HARRY Belafonte was an enormously popular singer and actor but his real legacy will be his campaigning against race discrimination in the Fifties and Sixties.
by Harry Belafonte
Canongate Books, 469pp, £14.99
Anger fuelled his idealism. He was brought by his parents from the West Indies to Harlem. There was a family in each bedroom of the apartment they shared and only one toilet and kitchen. His father was abusive, his mother disturbed, and both were illegal immigrants. As his mother often couldn’t raise the rent, she moved them from flat to flat, changing the spelling of their name (originally Bellanfanti) as they went. On top of that, he was dyslexic and an accident on a return visit to Jamaica led to the loss of sight in one eye.
Joining the US Navy in 1944 wasn’t an escape from discrimination: blacks were called up in greater numbers than whites and sent to the war zone more quickly. The theatre, however, offered more possibilities: a free ticket he shared with Sidney Poitier to the American Negro Theatre in New York – they each watched half of the play – led to him volunteering to help behind the scenes. After a talent scout heard him singing, he soon became “the most promising new singer in the country” or, more succinctly, “the gob with a throb”.
He never looked back, finding his real skill as a folk singer. Then he became “the world’s first so-called black matinee idol”. His album Calypso was the first to sell a million. He was the first black performer to host a talk show, the Tonight Show, and earned a shower of awards.
This success enabled Belafonte to fight racism because he was allowed to stay in hotels and use swimming pools and restaurants banned for less famous black people. When he was blacklisted, he stood his ground and won. He was the first black American to play a romantic lead opposite a white actress, Joan Fontaine in Island in the Sun. This caused outrage amongst whites but it also angered some blacks, who were also dismayed that his second wife was white and Jewish.
Civil rights is the background to his life and to his autobiography. The petty harassments put in the way of black people were designed to humiliate and move them to outbursts of anger. When they were released without charge, often the Klan had been told and were waiting for them. Belafonte’s clout put him far beyond this. His fame gave him access to Eisenhower, who was pleasant but did nothing, and to the Kennedys, whom he kept at a distance, suspecting that they were using him. A long-term ally of Martin Luther King, he helped plan the August 1963 March on Washington which culminated in King’s famous “I have a dream” speech that influenced LBJ to implement civil rights legislation.
Predictably he was no friend to George W Bush – “the terrorist” , he calls him – and believes Obama does nothing to tackle the problems for Americans of colour which are as bad as they were 50 years ago. Obama, he says, seems “to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed”.
At 85, he’s not pulling any punches: he readily admits that he “had an ego which was easily bruised” whilst not hesitating to name himself as one of the world’s top two black entertainers. As he puts it, “I wasn’t an artist who became an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist.”
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