Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Inspiring and Frustrating Harry Belafonte

When The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, they were awarded 13 minutes of air time. A month later, one man would be granted nearly double it. At the time, Harry Belafonte was an even bigger star in North America than The Beatles. He brought calypso music to the fore. His gentle, melodic voice soothed the airwaves whether singing about “Scarlet Ribbons” or complaining about the long hours loading bananas (“Day-O”). He appeared in movies, and on television. He headlined in Las Vegas. And yet, somewhere near the middle of his elegant new memoir, he makes the following claim:

“I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist. Ever since my mother had drummed it into me, I’d felt the need to fight injustice wherever I saw it, in whatever way I could. Somehow my mother had made me feel it was my job, my obligation. ‘And don’t ever give in,’ I can hear her say still. ‘Don’t let them get you. You fight boy. You fight.’ So I’d spoken up, and done some marching, and then found my power in songs of protest, and sorrow, and hope.”

His book, My Song: A Memoir (Knopf, 2011), is filled with tales of his activism. Working side-by-side with people like Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and others, he has many stories to tell, and he tells them particularly well.

From the opening chapter, we are thrown into the centre of the Civil Rights maelstrom that was mid-60s America. It was August 4th, 1964. Three volunteers working in Mississippi to register black voters had been missing for over a month. The bodies of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman had been found in a shallow grave near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Belafonte received a phone call late that night. “We need help!” the voice on the line said. They needed at least $50,000 to keep the movement going. So Belafonte quickly swung into action. He pulled together a couple of fundraisers (one in his own apartment) and managed to raise $70K. But he couldn’t simply wire the money down, or trust southern banks, so he called Sidney Poitier and invited him to fly to Mississippi with him to deliver the cash. The rest of the chapter reads like a deleted scene from Mississippi Burning. The men fly in a small plane, which lands on a deserted runway. Their car is followed into town by a parade of pickup trucks manned by angry rednecks. It’s incredible, but told passionately by someone who remembers it like it was yesterday. This is only the beginning of a fascinating and visceral memoir.

The fact that these events are seared in my memory as a person who remembers the Civil Rights movement very well, who saw these events on the nightly news, who experienced drinking from “white only” fountains makes the story all the more powerful.

Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr., backstage at Madison Square Garden

Belafonte’s narrative – and it is his narrative (the book is written in Harry’s voice, one assumes that Michael Shnayerson acted as a not-so-ghost writer) – then proceeds to flip back and forth from activism to artistic development. The two themes run like parallel rivers through the book, as they ran through Harry’s eighty-year life, weaving this way and that, sometimes intersecting, sometimes taking divergent paths.

Just before I started reading My Song, a friend gave me a 3-CD box of Belafonte’s music. I had immersed myself in these CDs for a couple of weeks, and I was surprised and pleased that I was finding authentic joy in listening to them. I’d remembered only “The Banana Boat Song” from my youth, but as I listened I recognized many of the recordings, and Harry’s pure young voice over top of simple guitar chords and spare arrangements sounded contemporary, not old-fashioned. A listen gave credence to Bob Dylan’s memories from Chronicles quoted by Belafonte:

“Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist, sang about lovers and slaves – chain gang workers, saints and sinners and children … Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope that some of it rubs off on you. The man commands respect …”

Belafonte’s relationship with Sidney Poitier is another fascinating study. They began their careers at virtually the same time, competed for roles, and maintained a long friendship which was tested regularly (as in the adventure delivering cash to Mississippi). It was also tested by Harry’s judgmental attitude to Sidney’s life, but they remained friends until they clashed over movie projects. Harry seems a bit remorseful about the situation, but even when he is praising Poitier he comes away critical of his old friend.

Sidney Poitier, Belafonte, & Charlton Heston
Belafonte’s passion for causes sometimes overtakes his common sense. His criticism of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice (and their relationship to George W. Bush) led to Rice’s retort, “I don’t need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black.” He called George W. Bush ‘the greatest terrorist in the world’, and visited Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez saying to Chavez that he “and millions of American people…support[ed] your revolution.” Throughout the years, Belafonte has shown support for other revolutionaries like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea. He is not afraid to take on Barack Obama either, proclaiming, "[Obama] sees no threat from evidencing a deeper concern for the needs of black people, as such. He feels no great threat from evidencing a greater policy towards the international community, for expressing thoughts that criticize the American position on things and turns that around. Until we do that, I think we will be forever disappointed in what that administration will deliver." Early on, Belafonte learned a lesson from a story Eleanor Roosevelt told him concerning her husband and A. Philip Randolph (head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters). FDR challenged Randolph to force governments, such as his own, to hold to their promises. Belafonte believes Obama needs such a strong challenge, a threat to make the change he promised. It’s in passages like these that the real Belafonte appears: thorny, critical and demanding. And yet, throughout the book I swung from two extreme responses. I admired him, and I tired of him. I was shocked by things he said, and also drawn to him because of other things he said. Why could he be so critical of Bush, and yet so accepting of Chavez and Sekou Toure? Is it the spirit of his mother who encouraged him to ‘fight, boy, fight,' or was him just speaking without thinking?

The long relationship with Martin Luther King forms a large section of My Song. Belafonte was in King’s inner circle, but was not blind to King’s quirks and weaknesses. To be fair, Harry is open about his own weaknesses as well. He confesses to a gambling addiction (which he was able to control), and is frank about his love life. He shares with us his frustrations with wives, and family members, as well as with celebrities and politicians. He also displays a deep knowledge of African politics. The folksinger Harry Belafonte that topped the charts and played to packed houses in Vegas, and introduced calypso music to the world, lost his voice when he had nodes removed from his vocals cords in a doctor’s office in the '60s. His hushed whisper became a new trademark in movies and on TV shows like Sesame Street.

He continued to make movies, appearing against type as a gangster in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, or riffing on Brando’s Don Corleone in Uptown Saturday Night. But it’s the activism that he keeps returning to, and while many of the stories, and certainly the people with whom he mingled are incredible, there is at times a bit too much of the “so I wrote a check” back-patting. Nonetheless, the Harry Belafonte who you discover in these 500 pages is a fully realized man, intelligent, talented, perhaps a tad arrogant, but real. His struggle was one he shared with several generations. If his voice is soft, and his words are sharp, it comes from believing that this is his song: a song of freedom, a song of justice, a song about the love between his brothers and his sisters all over the world.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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