Tête-à-tête with Gina Belafonte
Gina Belafonte is the daughter of Harry Belafonte, one of the most successful Jamaican-American pop stars in history but that is not why I chose to interview Gina for Loyal Nana. Gina is resilient, woke, and kind. She is a mom, producer, filmmaker and actor who grew up in New York City and California alike. On a beautiful Summer evening, I went to meet Gina at her father’s office in Time Square inside the SEIU 1199 Local Union building which has an especially proud history of civil rights activism--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "his favorite union" and he considered himself "a fellow 1199-er." King suggested to 1199 "that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice." This is where Harry Belafonte, MLK Jr.s friend’s office lives. It is cozy, warm, carpeted everywhere, and lots of sunlight. Gina was on a call when I arrived, she casually smiled, ordered a hot chocolate from Starbucks and we got to talking…
Loyal Nana: Gina, what does it feel like to be you today?
Gina Belafonte: It feels good. I feel good. It’s calming.
LN: I know you were born and raised in NYC - where in NYC did you grow up?
GB: In the Upper West Side. Growing up people used to say “What are you?” And I used to say “My mother’s white, my father’s black, and I’m Puerto Rican”. And that started from a very young age. A lot of my friends were Puerto Rican, so I ended up hanging out more where they lived because I had a very bizarre childhood in terms of what and who I came in contact with, versus where I lived. So I spent a lot of time growing up in Riverside Park in a schoolyard on 71st Street, and the projects on 105th and Madison Ave. That’s where I spent a good portion of my life, out on the street. When I was a kid, my parents would just say “Be home by dark.” So I would come home from school, and drop everything to go hang out in the streets.
LN: When would you do your homework?
GB: Yeah, about that. Laughs. I’m dyslexic. Studying and homework for me were very challenging. For a good portion of my grade school and junior high school years, I went to a tutor, where I was able to get my homework done. But, as far as grades go, I wasn’t an outstanding student, I’m not very academic in that way.
LN: You’re a product of a biracial relationship. How was that for you, growing up in the sixties and seventies in New York? You kept saying you were Puerto Rican but you're not. Why was that?
GB: I often felt like I didn’t belong, because I had no one who was like me. People always seemed to, at least in those days, define you as something – and there was no real definition for me. There was “half-breed” and “mulatta” and all of these sayings and slangs depending on the group I was with. I would adapt because it made it easier for them. I wanted people to like me; I tried to make things easier for people.
LN: Where are your parents from?
GB: My mother is Russian-Lithuanian and Jewish. My father is Jamaican-Scottish. So I never identified as black. I didn’t ever have to identify as something until I wanted to identify as something myself, and I just wanted to identify as SOMETHING, anything. What I felt I looked like - in terms of my appearance – was Puerto Rican. So I went with that, and my whole persona changed.
LN: When did you realize you were doing that [calling yourself Puerto Rican] because you felt like you didn’t belong and you felt like an “other"?
GB: I was 11 years old when I said: “My mother’s white, my father’s black, and I’m Puerto Rican.” I didn’t want people to discover who I “really was,” so I started to speak like my Puerto Rican friends, too. I was always good at mimicking and pretending, and so I would speak like I was from the ‘hood for a long time. And most people had no clue. When I went home, my mother would be like “Who are you? What are you doing?” And I would defend it saying “This is who I am, this is me.”
LN: When did this all change?
GB: What changed was when I went to [LaGuardia] High School of Performing Arts and started taking speech and voice classes for my craft. I wanted to be an actor. Specifically, my Puerto Rican identity and accent started to become a character that I would soon begin to cultivate as one of the characters I can play as an actor. And, much later in life, as a matte rof act, I got cast as a Puerto Rican cop from the Bronx on a television series.
LN: How was it for you growing up with superstar parents and you trying to find your own identity?
GB: In retrospect, it was a lot harder than it was when I was in it, strangely enough. My mother to me was the most beautiful woman that ever lived, and I never knew how I was going to live up to that beauty. My body type and style is not the same as hers, she’s so thin and can eat anything, and my body type is not like that. And also my parents, to be entirely transparent, they were very conscious of outer appearances. They were always saying things like “Oh she’s beautiful,” “Oh, look at her legs,” or “He’s got a great nose.” It was always about the outer. I created a lot of self-judgment and self-criticism based upon what - on the surface - appeared to me about my parents. It wasn’t until I got into college that I started my spiritual quest and began to take the very long journey home to myself.
LN: When did you know you wanted to act?
GB: Since the beginning of time. It’s always been about that. It hit me when I was in this great middle school up in the Bronx, and I did a play there. It was time for high school, and I thought, "I have to get out of this school, I don’t want to be here anymore." The academics were too hard, I didn’t like anyone there, and I felt stupid around everybody. Somehow we heard about the High School of Performing Arts – before it became LaGuardia and I told my parents “I want to go here, I want to be an actor,” and I auditioned and got in! It wasn’t easy after that either because a lot of people there learned who my father was and they tried to make me feel as if I didn’t have any talent and my father bought my way into the high school.
LN: Yes, humans are weird that way. So you went to college, dropped your Puerto Rican persona and started on your spiritual path. I like to also call it healing. What happened after college?
GB: After college, I went on tour with the National Shakespeare Company, and I got cast as Juliet, which was a big deal because most of my college career I was told I was too modern and too bold to play any of those traditional, ingénue leading roles. I would always be cast as the sidekick. One day I saw this audition, and I went at it, and the director said: “That’s who we need, no one realizes that Juliet is a bad ass!” So he cast me in the play as Juliet, and it was life-changing, it was such a great affirmation for me.
