Harry Belafonte calling Mr Colin Powell a house slave is a combination of political protest and misplaced sentiments
The image of uncle Tom, the ever loyal slave, continues to haunt Black consciousness in the United States of America. One hundred years and more after emancipation, years of equal civil rights and the presence of affirmative action have not obliterated the sense of humiliation and subordination that the Black population had to suffer under slavery. Slavery in the US was a unique and naked form of domination, of acquiescence and resistance to it. The suffering was often internalized and sublimated in the form of unforgettable music — jazz, gospel singing and calypsos. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and others have come to embody jazz; Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson the heights of Black singing; and Harry Belafonte, the world of calypso. These names have come to stand in the realm of culture as the unvanquished spirit of man in the face of adversity and oppression. Their creativity and their presence have added to the very notion of human dignity. Thus, their utterances cannot be set aside as irrelevant. This is the only reason why Belafonte’s comment on Mr Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, cannot be ignored.
In a talk show, Belafonte, always outspoken on civil rights and other political issues, compared Mr Powell to a household slave. The reference was to those slaves on the plantation, who by their loyalty and subservience, won for themselves a place in the master’s household, and saw themselves as being a notch superior to those who worked in the plantation. The dig was, of course, at Mr Powell’s important position within the Bush administration. Belafonte suggested that Mr Powell is no more than his master’s voice and his presence in the higher echelons of the administration is no more than tokenism. The calypso singer’s anger grows out of his strong disapproval of policies being pursued by Mr George W. Bush, as the sole sheriff of the world. But to make Mr Powell the target of this resentment may be somewhat misplaced.
Mr Powell is a mandarin who has chosen to serve Mr Bush because he sees himself as being in broad agreement with Mr Bush’s policies. The word chosen is the operative one since, unlike in slavery, there was no coercion and humiliation involved. Mr Powell’s achievements, as Mr Bush’s emissary, are formidable. One has only to recall the way he drummed up a global front against terrorism after September 11, 2001 and before the attack on Afghan- istan. His restraining influence on Mr Bush vis-à-vis unilateral action against Iraq is also well-known. Loyal Mr Powell is, but loyalty is not the flip side of slavery. The necessary condition of slavery is coercion and a complete absence of choice and autonomy. Mr Powell stands on his own two feet in the same way as Harry Belafonte did when he charmed the world with his singing. The world of statesmanship is often as difficult and as delicate as a good rendering of a calypso.