FACE IT: We Can Dial With Dignity
Face it, few of us really use phones for the right reasons anymore. Our kids prefer we text them, and most of us have gadgets that send a quick email message even to friends or business associates. When the phone goes off at home, we assume it is either someone asking us to buy a subscription or to answer a few poll questions. If it comes after ten at night, we fear the worst.
Harry Belafonte, who is the subject of a new HBO documentary and autobiography, really used the phone well. When Martin Luther King asked if he could round up artists for a gathering on the eve of the big march into Montgomery, Belafonte picked up the phone and called Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr, Nina Simone and others. Right after three young Civil Rights workers were murdered during Freedom Summer in Mississippi, the great Calypso man knew it was a time to soothe tensions. He picked up the phone and called Sidney Poitier.
"He asked what I was doing that weekend," Poitier recalls in the documentary. The next thing he knew, the two were flying into dangerous territory. There were no cameras nor the promised protection. They made a difference.
When Belafonte went to Ethiopia in the mid '80s, he witnessed close up the starving children and seemingly hopeless situation. He returned to America and became furious with others' "indifference." He picked up the phone and called music producer Quincy Jones who in turn called Michael Jackson. Just weeks later, they had amassed a stellar group of performers and recorded "We Are The World." Oh yes: Belafonte also called every important radio station in the country to ensure they would all play the song at the same time. It made a difference.
The HBO documentary inspired me and shamed me. How often I sit at home seething about the waste of money and lives in Afghanistan. Should I call my Congressman? My senator? The White House? It just hardly seems worth it. If someone tells me there is a march, I will be there. But why aren't I calling and saying, 'Let's march'? Of course, most of us don't have the clout or connections of Harry Belafonte (except for George Clooney who, in fact, is doing it), but it would be an interesting exercise to pretend we do.
We need to remember that when women, in particular, come together, we often have the most impact. In the 50s, instead of calling to swap recipes, we started to swap undefinable feelings of secret suburban angst. Later, we told each other horror stories about harassment in the work place and eventually, went public.
During the Vietnam War, we chatted about our sons and brothers who may have to go and then banded together to create groups like Another Mother For Peace and Women For. We made endless phone calls not only to one another for moral support, but to everyone we knew or had ever met who we might sign up. It is not about that particular instrument on which we dialed: My guess is even Harry Belafonte today uses email to vent and coax. It is about the passion that caused him to pick up the phone and appeal to others.
Today social networking is the new Bela-fone: Arab Spring and the anti-Wall St. protests taking place in squares around the country now, were basically formed by people who got mad, got online and got organized. It makes me grateful that we have such means of spreading the word quickly, even though it may lack the personal touch of friendly persuasion. It also makes me all the more amazed by, and grateful for, one great artist who could easily have kept on singing "Day-O" all his life. But for every song he sang and concert he gave, he made a call to someone somewhere who showed up where they were truly needed.