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Paying homage to nation, Belafonte

Barbara Gloudon

Friday, August 10, 2018

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Monday, the Government announced the list of individuals who will receive national honours at the annual presentation at King's House on Heroes' Day in October. Topping the list is noted actor/social activist, friend of the Caribbean and Jamaica, Harry Belafonte, who will be inducted into the Order of Merit.

Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York, but spent time in Jamaica as a youth living with his grandmother in St Ann and attending school at Wolmer's. No wonder everyone believed that he was a solid Jamaican. Later in life, he drew on his knowledge and experiences when he recorded the album Calypso with Day-O high on the list of popular music.

In the late 1960s, Harry was one of the biggest stars of the day. On a visit here he made sure to go to St Ann to see his grandmother. I made my way to the Kingston airport on the afternoon he was to land to find the famous Harry Belafonte and get an interview for The Star. I made the journey from the Gleaner office on Harbour Street out to the airport. In those days things were not as security-conscious as they are now. If you made your request you could get to the lounge and sit with arriving or departing passengers. Soon I was walking towards Harry Belafonte “the Great”, to whom I introduced myself. I told him that I wanted an interview with him. The famous singer and movie star said he had done too many interviews since landing and he didn't think he could do any more.

“What about the interview I came for?” He said, “Ask me a question that no one else has asked and I will relent.” [Words to that effect] Said I, “What the hell is wrong with you, Mister Big Star?” He laughed until he nearly fell. When he stopped laughing, he said, “Say what you come to say.” And I did.

Many years later I was asked by my friend Professor Rex Nettleford to go to dinner. We sat in the dining room of a well-known hotel chatting when other guests arrived at the door. We recognised Belafonte and, as he made his way to his seat, Rex waved to him. He stopped at our table and introductions made all round.

Belafonte looked me up and down and laughed. I asked, “Why yuh laughing?” He told the story of how we met. We all had a good laugh. Rex said, “thanks for the laughter, we can be very sad these days.” Belafonte remarked that it wasn't just Jamaica alone, as “worldwide it's getting more rough than ever before”. We talked for awhile before he set off once more.

Belafonte still continues his activism to this day. His dedication to righting the wrongs are a good reason for the award which will be given to a good friend and grandson of Jamaica.

More memories...

As we bring down the curtains on the Emancipation/Independence festivities we recognised 180 years since “full free” and 56 years of Independence. I wonder, since we have become so educated to our nation's history, why aren't more of our people — old and young — finding out about the “how and why” of this land we call home?

By this we should have acquired much more knowledge of this place which, if properly cared for, can feed our families and the animals of the field. It has taken us many years to have come this far, but whether we accept it or not, our nation is blessed with persons among us who have been hard at work to move the nation forward.

Sometimes we know; very often we don't.

Vivian Crawford, a son of the hills of Portland, a real son of the ancestral family of the Maroons, takes pride in the rich heritage of his country. As executive director of the Institute of Jamaica he has been reminding us that “we must learn from the ancestors” who saw Jamaica grow. One of the facets of our history which he has looked at is the “free village”.

In the days after Emancipation and the Apprenticeship period the ancestors were given the chance to make their homes on land often acquired by the Church. The Baptists, Methodists, and other denominations bought land which they sold back to their congregation to establish communities. In St Catherine, St Ann, St James, Trelawny, and other such areas have towns which were once free villages.

Crawford, in a recent presentation, spoke of the need in this time for greater focus on the country's rich heritage. He recommended visits to the heritage sites to learn about those who were here before. One such site is the Sligoville community in St Catherine. It is one of the most involved in their continued drive to honour their roots. The celebrations that they host during Emancipation are commendable as they get the wider public to learn about their special places as Jamaica's first free village. Let us take a page from their book and find ways to embrace our roots. Let us build back the community spirit for the betterment of our nation.

Barbara Gloudon is a journalist, playwright and commentator. Send comments to the Observer or gloudonb@yahoo.com.

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