What’s this have to do with first and second-gen Americans? I imagine that would be your first thought.
The Sit-In is a documentary about the one week that entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte hosted Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. The documentary suggests that during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement and civil unrest, Carson wanted to create space to address political issues on his show, but felt slightly ill-equipped to do so, especially as it relates to racial injustice. Belafonte had an evening special once on NBC and was generally beloved by African American and White audiences alike. During that week of letting a Negro man host a late show during the most segregated time in television history, Belafonte used his platform to humanize African Americans, amplify voices of color and the concerns of marginalized communities.
Not even sure where I heard about the show or ‘peacock’ for that matter. Likely instagram. Having an affinity for history, I couldn’t help but view it and I can say it left an imprint on me for the following reasons:
Immigrants Envision America
Belafonte who was a second generation American, born to Jamaican born parents and is an iconic figure in American history. Yes, he was known for his calypso flavor and even as an actor. But I’d argue his mark in history is less about his talent, but more about how he used his talent as a platform for social justice. Belafonte was known for bridging racial divides, have an integrated dance crew on his own show and inviting everyone from Robert Kennedy and Paul Newman, and the Smothers Brothers to Martin Luther King Jr., Leon Bibb, and Buffy Sainte-Marie
Reflecting on his experience hosting, Belafonte shared a sentiment that is probably common among many immigrants, and that is while there is much to be critical of in this country, there is also much to celebrate and he was determined to hold America to its aspirations of equality for all people. He would try to do so by making White audiences of The Tonight Show see people of color as not just entertainers, but Americans also
In a time where a nation is really struggling for its soul, [I] believe that all of us have a responsibility to do everything we can to salvage the best that’s in America because there’s a great deal that’s good about it. -Harry Belafonte
In an interview, Indigenous-Canadian American folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie introduces her song Welcome Emigrante where she expresses the irony of anti-immigration sentiment.
“It’s pretty silly for first or second or third generation American to be making fun of and refusing help to newly arrived immigrants, when the fact is they haven’t been here that long themselves” – Buffy Sainte-Marie
The documentary also briefly covered Sidney Poitier, a Bahamian American who like Chadwick Boseman (may his soul rest in peace), actively selected roles which elevated Black people. Potier was likely one of the first Black men to slap a White man onscreen. To see such a thing in the 1960s just a few years after the Jim Crow era, where Black people couldn’t sit in fronts of buses or drink from the same water fountain, was empowering demanding to be seen as a person.
History Urges Hope
Much of the footage in the documentary cover the one of the ugliest times of America’s story, somewhat reminiscent of our current times. Division. Protests. Anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiment. The emerging fist of White supremacy breaking through the promises of the Declaration of Independence, declaring all created men equal.
It was humbling to watch these individuals, Rev. King, Coretta Scott King, Belafonte, Robert Kennedy, John Lewis, Sidney Poitier and others be light against darkness. It seems so easy to hide against the shadows of hateful rhetoric. It’s easy to pick a side and participate in the illusion of us. vs. them compared to good vs. evil. Righteousness vs. unrighteousness. During a time where violence against Black bodies was legal and imminent, they spoke the truth and stood in love. Their message was not one of hared of any group, but hatred for injustice. As I reflect on our current challenges, I am encouraged that good can prevail, and perhaps I could be among those who do good works and be light.
Over 50 years later, we find ourselves in familiar territories, not just here, but around the world. And one thing that is consistent is the people pushed to the margins, push back, not to demand dominance, but dignity.
The immigrants of this country have used their voices and platforms to demand that the vision of this country since its independence comes to fruition. The Sit-In is just one of many examples of how immigrants and their children push to make this country better.