my song-harry belafonte

a memoir with Michael Shnayerson

like kanye used his influence to bring up the then-unsung common, harry belafonte makes use of his every opportunity to ensure that we all remember paul robeson. a fascinating individual who has lived about 8 lives (sorry, cats), he serves as continued inspiration for those of us who occupy the spaces in between. he’s obviously affected by the relationships that have shaped his understanding of the world, but he hasn’t let them decide his fate. it’s all that we could ever hope for.

“I remember the view, and the walkway that sloped down from where we were. My father got to talking to someone as I waited for him to guide me down. As he kept talking, he seemed to forget that he’d been holding the handlebar to keep the tricycle from rolling. He started gesturing with both hands to his friend. Suddenly his tricycle started rolling downhill. I felt the whoosh of exhilaration in my stomach. Perhaps in those first seconds I could have stopped, but the ride was too much fun. Then I heard my father scream my name at the top of his voice. When I looked back, I thought I was watching the giant from ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ chase after me. I pedaled as fast as I could to escape him. Not fast enough. At the bottom of the hill, he caught me and yanked me off the tricycle. My feet were still pedaling in the air. Then he dragged me over to some bushes, broke off a thin branch, and proceeded to beat me with it.
Again and again he beat me, until I bled through my shirt and pants. Then he stopped. The blood seemed to shock him back to his senses.
‘You must never tell your mother what happened,’ he told me hoarsely. ‘Say some boys tried to steal your bike, and they they beat you up…and I saved you.’
On the way home we passed a little corner store, the kind that used to sell candy and stationary and cigars. In the window was a white model sailboat, with beautiful white trim. I had always admired that boat. Only weeks before, I’d asked to have it for Christmas. When we got to that window, my father said into my ear, ‘If you don’t tell your mother, I’ll buy you that boat.’” (21-2)

he never did get that boat, but then again..

“Perhaps, in the end, where your anger comes from is less important than what you do with it.” (11)

and ‘getting mad ain’t the same thing as getting involved.’

you know i had to get that shad reference in. bigups to our best canada reads defender.


7 thoughts on “my song-harry belafonte

  1. peer pressure (sidney):

    “Of course, we were both so desperately poor that our main topic of conversation was get-rich-quick schemes. Sidney had a plan to market a Caribbean conch extract said to be an aphrodisiac. Or maybe it had bodybuilding ingredients. Whatever its promise, the plan didn’t go far when we realized we’d need capital to produce it. Then we decided to be a stand-up-comedy team-Belafonte and Poitier. For weeks we feverishly wrote routines, rehearsing them on my rooftop, until we realized they weren’t funny. But we grew close-very close-as we realized not only how much we had in common, but how much fun we had hanging out together. We started going to the theater once or twice a week, splitting the cost of a single ticket.” (59-60)

    can you imagine this? poitier and belafonte comedy troupe?! the original def comedy jam…

    “Yet Sidney, for all his blackness, never looked like an angry black man, and even in /In the Heat of the Night/, where he did break his mod and went so far as to slap a white man (I sure sat up when I saw that), Sidney radiated a truly saintly calm and dignity. Not me. I was a lighter-skinned Negro…and an angry one. I didn’t want to tone down my sexuality, either. Sidney did that in every role he took. I don’t want to put the full rap on race. Sidney is a wonderful actor, and he mesmerized audiences with all his performances. But he knows as well as I do that these nuances were fundamental to his success.” (208)

    “The real sting came some weeks later, when I picked up one of the trades to read that the cable station Showtime had signed Sidney to play Nelson Mandela in a TV movie focusing on Mandela’s relationship with F. W. de Klerk, the South African leader. Michael Caine was playing de Klerk. I felt that for our friendship, this was a radical breach. There was no place for us to go except maybe where we went-away from each other.
    I write these words now in sadness, not anger. As a young man fresh out of the navy, I had no close friends until I met Sidney at the American Negro Theatre. No one has the space that Sidney has in my life, or that I do in his. Finding our way through a labyrinth of social history, we had shared so much.
    Sidney didn’t throw himself into the movement as I did. Not everyone can be who you want him or her to be. The truth is that Sidney did what he wanted to do. As /the/ first black movie star, he took on that mantle with dignity and power and extreme grace, and set a legacy for all the black actors who came after him. That’s a lot for one lifetime.” (392-3)

