radical voice and moral compass.”
I’m eternally grateful for those words from Robeson and others like him: Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson. Through them, Black people were able to see that one of the most powerful weapons we had was in the power of the arts. Through the arts, we were able to tell our story. We created jazz and great spirituals, and with those tools, we were able to inform not only the people of our time, but the generations to come after us.
Art is a blessing and any young artist who has been blessed with the gift of talent must use them accordingly. Understand that the most important thing you can do as an artist is to tell the history of your people. Tell the history of your time. Tell the truth of the future.
I’m very encouraged, when I speak to young artists who have come to understand their sense of social and human responsibility. I’m invested emotionally in them, and I truly believe that through them, the legacy of art as power lives on.
Yes, the eyes. The piercing, knowing, blue-green-hazel eyes. Jesse Williams rolls through the EBONY set with only his manager and an air of belonging. Of course, he lives much of his life on a set; Williams stars as the alluring Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. But today when the celebrated ShondaLand-stamped actor steals glances at one wardrobe table in particular—it’s covered in black berets—the eyes grow wide, then narrow. “No costumes,” they seem to say.
Don’t let the good looks fool you. For the uninitiated, Williams is a serious man; he is about his business, which is to say, Black liberation. And as for those famed peepers? He’s not sweating them, and you shouldn’t, either: “I didn’t beat somebody up and earn these eyes. I had nothing to do with them. What if I didn’t have them? Would we not be having this conversation?”
More food for thought from someone who constantly challenges his 1.2 million Twitter followers to read between the lines when it comes to the pressing issues of the day.
Although many celebrities (especially Black ones) of Williams’ stature choose to keep eerily silent in the face of an ever-exploding social justice movement, the Chicago-born history teacher-turned-thespian does the exact opposite. His brilliant Twitter rants following the deaths of Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland (“WE DO NOT BEGIN AS POLICE PROPERTY,” he tweeted in July. “We are not theirs.”) positioned him as Black Twitter’s unofficial Minister of Information. Boldly walking in the steps of Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis and other legendary artist-activists before him, the husband and father of two sits on the board of both Harry Belafonte’s Sankofa organization, and The Advancement Project, a nonprofit dedicated to racial justice issues such as voter equality and school reform.
If the connection between Williams and Belafonte wasn’t solidified through their political leanings alone, the 34-year-old is also collaborating with John Legend to co-produce a biopic about Belafonte’s life in which—you guessed it—he will star as his mentor and friend. Williams tells EBONY why he refuses to sit back and simply enjoy the trappings of fame while Black people continue to struggle. No costumes. For him, Black self-determination is no act. —JL
Blackness comes with the burden of having to learn reasons to love yourself and before that, to respect yourself. We have to learn actual reasons, actual tangible accomplishments and experiences as reasons to respect ourselves universally, unconditionally. At every turn, society tells us otherwise.
Whiteness is to never lose your humanity despite your best efforts; Blackness is to never have it in the first place, in that it can be snatched from you at any time, by anybody, for any reason, anywhere. That allows us to constantly twist and contort ourselves, and explain, and offer context for White crimes against anybody. Whereas Blackness is such a physical perversity that no matter how many doctorates you have, no matter how long you’ve owned your house, no matter how long you’ve been a professor at Harvard University, you can’t walk, and you can’t fiddle with your own doorknob.
For example, consider what we are taught about Black aggression, about mere Black presence being treated as an act of aggression. The way that people think we’re 20 when we’re 12. A sitting Black person is the same as a f**cking ultimate warrior. How might that impact the way a young Black person sees himself or values herself?
As an actor, I have a diverse fan base that is otherwise being programmed and conditioned to run over Black people in the street. I’m not with that, and thus, I’m going to test your fanhood. If you like me when it’s convenient for you, then let’s see where we can take that. I know that the door is open and people are looking in, and they’re going to affect the hearts and minds of people around them, which affects policy, which affects whether another brother or sister gets killed tomorrow.
At the same time, a group of people is telling you not to make it about race. Last year on Martin Luther King’s birthday, I tweeted a bunch about who the real MLK was versus this figment of White America’s imagination. I said, “You would’ve shot him down, both literally and figuratively, for making it ‘about race.’ He made it about race every day. Why do you think you love him now?”
I’m deliberate with my words. You could say I use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer, or perhaps a sledgehammer disguised as a scalpel. That may protect me from backlash, but at the end of the day, I don’t care. The possibility of backlash isn’t part of my decision-making process.
Acting is a job. There are other things I can and will do. My people are far more important.
I understand that there’s so much currency exchanged around celebrity. Some folks won’t use their public presence to speak on issues of race; I think that’s not only a great familiarity with racism and anti-Blackness that keeps them quiet but also that they’re worried about losing the little they have. Losing the little ground they fought and clawed for.
I try to be careful to not impose my value system on other people. I don’t, in my heart, believe that because you can dunk or because you’re a great singer you have a larger obligation to fight injustice than a schoolteacher or a plumber. I am, however, always grateful and appreciative for those who fought, bent and broke for us to even be here in the first place. And so the very least I can do is participate. That’s my personal bar.
If we are not taught to value Black achievement, legacy, history and culture, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing and how much money we make, we can’t speak in a way that’s productive. I was raised with the privilege of having parents who instilled those things in me. Perhaps that’s why I can speak up or even why people respond to the things I say. It’s not some magic formula. Confidence is a motherf**ker. Self-love matters.
The baton passing is learned behavior. To recognize that there were individuals behind you, and they’ve handed this to you matters—and the only reason you are able to walk this Earth in a way that has some semblance of safety is because of the number of people who fought for you to be here.
