August 19, 2020

ELI Students Write Harry Belafonte and Hear Back!

By Christine J. Trotter

Top Row, Left to Right: Priscilla Karant (Instructor), Oded, Gabriel Olivo Rodriguez, Helen Wang; Middle Row: Yifan Si, Vincent Ko, Xuelie Yan, Camila Shurt; Bottom Row: Kwangjin Son, Hiroto Yoshimori, Natali Tzortzis, Yusui Sakurada, Minju Kim,; Not in photo: Ayesha Mahmood (Students in Advanced Writing and Reading/Speaking and Listening Class, CEP)

This summer, in her Advanced Speaking and Listening class in ELI’s Comprehensive English Program (CEP), instructor Priscilla Karant assigned one documentary for every class session.

One of those documentaries was Sing Your Song, a film recounting the life and legacy of the singer Harry Belafonte—not only as a great entertainer, but as a key activist in the Civil Rights Movement. The film sings the praises of Mr. Belafonte’s remarkable success as a singer and actor, while demonstrating his deep passion for social change.

After the students had seen and discussed the film, Priscilla asked them to write letters to Mr. Belafonte. She was so moved by what they wrote that she sent the letters to him. The remarkable result: he answered in 12 hours!

Here is what the students and Priscilla wrote, followed by Mr. Belafonte’s response.

 

Harry Belafonte Sing Your Song
INSTRUCTOR’S LETTER TO MR. BELAFONTE

Dear Mr Belafonte,

I teach English as a second language to international professionals and students at New York University. Every semester, since your movie came out, I have assigned students to watch your documentary “Sing Your Song.”

This summer students were so moved by your work that they wanted to write to you. They are from Brazil, Venezuela, Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. They range from ages 16 to 49.

I can’t thank you enough for enlightening my students all throughout these years and making them think more deeply about how they can fight against injustice.

Warm regards,

Priscilla Karant, Born in Manhattan


STUDENTS’ LETTERS

I. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

My name is Hiroto from Japan. My dad is a very big fan of yours, so I’ve been listening to your songs for a long time. “We Are The World” came when I was 14. I would play the song in school at lunchtime.

I watched the movie “Sing Your Song” last week. I was really impressed with your way of life. After coming here, I’ve been studying about the truth of American history at NYU. 

I am sending you good wishes from the Upper East Side.

Hiroto Yoshimori, Born on a honeybee farm in Japan


II. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

I would like to introduce myself a little bit at first. My name is Helen. I come from Shanghai, where a protest is a friendly corporation of the police and the public. This means that conflicts are impossible to happen. Now you may understand how shocked I was when seeing the scale of protests here. Perhaps our professor knew my shock and confusion, so she assigned us to watch “Sing Your Song.” It’s my first time to think this deeply about our skin color. I felt ashamed of my ignorance.

Now I would like to share what I have learned about the history of the U.S in the past few months. It is a country fundamentally based on enslavement, from a field in the South to a brick in the North. No doubt that it is acutely challenging to eliminate it. But I do think it will be reversed one day because more and more are concerned with this problem. Some of them even from a country that is across the Pacific Ocean. I am proud to say that I am one of them and I will be one of them. 

Hopefully, one day if others ask where we come from, our answer will be: the Earth. Regardless of our country and skin color.

Thank you for your honesty in the documentary. Thank you for inspiring others to be kind.

I wish you the best.

Regards,

Helen Wang, Born in China


III. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

I want to express to you my warmest admiration for your unfailing work in the civil rights movement and the world. I greatly appreciate your efficiency in breaking boundaries in the music and entertainment industry. You have always had the interests of others before your own, and that is the trait that I admire the most from you. 

I hope someday I will be able to meet you and talk to you about my home country Venezuela. 

Until then,

Gabriel Olivo, Born in Venezuela


III. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

I want to express to you my warmest admiration for your unfailing work in the civil rights movement and the world. I greatly appreciate your efficiency in breaking boundaries in the music and entertainment industry. You have always had the interests of others before your own, and that is the trait that I admire the most from you. 

I hope someday I will be able to meet you and talk to you about my home country Venezuela. 

Until then,

Gabriel Olivo, Born in Venezuela


IV. Hello Mr. Belafonte,                     

My name is Yifan Si, and I’m an international student who is currently studying Economics in the United States.  

I’ve been following American politics and the civil movement for several years. I really admire you and Dr. King’s tremendous job in fighting for racial equality, and I really appreciate your effort and your courage to do that. Not only does your work benefit the black community of the United States, but also It benefits all the races that used to be against, discriminated against, and unfairly treated. Your work shows real humanity, and it gives us the direction of what the future human society should be.

As a music fan, I love your songs. You have such a beautiful voice which heals people. The first time I heard the song “Jamaica Farewell,” it cured my nostalgia when I first came to the United States. I realized, even if we are different generations, or have grown up in completely different cultural backgrounds, our feelings are connected, and your music is the language to connect all the human races of the world. 

Thank you, Mr. Belafonte, for making the world a better place.

Best,

Yifan, Born in China


V. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

My name is Minju Kim, and I’m a student from South Korea. I’ve recently got to know about your lifelong effort to fight against injustice. Not only was I impressed by your message in music, but I was also moved by your actions to end violence, oppression, and inequality. Watching the movie “Sing Your Song,” I decided to try to be aware of those who are in need. 