  2. there’s no place like home:

    “And yet she didn’t quite buy into it. Somehow, no matter how much I triumphed later as a singer and actor, my mother could never bask in my success. She just kept working, set on elevating herself above her station, but growing ever more bitter as she stayed where she was, stubbornly reluctant to accept any of the luxuries I tried to confer on her.” (20)

    “There were plenty of others to choose from in Harlem, for most of the famous black Americans of the day lived there, rubbing shoulders with the rest of us; they certainly weren’t welcome in the fancy buildings south of Ninety-sixth Street. I could see Duke Ellington, coiffed in a do-rag, shopping for groceries, and Langston Hughes at a local bar.” (27)

    “On my next leave, I went back to the library in Chicago, but the little old lady was gone. She’d been a volunteer, I learned. I guess I’d cured her of that. I’d crushed her spirit with my angry rants. I hung around the area for her that day, but to no avail. From then on, whenever I saw someone from behind who looked like her-not just in Chicago, but anywhere I was-I’d speed up my walk and give her a sidelong glance, hoping at last I’d have the chance to apologize. But I never found her.” (49)

    “We had a one-year lease, which gave me exactly that much time to pull off my plan, because Trujillo, after failing to bully me into leaving right away, was surely not going to offer me the chance to renew. First, I set up a dummy real estate company. Then I set up two others, one for each of the sympathetic tenants who’d be my cohorts. With that, our three dummy companies began bidding against one another to buy the whole thirteen-story building.
    If the building’s managing agent found this sudden interest in 300 West End Avenue baffling, he never said so. In fact, our offers were coming at a time of real change in the New York apartment market. Rental properties were growing less profitable for their owners. The whole concept of co-ops were just starting to take hold. What we were proposing would soon become a trend. We would buy the building outright from its owner, then try to sell as many of the apartments as possible to the tenants who lived in them. Any tenant who preferred to keep renting could do that. We had to hope most of the tenants would buy, though, or the money I was putting up to finance the scheme-more than $2 million-would be tied up in bricks and mortar for years.” (192-3)

  3. pre peer pressure:

    Paul Robeson, the extraordinary actor, singer, and activist whose path I’d tried to follow my whole adult life, had given so much money to social causes that he’d left himself vulnerable to his enemies, chief among them the federal government, a formidable force led by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, when he was blacklisted as a communist in the late 1940s. With Senator Joseph McCarthy riding shotgun, the federal government had cowed Carnegie Hall and other American venues into not hiring him, then seized his passport so that he couldn’t earn a living performing abroad. Eventually Paul ran through his savings and slid into a deep place of sadness. I never forgot that. Somehow, I’d have to raise most of this money from others. In two days, maybe three.” (4-5)

    “I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how devastating the effects of the blacklist had been in the black community. In all the literature I’ve read since then about that terrible time, no account has focused on the disproportionate number of black artists accused of communist sympathies, starting with Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Canada Lee, but including virtually all members of the American Negro Theatre, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, and more. This was no coincidence-far from it. The witch hunters were racists, working two campaigns as one. And how naturally, how inexorably, those campaigns fitted together! After all, hadn’t Stalin said that blacks and whites were equal? And hadn’t Robeson welcomed those words? So didn’t that make all blacks, by definition, communists? It certainly left nearly all black artists blacklisted. As for the few exempted, they had to contend with a taint just as hard to erase: the suspicions of their friends and colleagues that they’d ratted to save their careers. The only mitigating factor was that as common practice Hollywood hired so few of them, most didn’t even know they were blacklisted.
    I was grateful, in a way, to that actor at Ribs in the Ruff. At least he’d hurled his doubts right at me, giving me a chance to say, in no uncertain terms, that I hadn’t sold anyone out, hadn’t named any names, hadn’t acknowledged any ‘crimes,’ and hadn’t signed any loyalty oaths. But how to defend against those who nursed their suspicions in silence? For guidance on that, I paid a visit to Robeson. He smiled when I told him the Ribs in the Ruff story and admitted that he, too, had wondered what I’d done to sanitize myself for the Sullivan show. ‘So you can put my doubts to rest,’ he said, ‘and maybe even those of that actor. But you can’t defend yourself to each and every person. All you can do is follow your truth, know who you are, and get on with it.’
    That was easy enough to do with colleagues, harder when the taint of suspicion seeped into my home.” (117)

