Carmen Perez-Jordan on Harry Belafonte's Passing and Legacy
She Was Harry Belafonte's Mentee. Read Her Most Treasured Memories of the Icon.
The world continues to mourn after hearing the news that Harry Belafonte died on April 25 at 96 years old. Although he might be most instantly recognizable for his roles in Hollywood and his musical hits, his legacy within the civil rights movement is deeply felt today. He fiercely advocated for political and humanitarian causes throughout his life, working alongside fellow activists and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2005, Belafonte founded the Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit organization that provides an intergenerational forum for activists, community members, formerly incarcerated folks, and more to work towards ending child incarceration and eliminating the racial inequities in our justice system.
Carmen Perez-Jordan is president and CEO of the Gathering for Justice, and was a close mentee of Belafonte's for two decades. She's a pioneer within the social justice movement in her own right, cofounding Justice League NYC and organizing the 2017 Women's March as a cochair. A day after Belafonte's passing, she shared her joyful memories of Belafonte, advice from the icon, and what she'll miss most about him. Read it all in her words ahead.
I wasn't ready for him to leave us. I think with someone like Mr. Belafonte, you just feel like he's going to live forever, you want to keep having conversations with him, you want to pass things by him, you want to hear his perspective on the political climate or what's happening in the US and in other countries, because he always had an analysis. I'm going to miss that. I need that. I need that as a person who's still leading a movement, who's still growing herself.
I met Mr. Belafonte over 20 years ago. I had been working with an organization called Barrios Unidos, and I was working inside prisons. At the time, Mr. Belafonte was introduced to me as the mentor of my mentor, Nane Alejandrez. He had been someone who was supportive of Nane's leadership, and we had brought Mr. B into the prison. When I met him, I was like, wow, he's a very attractive older man. But then he was so humble and also very funny. He went into the prison, and it was in Tracy, CA, at the time, and it was about 105 degrees inside the prison. And I just remember seeing everyone's admiration of him and me not really knowing who Mr. Harry Belafonte was. Clearly, he was someone who made an impression, someone who people wanted to speak to. I remember him picking up one of the men's shoes, spitting on it, and talking about shining shoes, and then he started polishing the shoe.
In my time with him after that, I was like a fly on the wall. I was so young, I was in my mid-20s, in between Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and Nane Alejandrez, who were just these giants in the movement. But even at that time, I didn't know about all the contributions Mr. B had made during the civil rights movement, during the apartheid movement. I didn't know he was a confidant to Dr. King, and I didn't know the impact he had, not just on US soil but all over the world — and that he was a well-known artist. I just saw him as someone who was supporting the work that we were doing locally in Santa Cruz.
I will never meet another person like him.
Then, I was brought into a convening that was called the Gathering of Youth and Elders, which was put together by Mr. Belafonte after he'd initially convened the elders of the Civil Rights Movement. In 2005, Mr. B had witnessed the news reports of a 5-year-old Black girl, Jaisha Scott, and she was being handcuffed and arrested in her Florida classroom for being unruly. He thought it was important to convene his generation and look at child incarceration as a moral imperative. He brought people who were part of the civil rights movement, but he also called his peers and elders from the Chicano movement, the Indigenous movement. He brought folks together like Marian Wright Edelman, my mentor Nane Alejandrez, Julian Bond, Ruby Dee, John Lewis, Reverend Al Sharpton, and others. And he asked them, "How is it that children are being locked up and languishing in the prisons of America?" And what he quickly realized was that he was going to have to fix his sights on the youth and organize with younger people. That's when I was brought in.
Mr. Belafonte was a forward thinker, he was really ahead of his time; he was a convener, a connector. He was extremely strategic, and he felt that bringing people together to build collective power was going to get us to true liberation and to collective liberation. He cared deeply about the plight of Black people and always centered women and centered Indigenous peoples — but also knew there was a role for everyone to play in social justice. And his role as an artist was to leverage his celebrity to ensure that he got access for people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He was someone who, when I would ask him a question about an incident in time or why certain things were happening, he would have a three-hour conversation with me that was really a historical analysis of how we got to today. He served his time, and it was now up to us, and it was really why he felt he needed to convene the next generation of leaders.
I always wanted to bottle up the knowledge that he gave me and share it with the world.
So Mr. Belafonte was someone who — I think for me, I will never meet another person like him, and I think I've been mourning him for quite some time. There are so many lessons in everything he shared, and what I felt as somebody who was sitting at his feet is that I always wanted to bottle up the knowledge that he gave me and share it with the world. So what I started doing was convening groups of young people to come meet him. I always felt like I was a mini Mr. Belafonte; as he convened his generation and his peers, I began to convene my peers, to really introduce and teach his lessons. I can't emphasize enough how he showed up in the movement world, how he showed up as a celebrity. But he was just someone who cared deeply about the issues. And although he gained access and celebrity and comfort through his art and his music and his acting, he never forgot about the people who were sitting in the belly of the beast or who were being oppressed.
And then, when we would be in the office, we had moments of joy. There'd be moments where we'd play music. And there'd be sounds from Africa or sounds from Mexico, and we would just get up and dance. He had a cane, but he would still make noises, like real authentic sounds of the music, and he would shake his hands, almost like he was playing congas. I remember another time at the office, he had asked his assistant to get out his peanut butter and jelly and his bread, and he started making me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He was like, "You look hungry." I know that the work was challenging, and oftentimes with this work, you're responding to crisis, but there was always joy in it.
I remember the first time I walked into the office as an executive, when he put me in the role of executive director in 2010. And he asked me, "Who are you?" And I was like, "I'm Chicana, and I'm proud of it." And he was like, "No, who are you?" and he ended up dropping in front of me "The Afro-Latin@ Reader," and he was like, "I want you to go to Mexico and find out who you are." And he actually paid for me to go to Mexico and be with my parents as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and I learned that my family was Indigenous and that they had African roots, too, that my grandfather was Afro-Mexicano and that my grandmother was Huichol and Aztec and Zacatecas. He always had this curiosity.
The work doesn't end just because he's gone.
For him to take a young Chicana from Oxnard, CA, and take me under his wing as an African American man, a Jamaican immigrant, really said something about how he envisioned the future of the movement and the world. There were times where he would be criticized or I would be criticized because I was not who people thought I should be under his tutelage, but 20-something years ago, when I was asked to work for Mr. Belafonte and I didn't know the caliber of a man that he was, I made a promise to stay with Mr. Belafonte, to help him live out the rest of his life, proud of the work that he did. And I didn't take that promise lightly.
I'm going to need mentorship and guidance and direction as I figure out what the next assignment is. Because we would be asking for the assignment, and he would say, "The assignment is to find the assignment." And I thought I found the assignment. So now it's a matter of me continuing to tap into my other mentors and elders, but I'm still going to need the love and support from my movement family to help the Gathering to do his work and continue his legacy.
And to be here, talking about who he was and who he is still in my life, I know that I have to carry on the work. The work doesn't end just because he's gone. It continues, because we're still facing a lot of the injustices that he consistently talked about and fought against himself, and it's going to take all of us. It's going to take each and every one of us to play our role, to find our lane, in the collective liberation of our people.
— As told to Lena Felton