Harry Belafonte calls out Jay-Z and Beyonce

In the online edition of The Hollywood Reporter, Harry Belafonte calls out Jay-Z and Beyonce as signal examples for today’s black superstars failing to give back. (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/harry-belafonte-locarno-mitt-romney-359192)


I really admire those who give back. I think it makes you a better person and brings you closer to God’s standard. It changes destinies and  hearts. But it is not required. Even the Bible calls for cheerful givers, if we’re using Christianity as the standard. And if you want to get really biblical, forgiveness has a higher priority than giving.

Matthew 5:23-24

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

I admire Harry Belafonte as an artist.  I admire him enormously as a humanitarian.  Who has done better against apartheid (South Africa), hunger and poverty (“We Are The World”), or civil rights? Where would Martin Luther King Jr.’s family been without his prudent investment in life insurance?

Nonetheless, I believe Mr. Belafonte is outright wrong to call out Jay-Z and Beyonce.

One, I don’t believe that he’s actually investigated their giving.

Two, because even if he had, how does shaming someone produce good results? What gives him the right, etc.?  By Mr. Belafonte’s own admission (My Song: A Memoir), shaming and pressure tactics didn’t work during the civil rights movement.  What makes him think that they will work now?

Three, the idea that those in the public eye are more responsible for giving has two pernicious effects.

It furthers the cult of celebrity. Why focus on entertainers? Why not call out Stanley O’Neal, former CEO of Merrill Lynch? Or Justice Clarence Thomas? Or …

It, at least in part, resurrects the talented tenth approach that even whose author, W.E. B. DuBois, renounced in the end.

Four, and most dangerous and dehumanizing, Belafonte’s remarks implicitly obliterate the many, many well off, middle class and poor African Americans who give and have always given, from the little old ladies pressing tuition dollars into hands after church, to groups like http://www.blackgivesback.com. Who can forget Oseola McCarty, the African-American laundry woman, who left a major gift to the University of Southern Mississippi? Who wants to? She’s more relevant and relatable that superstars, if less “interesting.”

Many of us have been inspired by the charitable contributions of Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey. The response to that should be to build legacies of our own, not to demand that wealthy black superstars follow in their footsteps. They owe their God everything if they believe.  They should give to the widow and orphan under the terms of most religions. But the decision is entirely their own. In truth, giving back is now often part of marketing for brands and for individuals.  Nothing wrong with mixed motives but let’s not deceive ourselves. That charitable giving you admire may be the gateway to your spending money you don’t have, to buy something you don’t need.

In closing, I offer a challenge. What if Shawn and Beyonce Carter build a legacy for their family and provide for their children’s children? What if they don’t share all their money (fish) but share how they achieved what they have (how to fish)? Wealth is built in generations.  If the first generation gives away all the seed, what will be left for their heirs?  Student loans, assistance, and begging for work.  Madame C. J. Walker made the money that allowed her daughter to become a philanthropist.

Now that’s some calling out that I could get behind.


About liftingasweclimb

Mildred Lewis writes and directs for theater, television, film and the web. She's also a full time professor, Christian, activist and troublemaker with a passion to save as much of the world as she can.
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