In the natural light that floods the photography studio, a gold Nefertiti glistens around Zendaya’s long neck. Donning neon-red stiletto nails and a baseball cap, the 19-year-old Disney megastar (actor, singer, dancer) easily walks the line between girl and woman, between tomboy and total femme. But where the 5-foot-10-inch triple threat doesn’t seem to waffle is the sometimes-awkward space between Black and White. Indeed, she is “mixed,” as she refers to herself, the product of an adoring White mom and an eclectic, cool, Black father. But like many biracial people (Hello, Mr. President), she very much identifies as Black.
From 2010 to 2013, Zendaya co-starred in Disney’s Shake It Up as Rocky Blue, the yin to her fictional BFF CeCe Jones’ (Bella Thorne’s) yang. Today, she is the first African-American female solo lead on a Disney show since Raven-Symoné in That’s So Raven, starring in K.C. Undercover as a teen sleuth with a serious tech jones. This writer’s 10-year-old son once told her she was flat-out wrong for saying there were no Black shows on kids’ TV: That’s not true, Mommy! Zendaya’s Black, and so is K.C.’s whole family. In fact, K.C.’s family, the Coopers, like so many Black households, is comprised of brown folks with a wide range of complexions.
Akin to every other working African-American, Zendaya’s Blackness is something she (surprise!) wakes up with and brings to the job. And as is also the case with most people of color, there are days for her when race is less of a thing, and those when it’s more. It is more of a thing during the times that Zendaya’s in full-on producer mode and lobbies for, say, diverse talent in the writers’ room.
It is more of a thing on the days she has to blast a fashion magazine for excessive retouching and shaving off her rounding hips. Her Blackness certainly matters when she suffers an unwarranted verbal attack by Giuliana Rancic of E!’s Fashion Police simply for rocking silky locs to the Oscars. Said Rancic, “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil. Or weed.”
Well, why’d she go and do that?
Of course, Zendaya is not only a proud sister, she is also uniquely smart and powerful. In very little time, her pointed social media posts, the massive fan reaction to them, and her undeniable grace created a ripple effect that began with Rancic’s apology and accelerated the domino effect that led to the show’s hiatus. Boop.
On set with Williams and the stately Belafonte, Zendaya performs both like a supermodel and a creative director. It’s a fact that on her own show, she influences everything from wardrobe to storylines.
“We should try individual baton shots,” she suggests to EBONY. It works. The starlet has a lot to say about many important things, which is why on this day she gets to keep particularly good company. -—KM
Of course, the term “Black resistance” means something to me. I grew up in Oakland, definitely in a rougher part of the neighborhood, you know what I’m saying? The house I lived in was actually where my dad’s older sisters were Black Panthers. My aunties were holding meetings downstairs in the very house that I grew up in. I’ve got the spirit.
As a young person, one thing that was really big for me was the police killing of Oscar Grant in 2009. That’s why Fruitvale Station was one of the few movies that made me cry—and I never cry over movies. I was in school when it happened; they shut us down because so many people were marching in the streets. I was way too young at the time; my mom wasn’t going to let me go out there, but the incident was definitely an awakening for me.
I’m lucky in a sense; my parents have never really shielded me from things. They’ve been up front and real about my identity—who I am as a person, my culture, my background—on both sides being an African-American woman and also Caucasian. I have pride in where I’m from, and I think that’s where my inner strength started. After Oscar Grant, I wasn’t just shocked, I was also emboldened. When things like that happen, you learn from them, and you’re able to see. You know you hear these stories but then you see it manifesting. You think, “A kid can be killed by the cops, for real.”
A beautiful thing my generation has is social media. That’s something really powerful, and I’ve learned that it holds a lot of influence. With this comes great responsibility. Now, do I think my generation is handling this 100 percent perfectly? No. Sometimes we dehumanize each other. But social media can also be positive. It’s a way to open discussions we wouldn’t normally talk about. It’s a way for us to communicate our thoughts and get points across. It makes things that are hard to talk about start “trending.” Times have obviously changed for Black stars since Harry Belafonte’s day. His generation worked hard—and that work allowed me to be here. But obviously the work is not completely done.
One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Disney, was because I felt there was a lack of diversity on the channel. There was no young Black female lead at all. Everyone started to look the same. That’s why I became a producer on my show. My character’s love interests are of all races. I wanted it to be a very diverse set, and that’s just what we created.
I took the role of K.C. Cooper in part to represent—for African-American girls to see themselves in me. Being a producer, I help make sure there are Black writers and Black members on the crew. It’s the little things people don’t think about, and I make certain to be a part of that process. I feel proud of what I have been able to do; creating an African-American family in such a positive light is so good to see. Even down to the youngest on our show, I’ve made a point to tell people not to put heat to her hair. I want her to wear her natural hair in every episode! Ha, I don’t even think she knows what a flat iron looks like.
People forget where we came from—Africa. Lucky for me, my father has done the work for me—he’s been wearing a Nefertiti around his neck from before I was born. My dad had me watch Roots when I was, like, 8. Black pride was never something I had to learn; I mean, my name is African.
When the loc controversy first happened, I was a little shocked; truthfully, I wondered how it even got on air. I was angry, it was disrespectful, and of course I wanted to say something nasty back. But then I thought, “Zendaya, get yourself together.” I sat on my bed and just typed on my phone. What was really crazy is that I had just watched a Henry Louis Gates documentary about Black people in America. It just so happened that so many of the philosophers had dreadlocks. So many people in my family have dreadlocks, my dad, my whole family—I thought those comments were so unfair.
This is what ignorance looks like. Do I think the person who said it is an evil racist? Absolutely not. Some people are just ignorant about their ignorance. But I really tried not to make the whole thing about me, because it wasn’t about me. It was about my people. And I wanted them to know that I’m here.