I DON’T NEED Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black,” Condoleezza Rice once said in response to Belafonte’s castigation of her and Colin Powell for serving in George W. Bush’s administration. The line registered because of its implication of something a tad kitschy about Belafonte as a public figure, as if the criticism had come from, say, Tony Orlando.
For many people, Harry Belafonte brings to mind two things: the “Banana Boat Song” (better known as “Day-O”), and the moment when he and Petula Clark touched during a song on a television special, thus earning the ire of a large percentage of the country’s racists. Others might recall his movie turns in Island in the Sun and Carmen Jones, but the former is now camp while the latter had Belafonte lip-synching a dull part. Since Belafonte is much greater than the sum of these meager parts, his autobiography is important, even if not exactly spellbinding. With the awareness that Belafonte was a Race Man, one might expect his autobiography to be largely a procession of nightclub gigs interspersed with retellings of Civil Rights episodes. The difference between that expectation and the reality is that the singing is a side dish, and the activism is the main meal.
Unless one is new to the story of Civil Rights in America, these anecdotes are short on novelty value, especially as Belafonte is largely polite about the past. When Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, intones “What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house”—the reader is left to wonder whether King, one of Belafonte’s closest friends, really sounded so precise under the influence of Harvey’s Bristol Cream after hours?
Overall, however, it is good that Belafonte gets on record his participation in turning America upside down. Despite his Latinate surname and the equatorial tilt of his tune stack, Belafonte grew up in New York City in poverty. His parents split, he dropped out of high school, and as a black man seeking serious acting work in the 1940s, he was likely on his way to little when he essentially stumbled into a singing career—the owner of a club he frequented had seen him sing a couple of folk songs in a speaking part and made him do a set during intermission. He was assisted by his looks and a certain Negro Chic among the café society set of the era.
To Belafonte, none of that was as vital as battling the naked racism he grew up enduring, and he started doing so in a big way as soon as big-time club gigs and top-selling LPs gave him the fame and the wherewithal. He didn’t make the big speeches or spend time in jail, but he was deeply involved in the unglamorous hard work of keeping The Movement going, including contributing massive sums of cash. His surmise that the outcome of it all may have been different without him is hardly implausible.
For decades he parlayed his stature as one of the most prominent blacks in show business into countless Civil Rights benefits, and he was a major player in running interference between the movement and the Kennedy Administration. Belafonte paid for King’s family’s living expenses out of his own pocket. Later he helped to spearhead the We Are the World campaign and the TransAfrica foundation, worked closely with UNICEF and the Peace Corps, and joined the battle against apartheid in South Africa, including organizing Nelson Mandela’s tour across the United States. More recently, he has created the nationwide Gathering for Justice, reanimating among inner-city blacks and Latinos King’s commitment to nonviolent activism.
The biggest peculiarity of My Song is Belafonte’s relative lack of interest in, well, song. He recorded almost four dozen albums; his Calypso, in 1956, stayed on the Billboard chart longer than any LP until Michael Jackson’s Thriller over a quarter of a century later. Yet those interested in Belafonte as performer will only find so much here; he is more interested in his political self, noting openly that starting in the ’60s, “for all the passion I still showed onstage, as a man, I felt far more immersed in a movement that could not—must not—fail.” It is worth noting that Will Friedwald, in A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, a book so comprehensive as to give loving coverage to Eydie Gorme, does not include Belafonte. Belafonte himself poignantly notes, “I was good as a singer, but I wasn’t the best, and I’d known that from the start. I’d had to rely on my acting, and in the end, I could make the case that I was the greatest actor in the world: I’d convinced everyone I could sing.”
Belafonte is equally cursory about his film work, most of which he considered stunted by producers’ discomfort with casting black men as sexual before the ’70s. He covers his three marriages with the dedicated introspection of someone who spent almost fifty years in therapy, but one senses romances before and amidst the marriages that he refers to only in passing. The politics are front and center; the life beyond is largely interludes.
This does allow the book to show that Belafonte’s politics are truly about change rather than seeking past glories. Not uncommonly, it can be hard for Civil Rights leaders of his vintage to face that today’s “institutional racism” requires less cathartically theatrical responses than yesterday’s Jim Crow. But Belafonte has quietly but steadily broadened his purview to anti-poverty campaigns nationwide and worldwide, as King intended to do, with no predilection for staged anger and unfocused “passion.” Thus he admires rap’s political messages without falling for the idea that the lowest is the “realest.” Elsewhere he has said of “gangsta” rap, “It’s all in the name of ‘that's the way we are.’ Well, is there more to us than being just the way we are? Do we have no responsibility? Do we have no sense of dignity?”
Only in his take on Powell and Rice has Belafonte seemed antique, using iconography popularized by Malcolm X to designate Powell a “house slave” who “serves his master well.” Belafonte considers the failures of the Iraq war to have vindicated the charge, but that is coy. The “house slave” reference channeled the larger and dehumanizing notion that Powell and Rice were not just servile, but also race traitors, in serving under Bush. This is the sort of comment one would have expected from Stokely Carmichael circa 1968—whose anti-whitey politics in fact Belafonte disapproved of.
In general, however, Belafonte’s story is the tale of a man who has well and truly balanced stardom and serious activism while neither imploding or making more than a few enemies. I hope that the documentary he is producing about his life reaches as many young people as possible. Belafonte has quite a bit to teach us about what it meant to be black once, and what it means now—or what it should.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.