Harry Belafonte: An Appreciation (1927-2023)
Harry Belafonte died on Tuesday, April 25, at age 96.
Belafonte crossed paths with Muhammad Ali and other fighters from time to time. But it would be disingenuous to say that he had a significant association with boxing. His importance lay in the fact that he broke new ground for Black Americans as a recording artist, concert singer, actor, and producer. And he was one of the most significant social activists of the twentieth century.
Some things are more important than boxing. For a younger generation that might not be familiar with Belafonte and his work, I’d like to explain briefly who this awesomely gifted man was and what he represented.
Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927. His parents were from Jamaica and he lived on the island with his maternal grandmother from 1932 to 1940 before returning to Harlem at age twelve to be with his mother. He served in the United States Navy during World War II and was working as a janitor’s assistant when he fell in love with theater and began singing in small clubs to pay for acting lessons. His career as an actor began in the 1950s with films like Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and continued through the end of the millennium.
As a singer, Belafonte brought the music of another world to America. He popularized Caribbean music in the United States and had major hits with songs like Jamaica Farewell and Banana Boat Song. In 1956, his breakthrough album – Calypso – became the first LP to sell more than a million copies in a single year.
Television was a good showcase for Belafonte, but the road was often rocky. Parts of the United States were heavily segregated in the 1950s. On one occasion, a TV producer refused his request that he perform with an interracial choir behind him. As late as 1968, there was an ugly incident when Belafonte was a guest on a primetime TV special hosted by British singer Petula Clark. At one point while they were singing a duet, Clark (a white woman) took Belafonte’s arm which prompted a complaint from Plymouth Motors (one of the show’s sponsors).
Years later, Belafonte recalled, “Even when media was unavailable to me, I went around to the concert halls of the world – sometimes the first Black artist to appear in a lot of countries – and developed a durable constituency. So when things were denied to me, I could always pick up and go to Buenos Aires, or I could go to Japan. I could go to France or England or Africa and find a constituency, so there were always things open for me. And in that openness, I could afford to be as outspoken as I cared to be.”
The honors bestowed upon Belafonte as an entertainer included Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, recognition at the Kennedy Center Honors, and much more. One can go to YouTube and savor him singing his greatest hits and also charming comic duets such as A Hole in the Bucket with Odetta.
Belafonte’s lifelong pursuit of social justice for all is an equally important component of his legacy. His role model in that regard was the great singer, actor, social activist, and Renaissance man, Paul Robeson.
Speaking of Robeson, Belafonte proclaimed, “No one used their power more fully than Paul Robeson did with this gigantic international impact and visibility that he had and then turn it toward the political objectives of Africans, the Caribbean populace, and Black Americans. Those of us who became effective in the arts community afterward – myself, Sidney Poitier, Charlie White as a painter, James Baldwin as a writer – all of us were the beneficiaries of Paul Robeson’s existence. He set a mood and set objectives for us to emulate. He was our mentor. None of us would be as articulate or as committed if we hadn’t seen the dignity and the integrity and the power of what Robeson did. He was the centerpiece.”
The public was largely unaware of Belafonte’s role as a key strategist and fundraiser for Martin Luther King Jr in the 1950s and 1960s. “I wasn’t in all the pictures,” he said later. “I didn’t rush to hang onto Dr. King’s arm to ensure that every picture in the world that was taken would be with me and Dr. King. Most of the time, I was back at headquarters, mapping out strategy. You don’t get much publicity that way. But on the other hand, the absence of publicity was one of my greatest weapons. People trusted what I was about.”
Belafonte was an important voice in the anti-apartheid movement. He served on the board of directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps, chairman of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Fund, and a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He was active in organizing fundraising concerts for charitable ventures around the globe. We are the World and other iconic musical touchstones bore his imprint. He spoke out in favor of gay rights and, on one occasion, was grand marshal of the New York City Pride Parade (an honor bestowed over the years on men and women of all sexual orientations).
I was privileged to interview Belafonte for several hours in his New York City apartment in 1991 in conjunction with a series of interviews that I conducted with a cross-section of Black leadership in America. Some things are different now than they were three decades ago. Others are largely the same.
I began by asking, “How would you define racism?”
“To define racism is not an easy thing to do,” Belafonte answered, “because its tentacles go so many places that you have to define it each place you see it for people to understand fully. It isn’t just one bacteria at work; it’s several bacterias. But the overall thing is an invented form of social response or social behavior that works to the detriment of a group of people. And the operative word is ‘invented’ because I don’t think people are born with racist attitudes. It’s acquired, and its acquisition and the development of it has so many layers and so many interpretations that no one dynamic can eliminate it.”
That led to my next question: “How deeply ingrained in the Black community is racism?”
“I don’t know how you can be the victim of something that is as oppressive as racism and not begin to develop mechanisms in response that become racist as well,” he acknowledged. “How can you eternally love white people without some sense of discontent or hate or anger toward them as a group, when the group of white people have been so responsible in the daily practice of racism, behaving in a way that supports and reinforces the institutions of racism. So I believe that there is a great deal of racism that exists within Black consciousness and Black sub-consciousness. But I believe that, in Blacks, it is perhaps the most swiftly healed.”
I asked Belafonte if he would talk a bit about the role of Black celebrities in raising the consciousness of America.
“There are a lot of people in this country,” he noted, “who are Black and who are superstars, that I never hear from. I’ve called a lot of people to come onboard to do things artistically, to do things politically, to do things socially, and they just don’t take the call anymore because they don’t need that disruption in their lives; because they’re either afraid or they’re impotent.”
And he continued, “I think any Black celebrity, regardless of profession, carries the burden of responsibility to articulate those things which will most impact upon the hopes and aspirations of Black people in some very positive way. To clearly become a force and a vibration that will rip away the facade, rip away the chicanery, rip away the cosmetic that gives one the sense that all is well with Black people because these people have the role of celebritiness despite what’s happening to the larger masses of Black people. Anybody who is a celebrity has to come to some balance about what and who they are, and use that role to say, my celebritiness should not be equated in any way with the success of Black goals in America. Why do we have this power? Is it exclusively to perpetuate our own images and our own fortune? Or is this meant to be used in the service of a much broader social objective? For us to not come to grips with that aspect of our power is to really and truly diminish us in a major way in terms of much that we could be achieving.”
And he offered more thoughts:
* “When I look at an immigrant coming from Europe, who comes here with no money, just raw off the boat; one of the first things he realizes in this country, from the day he lands, is he’s already better than Black people. And he begins to play a role in that, which already puts him in an adversarial position to the Blacks who he might meet, who are economically on the same level. And it sets up this reciprocity of hate and social conflict.”
* “The church and the Christian forces of the world legitimized the slave trade because it put large profits into the state and into those who were supportive of the church. That set up a whole dynamic.”
* “I don’t think there has been any force in this country since the death of Martin Luther King that has brought such a dynamic to Black thinking and such stimulation to Black feelings as Nelson Mandela. He clearly is an instrument against racism, against oppression; clearly is an instrument that says we have a moral power here that is far greater than anybody else; because when we say we’re learning to live with our oppressor, nobody can say that with greater force than us.”
I left Harry Belafonte’s apartment that afternoon feeling that I had been in the presence of a great man and also a good one.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected] His most recent book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.