Like you, I want to help them starting from a little thing. Also like you, I want to contribute to making the world a better place.

Thank you for being my inspiration, and I wish you all the best! 

Best wishes,

Minju Kim, Born in Korea


VI. Hi, Mr. Belafonte. 

It is my honor to have a chance to write a letter to you. I’m studying with Priscilla at NYU.

In class, I watched the documentary about your story. What impressed me most was your persistent effort to fight against injustice. Your eagerness and bravery have inspired me greatly.

Thanks for everything you have done to make a better world. Also, I really love your music. They are already on my playlist.

I hope you always stay healthy and happy.

Best regards,

Son, Born in Korea


VII. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

I was impressed seeing your anti-racism and anti-poverty activities throughout your life. You have sought to make the US and the world for all people to live more equally and happily. Indeed, you have changed a lot. Now, I can see many white people in the demonstration, perhaps more whites than blacks. “Sing Your Song” reminded me that it has not been an easy path to achieve the movement now. Actually, as a lawyer in Japan, I am wondering if I have not paid enough attention to protecting human rights. I will seek what I can do not only for my country but also for the world.

Sincerely,

Yusui Sakurada, Born in Japan


VIII. Dear Mr. Belafonte, 

First of all, I want to thank you for all the effort you made for human rights. Though it was the hardest moment for blacks, your smile and actions bring hope to the one who is suffering from the pain of this unfair society. I hope this world will be as beautiful as your smile and voice. I also wish there could be more people like you who stand up for minorities.

Best,

Vincent, Born in Taiwan


IX. Hello Mr. Belafonte,

I hope you are well and safe, especially during this moment of uncertainty changes.

My name is Camila Schurt, a Brazilian studying English at NYU. I must tell you how lucky I feel to have a chance of writing you this letter. 

Last week our dear teacher Priscilla gave us a special assignment to watch your documentary “Sing Your Song.” Afterwards, I knew I would have a great time watching and listening to your beautiful music and also to learn more about your inspirational life journey. What impressed me the most was your strength to pursue your career and how well you managed it and enchanted the audience with your beautiful art, especially during those hard days. 

You are a legend Mr. Belafonte. I wish there were more men just like you, authentic and classy. More than that, I am impressed by all you have fought for—equal rights for blacks and for the amazing work you have done to the world. Undoubtedly, this world of ours urgently needs more men like you and certainly your presence on earth is a gift for all of us. 

Thank you,  

For your music,

For your art,

And for all the work you have done.

Sincere words from your fan,

Camila Schurt, Born in Brazil


X. Dear Mr. Belafonte, 

Your dedication for justice for African-Americans is remarkable. Your activism in these times is truly an aspiration for everyone around the world who feels the injustice towards blacks, today.

Mr. Belafonte, your steadfastness in those testing times when African-Americans were struggling for freedom is inspiring. Your contribution towards organizing demonstrations and raising money is invaluable.

Let me take this opportunity to say that it is not only your activism, but also your music is exuberant. In particular, your song, Matilda, cannot help but make me want to dance.

Sincerely,

Ayesha Mahmood, Born in Saudia Arabia


XI. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

It’s a great opportunity, and a great honor to write to you these days, when people from all over the world go out to the streets—and say “enough.” They not only say it, but also they are fighting for justice—the justice that belongs to everyone.

Besides your charisma, your passion for change, your fearlessness and talent—I  really appreciate the courage you have to say, “This is me, this is how I think, and this is how I do it.” I think even these days, many people and especially celebrities prefer to stay in their field and not get involved in  “controversial” issues. And you had the courage to do it. That’s amazing.

I am inspired by you, and you are the cause of great hope for a better future. For me, and I’m sure for many other people, too. Some of them—probably in the streets—are shouting and demanding change.

All the best,

Oded, Born in Israel


XII. Dear Mr. Belafonte,

What a wonderful opportunity to be writing to you. I was amazed by your story in the documentary “Sing Your Song.”

I wonder how difficult it must have been to struggle with a lot of injustice and ignorance around the race issue. Besides all the challenges, risks and harm that you’ve been exposed to, you never gave up on fighting for the cause. I really admire your courage, your willingness to do good and your eagerness to improve humanity.

The protesters on the street these past weeks probably got inspired by you. You still have a power that affects people all over the world. Thank you for making our world a better place.

With love,

Natali, Born in Brazil


PRISCILLA’S NOTE TO THE STUDENTS

Pam [HB’s wife] just called me. She gave him a cookie and milk and read him the letters. They were so touched that Harry wanted to type a response. Pam reminded him that he could not type. 

HARRY BELAFONTE’S REPLY

June 15, 2020

Dear Priscilla,

I have received the number of letters you forwarded from many sources … more than I am able to deal with individually so I write this letter to the collective, to all of you who have wished me well and think of the work I do approvingly.

I am encouraged by what all of you have said and I send you this letter in deep appreciation. Your words touch me deeply.

Harry Belafonte


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Priscilla Karant, Clinical Associate Professor, teaches in ELI’s Comprehensive English Program and Professional English Program.

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