LN: Then you left New York City for California to live a completely different life...
GB: I did. I moved to Cali, I got married, had a baby, she’s born and raised there. I’m a total New Yorker, but I’m an LA resident. I left New York when I was 27 and I’ve been living there ever since. I’m now 57.
LN: Are you still married?
GB: I’m not, I’m separated, but we’re super nontraditional and evolved.
LN: And you both have this beautiful person in common…
GB: Of course, and we’re both great parents to her, she loves us both. We do a lot of things together as a family which is nice, that’s something he and I wanted to make sure we didn’t lose. Just because traditionally people do things a certain way doesn’t mean it has to be our story or who we are. So we decided we’ll define ourselves in a way that works for us. We ’re modern and we’re groovy.
LN: How do you feel about your daughter choosing the same career path as you with acting?
GB: I feel great about it, I’m 100% supportive of her career, I hope that she finds extreme success in the field and what I mean by success is that she feels fortified and validated in the work that she chooses and hopefully will get. When I went to see her act, I was like “Phew!” cause she’s really good! She really is talented, she’s into it and she really wants to keep learning and investigating and finding all the tools that she’ll need to do great work and so I’m extremely excited for her.
LN: Have you both had similar encounters being black women but not "looking black"? Is she going through some of the identity issues you were going through at her age?
GB: I don’t know, I don’t think so. So my daughter's skin tone favors her father’s side of the family, she’s very fair, she’s a white girl, with hazel green eyes. She came home one day after a course of study during Black History Month at the school where they were showing some footage and she blurted out “That’s my grandfather”. A kid said to her “No he’s not” and she said, “Yes, he is”. And the kid said “He’s your grandfather?” and she turned to them and said, “Yeah, I’m black”. Laughs. And then the kid didn’t care, there was no issue around it, but all of a sudden for her it was like “Oh right, wait, am I black?”. I think she’s finding her way, especially more and more because of the direction I’ve taken politically with my work. I think she must feel a certain way sometimes when we’re together and we’re around a bunch of black people talking about white people and she’s in it and listening and possibly asking, “Where do I fit in?” We haven’t really had the conversation; it’s never really come up as an issue.
LN: You said the direction you’ve taken in your work now has changed. Aside from being an actress and a mom you’re also a producer and filmmaker. Before you produced the documentary on your father, Sing Your Song, did other people approach you and your dad to make the film on his life?
GB: I think many people approached my father to do a documentary on his life, and for whatever reason, at the time when I asked him he said yes and he was ready to go so we embarked on the journey together and I followed him around the world for seven years.
LN: Did that project help or change your relationship with your dad?
GB: It extremely deepened our relationship to a level that most people don’t have with their parents, I would assume. I learned a lot of things about him. And I think with my dad seeing my style and the way in which I handle things and work, gave him a lot of insight into who I am, too. There were some extremely large hurdles and challenges working with him…but I got much closer to him, which I am extremely grateful for.
LN: You do a lot of work and activism around social justice. How do you reconcile that work with being an artist and being born into a family of artists and making films?
GB: About five years ago my father decided to create a non-profit that works in the intersection of arts and culture and politics and movements called Sankofa. We work with artists, celebrities, community leaders, and organizations to use art as a tool to elevate issues, give voice to the disenfranchised, reclaim narratives, set records straight… we work in every artistic medium. Whether it’s the visual arts or theater, film, television, concerts, music, albums, festivals, we do it all. Because there are many different issues to bring light to and many different tactics and strategies to do it, and we’re in all of them, constantly finding new cultural ways to motivate people to action.
LN: How do you feel about your identity and your place in the world today compared to how it was when you were first finding yourself?
GB: I’m always just doing my best to be as present in the moment as possible. I aim to be honest and truthful with an eye on the future. I’m always surprised that people even know who I am, I’m just trying to do the good work. The more I work in consciousness and mindfulness around black liberation, the more I am identified as a black woman. For a long time, I felt like I had to somehow compartmentalize both sides of who I am: I’m a white Jewish Russian-Lithuanian woman and I’m a black Jamaican Catholic. But I’m not Jewish or Catholic, I find myself to be a spiritual being. As far as identity goes I just walk through the world as myself as much as I possibly can and show up with as much authenticity and sincerity as possible.
LN: You are a calming, centered and spiritual person. How do you navigate anger or rage?
GB: The thing about getting woke is that its 24/7, 365 days a year, and you have to check yourself. Sometimes the impatience that turns into anger is connected to something deeper that needs to be acknowledged.
LN: What would be your advice to other young women who are desperately looking for themselves in this crazy world? Young women who might not have support or access...
GB: Seek out people you admire, in history or currently, and learn more about their path. I believe in affirmations and the power of meditation. I believe in creating personal self-care rituals. Baths help. If you’re really stressed out and can’t find a bathtub, put your hands under warm water and breathe. It is important to find tools and ways in which we can create our own sense of ritual and self-care anytime, any place. I had to go to a public bathroom the other day because I needed to take a minute to breathe and re-center.
My advice is GET IN THE MOMENT, be in the moment as possible and check the reality of your situation. If you’re safe and you’re alive, your reality is in a good place already. It’s important for us to seek out sisterhood and do our due diligence. We have intuition and we can sense when something feels right and when something feels wrong. At that moment, you need to have the courage to trust your intuition.
LN: Thank you for blessing us with your wisdom. It is because of people like you that there is hope and light in this world but most importantly in the future.
Interview by Amanda Saviñón
Transcribed by Anneta Konstantinides