By Andrea Plaid
Harry Belafonte’s music moves in my mind and life like a childhood memory: I know he’s there and smile or dance when I hear one of his songs just for the little-kid joy it brings to me. (My personal cut: “Jump in the Line,” made famous again by Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.)
But he moves through my own political consciousness (budding back in the 80s) as one of the first celebrities to organize efforts to aid and stand in solidarity with African countries, from speaking out against apartheid in South Africa and co-organizing the musical benefit record “We Are the World” to now, where he’s harshly criticized former president George W. Bush’s policies about Iraq.
However, Ms. Owner/Editrix, Latoya Peterson, who saw Belafonte’s documentary not too long ago, breathlessly said at a recent Racialicious editorial meeting, “He is Racialicious.”
To give some context to his stories: Belafonte’s career and activism developed before and during the US Civil Rights movement. He was born in Harlem in 1927. His mom’s side came from Jamaica, and his dad was from Martinique. Belafonte lived with his grandmom in Jamaica from the ages of five to 13, when he returned to Harlem for high school. (He said at the event that the songs he would later sing came from the people he heard during his childhood as well as researched calypso music.) While working as a janitorial assistant, he met actor Sidney Poitier, with whom he would attend theater performances and relay the storyline up to the point where they’d switch off between acts the single seat they bought together to see the play or musical. Knowing that the stage was going to be his thing, Belafonte studied at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop (two of his classmates were Poitier and the late Bea Arthur from The Golden Girls) while working at the American Negro Theater, where he said he discovered that he loved singing. That love translated into a Tony Award in 1954 for his role in the musical revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
During this time, Belafonte said he discovered Paul Robeson, of whom Belafonte said, “The way he used his strength, his life as an artist had an impact on me.” When they finally met–Robeson became his mentor–Robeson gave Belafonte the following advice: “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.”
Belafonte, from his subsequent fame with his most famous song “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” (he was the first performer to sell over a million copies of a single record, especially on the British charts, thanks to that song) and the above-mentioned “Jump in the Line,” he’s had generations singing his songs. With that fame, people also started knowing Belafonte as an advocate.
“At the time, we weren’t just climbing the career ladder…there were bigger concerns,” Belafonte said in the dcoumentary. “All of us were battling the walls of the racist existence.”
While touring with an integrated theater group, he recounted being told told to live in the black section of Las Vegas and eat in a different dining room. He refused but was informed the only way he would leave the town without honoring the contract would be in “a box.” One day, Belafonte went to a pool–despite racist hatred (the band leader’s wife talked about guys on the balconies having had guns)–looked at the pool with a smile and did a perfect dive. The whites cleared the pool before he resurfaced. Men came back to the pool with cameras…and asked Belafonte to pose for pictures with their wives. The men who stood on the balconies disappeared.
That racism also tainted his views as he became a movie actor. While filming his first feature, Bright Road (1953), with his future Carmen Jones co-star Dorothy Dandridge, he stayed at a friend’s home in Beverly Hills. On a walk after dinner, police officers pursued him. After that, he commented, “I always looked at Hollywood through tinted glasses.”
Even the Carmen Jones (1954) production experienced Hollywood’s low expectations for a “Black film.” Belafonte’sco-star Diahann Carroll (who was originally cast in the lead role before backing out) said, “We all knew we were renting space. We couldn’t go on to film careers.” Belafonte and Dandridge, both accomplished singers, wanted to sing their parts, as per the opera upon which it’s based. The creative crew and higher-ups nixed the idea because they felt the stars were “pop singers” and couldn’t “do opera.” Instead they hired other opera performers to handle that duty. Later, Belafonte just happened to run into the man whom the studio hired to sing his part: the baritone singer, a Black man, was working in the men’s bathroom at a restaurant.
During the production of his next movie, Island in the Sun (1957), depicting an interracial relationship with Belafonte and white actor Joan Fontaine, the original script depicted them explicitly showing affection for each other. However, the idea was nixed to the version now seen of Fontaine drinking out of a straw and handing it to Belafonte, who placed his lips in the same spot as Fontaine’s and looks into her eyes. It didn’t matter: the movie garnered controversy, with whites in the US South protesting it. Yet, the same controversy grew ticket sales.
After tangling with Hollywood, he created HarBel to do independent black films. The World, The Flesh, And The Devil (1959) was about the last three people to survive nuclear holocaust. MGM stopped production and changed the script: again, Hollywood could not permit the black leading man and a white leading lady to have a love scene.
And folks weren’t having it with Belafonte having a white woman being a leading lady in his personal life, either. Belafonte’s first wife, Marguerite Byrd, and he stayed married for nine years, with her supporting his career as a nurse. However, Belafonte stated that his marriage essentially ended after two years due to his traveling and his activism…and Byrd not understanding it. According to Belafonte, “What I didn’t know [was] I was being caught in a net of scrutiny. [The FBI] came to my home and scared Marguerite.” He said that she had a hard time believing that he was truly innocent of the FBI’s accusation of his being a Communist. That, he said, ultimately ended their marriage.
