Tarzan Carried a Message

On 1 March, performer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte celebrated his 88th birthday. On 8 November last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Belafonte with its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award … and honored with an Oscar the man’s long pursuit of social justice. Swept into the civil rights movement with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte eventually shifted most of his energies from entertainment to advocacy: “I’m an activist who also became an actor,” said Belafonte, of his life’s trajectory.

MLK, Belafonte“Dr. King reached out to a lot of people,” says Belafonte. “At the time he called me, he had come to New York to talk to the religious community. That’s when we met for the first time officially. At the end of four hours, when I came away from that meeting and listening to his speech, I was deeply impressed and deeply moved. I knew then that I would be in his camp, and I would follow him. From the point of view of what his mission was, he hadn’t the foggiest idea of where he was going. No one did. We started with an issue around a bus and getting a segregation law changed, and it then became a universal movement.” (HERE)

I found particularly compelling Belafonte’s recent revelations concerning a formative impact the film Tarzan had on his peers, when he was a young man (at 3:08 in his acceptance speech).

“In 1935, at the age of 8, sitting in a Harlem theater, I watched with awe and wonder incredible feats of the white superhero, Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan was a sight to see. This porcelain Adonis, this white liberator, who could speak no language, swinging from tree to tree, saving Africa from the tragedy of destruction by a black indigenous population of inept, ignorant, void-of-any-skills [people], governed by ancient superstitions with no heart for Christian charity. Through this film the virus of racial inferiority — of never wanting to be identified with anything African — swept into the psyche of its youthful observers. And for the years that followed, Hollywood brought abundant opportunity for black children in their Harlem theaters to cheer Tarzan and boo Africans.”

Belafonte’s speech was still resonating with me when I happened to Google a former co-worker, from our days producing television news. I discovered Simi Bedford has twice published since our time in London. Her first novel, Yoruba Girl Dancing Girlwas published shortly after we left the program(me). It came as an even greater surprise that my well-spoken, one-time associate is also researching and writing on slavery issues. Not With Silver, an historical saga drawing on Bedford’s wider ancestry, was published in 2007 … in anticipation of the UK’s commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of its trade in slaves.

Most reviewers credit Simi with presenting a colorful, inter-generational story-line that was informed by trustworthy, sociological analysis. Unlike Tarzan, “The first section, set in mid 18th-century West Africa, is a richly textured re-imagining of court life, governed by an elaborate set of rituals and ceremonies. The society is hierarchical and decorous, as Bedford counters racist descriptions … of Africa as a natural and civil wilderness,” reported The Independent.

Simi herself declares her task was, in part, to get us to realize that not only were our notions of a primitive Africa incorrect, but she also wants us to appreciate abolition was not a whites-only initiative. I hope readers will spend 7½ minutes hearing her in her own words.

Belafonte was upbeat, declaring, “I really wish I could be around … to see what Hollywood does with the rest of this century. Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization’s game changer.” “Perhaps we as artists and as visionaries, for what’s better in the human heart and the human soul, could influence citizens everywhere in the world to see the better side of who and what we are as a species.”

Simi (though she has a film credit) and I emerged not from arts, but from television news. Producer Rebecca Carroll is taking some heat for excoriating racism in the newsroom environment. From an interview in The New Republic, just prior to Belafonte’s Oscar:

“Among the challenges that make racism so difficult to fix, and so odiously constant, is that white people often don’t even recognize when they’re saying or doing something that cuts their black colleagues to the bone. Or worse, they do recognize when they’re being racially insensitive, but then demonstrate some semblance of regret and move on unscathed. If we can’t say anything about this kind of behavior—or don’t—then who will? What’s more, if we do speak up, particularly if we are among the chosen few who are granted a voice in mainstream media, at what cost?”

So, while the Academy’s governors are to be credited for drawing attention to the way people of color are portrayed in media; and Simi has done a credible job, correcting the historical record; Carroll seems to be telling us, “It’s still a jungle out there.”

Hardesty touched on racism and minstrelsy, here.

Author: Roger David Hardesty

In service to protection of Native American land rights and religious expression since 1983, I currently seek to implant racial justice in our nation's criminal justice system. Historian, working author.

8 thoughts on “Tarzan Carried a Message”

  1. “Tarzan…” does a fine job of opening up the question of how our common exposure to Hollywood and the “educational” system in this country links us all in profound and subterranean ways to white supremacy, though differently. Through our media and our lessons, all of us have been fed a mainstream racist kool-aid, “valorizing” all things white and European, while thoroughly denigrating (etymology?) all things of African origin — effectively creating a legacy of black pain and white obliviousness. There’s a crazy, ironic twist in Tarzan as a feral, white adonis (!) swinging in the trees without language “saving” colonized Africa from the nefarious Africans. Your quote from Belafonte’s comments about the systematic damage done to young black psyches by the explicit white hostility taught in these old movies is especially chilling. Also of relevance, I ordered Simi Bedford’s intercontinental family history, Not With Silver, as part of my long term mission to sand away some of my own unconscious Eurocentric cultural bias. Finally, for the project of decolonization, “It’s still a jungle out there” is a perfect metaphor for redefining who are the real savages.

  2. Thank you for the introduction to Simi and her work. In spite of my white dominant education, I knew there had been traditions of art, dance, music, and literature for millennia throughout Africa, but except for Egypt and Mali, I knew no specifics. I have also been aware of the ways European Americans systematically and actively destroyed every aspect of Native American culture and the cultures of Africans abducted into enslavement in North America. But I have paid less attention to the ways in which Europeans and Americans have undermined and buried the high cultures of Africa, not just failing to teach about them, but belittling and ignoring them. Valuable food for thought.

  3. Thank you; enjoyed the “chilling-ness” of Harry Belafonte’s childhood recollections of seeing the white Feral Tarzan. Never saw the movie when I was young. Was moved by his description of M.L. King.
    Also enjoyed the fascinating interview with Simi Bedford. I already read and love Equiano’s memoir.
    Am currently researching the secretive but “hidden in plain sight” illegal slave trade out of New York Harbor, 1850-1860sl
    Julie .

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