Harry Belafonte was a child when his mother sent him and his brother to live with relatives in Jamaica.
He was born in Harlem on the cusp of the Great Depression, and after his father left the family, Belafonte’s mother thought her children might fare better in her home country. She wanted to save them from the deleterious effects of her precarious immigration status and poverty. Harry, as he writes in his memoirs My Song, was a difficult child, prone to fighting with other kids. His mother — single, newly devout in her faith and working tirelessly to make ends meet — thought this move would help her troubled son.
Salvation is a tall order, but Jamaica did leave its mark. In Kingston, among his mother’s people, Belafonte discovered the sounds on which he would base part of his artistry. Many of the songs he sang later in his career, when he was crowned the “King of Calypso,” were tunes he’d heard while working alongside family and neighbors on the island.
It was also during those years that Belafonte recalls his mother imparting critical wisdom: “I remembered her instructions,” he said in Susanne Rostock’s 2011 documentary. Sing Your Song. “I should never, ever awaken in a day where there wasn’t something on our agenda that would set the course of undermining injustice.”
Belafonte, who died on Tuesday at 96, spent his life trying to right this unequal nation’s wrongs. The details of the towering figure’s career are so well documented, they have become their own kind of lore. With his husky baritone and balletic performances, Belafonte popularized calypso music in the US. His 1956 album Calypso sold almost a million copies and spent months at the top of the Billboard music chart. He also charmed screen audiences and built a strong, if fleeting, career as a Hollywood leading man.
But the beating heart of Belafonte’s legacy lives in the work he did with the spotlight. The star used his talent and charm to organize family, friends, colleagues and millions of Americans to join civil rights efforts. He modeled a rare kind of celebrity identity, learning from his idol, the actor Paul Robeson, and building on serving liberation and movement work.
“I was a misfit, adrift somewhere between white and black, New York and West Indies,” Belafonte writes in his memoir about his junior high years. “The only thing I clearly was was poor.” Belafonte was, for a long time, preoccupied by his loneliness, a feeling that sprouted in Jamaica and flowered upon his return to the US in 1940 at age 13. That, along with his class status, drove him to action. It’s tempting to connect the dots of one’s political consciousness, to pinpoint an exact moment when awakening coalesces with action. But the reality is more jagged.
Belafonte had a foundation in radical thought. His mother closely followed Marcus Garvey and regularly dragged her son to political meetings. But the mercurial teen’s challenges with school and fatigue with navigating racism led him to drop out and join the Navy. In retrospect, this choice — made because of a dearth of options — only roiled his bubbling rage. Belafonte’s work within the military was more organizational — wheeling live ammunition from bunkers to trucks, for example — which eventually bored him. The racist encounters he experienced across the nation didn’t help either.
The release valve for his anger and isolation would be found in performance. On the first play he ever saw, Belafonte wrote in My Song: “When the curtain rose and the actors appeared, so poised and confident, they radiated a power that felt spiritual to me.” He didn’t plan to be an actor, or even a singer. He just wanted to stick around.
Fate would have different plans as Belafonte found himself enrapturing stage and screen audiences. Even now, watching clips of the star online, his magnetism is undeniable. Belafonte’s vocal performances possess a devotional quality to them — a lonely soul seeking a sacred connection. When he croons “I’m sad to say I’m on my way / won’t be back for many a day” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, he imbues this rendition of “Jamaica Farewell” with an aching soulfulness. His concentrated gaze flickers with a playful edge as he seems to recall a distant memory. And then, as he rises, something like determination — or is it defiance? — settles in.
A 1960 performance of “Day-O” in Japan shares a similar energy. Belafonte stands center stage — to his left is the band and to his right a chorus, but both a significant distance from him, making the artist look alone in certain frames. There’s power in this rendition, with its more melancholic undertones. His body sways, as if possessed by an otherworldly force, and his voice drums with a longing to connect with the audience for this call-and-response song.
Traces of Belafonte working through, and with, his loneliness can be found in some of his film performances, too. In the 1959’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, his character Ralph Burton spends the entire first half hour — arguably the best stretch of the movie — physically alone. Ralph, a mine inspector, tries to fashion an existence out of the planet’s ruins in Ranald MacDougall’s 1959 post-apocalyptic film: He travels to New York, renovates an abandoned building and collects mannequins as a way to stave off solitude. But then he hits a breaking point with one of them: “I’m lonely and you’re laughing,” Ralph says to the white mannequin. “You look at me, but you don’t see me. You don’t see me, and you wouldn’t care if you did.”
How to watch that and not think of where Belafonte was in his political journey? The same year as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil was released, Belafonte won an Emmy for his episode of The Revlon Revue, a radical and interracial showcase of Black music history. His friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. began in the mid 50s, becoming — in addition to the one he had with Sidney Poitier — one of Belafonte’s most important relationships. Belafonte indeed found another release valve for his anger and frustrations through King and his civil rights work, from his nonviolent approach to his later attempts to build the Poor People’s Campaign.
Over the course of his lifetime, Belafonte would contribute his time and resources to his friends and others within the movement. In 1968, he hosted The Tonight Show for a week and invited King and Robert F. Kennedy on for in-depth interviews. His relationship with Hollywood — with its tokenism and stereotypical casting — would continue to fray. Belafonte would eventually start his own production company and star in mostly independent films. His activism became even more pointed as he aged, and in his later years Belafonte lamented the lack of a cohesive labor movement in the US He continued to find ways to wield his celebrity to bring attention to antiracist and anti-colonial issues.
In the wake of his death, I find myself in even deeper awe of Belafonte, a lonely kid from Harlem who so profoundly changed the world.
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