During the marriage’s seven-year decline, he met Julie Robinson, a dancer in Katherine Dunham’s troupe who stayed in the same segregated quarters as her stagemates when they toured. Belafonte said, “One of the things that was binding was that [Julie] came to the table fully political,” which gave them common ground in their talking about race, labor unions, and economics. By the time Belafonte divorced Byrd, he was ready to marry Robinson. In his mind, the relationship with Robinson was, as Latoya described it, a “slow burn.” But the public, especially some within Black communities, perceived it as sudden and called Belafonte a “sell-out” for divorcing Byrd and marrying Robinson. In response, Belafonte gave Ebony an exclusive piece called “Why I Married Julie.” When she was in the hospital post-birth, she remembered a note saying, “Congratulations on your nigger baby.”
Then the fateful call came from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King called Belafonte to chat. Four hours later, Belafonte said, “I knew I would always be in his service, and I knew the length of that journey.” With that relationship came his involvement with the John F. and Robert Kennedy in helping move the Civil Rights struggles further into the national consciousness by helping make it a presidential matter. How Belafonte helped with this is appealing to Robert. After seeing how he appealed to state official to get Dr. King out of serving on a chain gang over a traffic violation, Belafonte said of Robert, “”If there was going to be a moral conscience [within the Kennedy family], it would be Bobby.” And Robert worked with John to gain support from Black communities. (Latoya is planning to do a post about this part in Belafonte’s life.)
In the meanwhile, Revlon offered to sponsor Belafonte for an hour-long TV special. “The question for me was where could television be taken,” Belafonte said. His answer: the heart of black folklore.
“For our daring adventure, we got an Emmy” in 1959 for Tonight With Harry Belafonte. Revlon funded five more specials. The president of NBC had an issue, though: the show was mixed racially and the southern stations were going to pull out. They did not mind Harry, said the edict, but did not want to see race mixing. So Belafonte ended the show.
And Belafonte faced similar racism in television that he did in film: fourteen years after Island In The Sun, on the Petula Clark Show, Clark touched his arm on TV as a friendly, platonic gesture while they sang…and the sponsor freaked out. He was a guest on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and did a calypso medley against riot footage. “That piece never saw the light of day. They took that whole chunk out of the show and put in a political commercial for Richard Nixon,” said Tom Smothers in an interview. “We were fired. Not cancelled, fired.”
His politics moved across the sea, specifically to the African continent. Through this interest, he became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. In the documentary, Belafonte talks about experiencing “Africa” through the movies. Thanks to the bone-in-the-nose stereotyping, he said the last thing he wanted to be was an African. Through his self-education about the continent, he met Tom Mboya, a young Kenya liberator. Baseball superstar Jackie Robinson brought young Kenyans to America–one of them was Barack Obama, Sr. In return for education, they were to go back and rebuild.
He began to hear about former South African president Nelson Mandela, at the time one of the early leaders for South African resistance to apartheid. “When I heard about the arrest I committed to using the power of art for resistance.” He also saw Miriam Makeba on the film from South Africa and recorded an album together, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, in 1965. The South Africa government, however, banned the record. Makeba said she met people who asked to hug her, and then say, “I went to jail for listening to your album with Belafonte.”
His politics also became pan-PoC. Canadian Cree singer Buffy Sainte Marie did a stand at Wounded Knee in 1973. Belafonte performed after becoming aware through the human-rights movement. When Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means was arrested, the American Indian Movement asked Belafonte and actor Marlon Brando to come to the trial and try to influence the jury.
Belafonte brought back masks from his travels to Guinea. For his guest stint on The Muppet Show in 1978, creator Jim Henson and his team created Muppets from those masks, which accompanied Belafonte singing his memorable “Turn The World Around,” which wasn’t a paean to colorblindedness, but to understand that people “see one another clearly” and understand how those differences function in the human family. Reportedly, this episode was Henson’s favorite. Belafonte sang “Turn The World Around” at Henson’s memorial in 1990, and the creations are still seen on occasion.
In the 80s, Belafonte and musical producer Quincy Jones wanted to help bring attention to people in Ethiopia who were starving. Belafonte masterminded the 1985 recording “We Are The World,” with the idea that the entire world played the same song at the same time. The proceeds from the song went to food and medicine drops in the region. The song itself won a Grammy.
In the 90s, Belafonte’s solidarity with Haiti and the Clinton administration’s miltary occupation of that nation led Belafonte to decline an invitation from then-President Bill Clinton to be a part of the South African delegation. Belafonte believed American politics were to blame for what was happening in Haiti. Clinton awarded Belafonte the Presidental Medal of the Arts. In his speech, Clinton noted Belafonte “occasionally rebuked me as President.”
Which brings us to the new century and his 80th decade on this earth. During this time, Belafonte and Robinson divorced for the same reasons of his first marriage: his activism. (He’s since remarried.) As for his children–Shari, Adrienne, David, and Gina–their reactions to their father’s activism and life are mixed. According to the documentary, Shari takes in resigned stride. David remembers hellos and goodbyes. David said, “You’ve got two families–us and the family of man. And you’re running back and forth between the two of us like a lunatic.” Gina Belafonte felt like he wasn’t there; he was preoccupied with other things.
With all of this, Belafonte reflects: “I examine my journey…and I wonder where we went wrong. Why is the world still in [chaos] and violence after so many invested so much to change that? The last thing I thought I’d be doing in the last years of my life, is trying to fix those things we thought we fixed 50 years ago.”
“I contemplated living out the rest of my life in the luxury of reflection…but there’s just too much to be done.”