    “On the opening day of the trial, those of us who came to show our support were stunned to see the elderly Du Bois pulled roughly from a paddy wagon in handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and chains like a prisoner on a southern chain gang. The authorities had done everything possible to denigrate and humiliate this frail figure. Fortunately, the effort backfired when news pictures of Du Bois in chains flashed around the world. Albert Einstein joined an international network of outraged intellectuals in protesting the arrest; this threw the U.S. State Department into confusion. The government had not understood the level of great respect Dr. Du Bois attracted. Within days, the judge threw out the charges.” (97-8)

  4. peer pressure (martin):

    “Martin truly believed. I admired his faith; I envied it. I just couldn’t make that leap myself. To me, faith as practiced all around me was blindly tied to religion, and religion was preachers in Harlem and Jamaica passing the hat for Jesus and driving off in fancy cars. It was my mothers’ last resort, only it never made her happy. It was nuns invoking the Christian spirit and rapping my knuckles with sticks. It was priests blessing Italian troops on the newsreels, sending them off to slaughter defenseless Ethiopians. I failed to see any good in the hypocrisy of all that.
    None of this Martin denied. But none of it troubled his faith.” (296-7)

    “And I had no idea how he endured her singing. Coretta had studied music at Antioch College, and in her role as preacher’s wife, she liked to perform solos for the congregation. I took to stealing a look at the program before the service, and waiting until she’d finished her song before slipping back into the pew. She wasn’t tone-deaf, but she wasn’t far from it. Soon enough, you knew she’d go flat or sharp. The suspense was almost worse than the note itself.” (298)

  5. peer pressure (white boyz):

    “The only thing British we didn’t like was being oppressed.” (38)

    “Before long, Marlon and I were doing a fair amount of double-dating. I’d never met a white man who so thoroughly embraced black culture. He loved going with me to jazz clubs. I tended to chat with the black musicians between sets, and I could bring Marlon into those circles. Soon, of course, he’d need no help from me, but at that particular point, before /Streetcar/ opened, I was a way in for him. What Marlon loved even more than black musicians was black women. My God!” (69)

    “By the end of that next year, of course, the raw power of Presley’s rhythm-and-blues rock ‘n’ roll would dominate the charts, and calypso as a trend would peter out. Fortunately, I’d kept my repertoire varied, and so managed not to peter out with it.” (159)

  6. peer pressure (the us government):

    “I knew I was being used, but I was using the Kennedys, too.” (228)

    “In the spring of 1969, he and Miriam decided they’d had enough of America’s institutional racism, a phrase that Stokely had coined.” (340) …Carmichael

    huh. so /that’s/ where that came from…

    “I had a lot of private moments with Nelson Mandela over those next eleven days, especially in transit. I’d had to line up a jet, which required raising money. We rented one, and at the Mandelas’ insistence-Nelson and Winnie both-Julie and I rode with them every leg of the way. Julie sat with Winnie on those flights, and I sat with Nelson, doing my best to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about Martin and his tactics at every stage of the civil rights movement. Nelson’s interest was not just personal; it was political. The whole catechism for apartheid was based on segregation in the United States. The United States had turned it into law, just as South Africa, following our example, had done a few generations later. How Martin had strategized to dismantle those laws provided a blueprint for Nelson to do the same in South Africa.” (398)

    “For more than four decades my activism had been underpinned by the conviction that change could come, that the world /could/ be a better place.
    After Rwanda, I wasn’t so sure.” (405)

    “Condoleezza Rice, asked for her reaction by another journalist, said, ‘Everybody should be able to debate views, but I don’t need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black.’
    To which I say, nine years later: Who was right and who was wrong about Iraq? About the satellite images showing supposed mobile factories for chemical weapons? About the supposed bunkers of munitions workers? About the stockpiled weapons of mass destruction? And is it too much to suggest that Powell and Rice, in their eagerness to please their president, did indeed make the moral compromises that house Negroes made in the days of slavery? That had they followed a higher moral calling, they might have helped prevent that war?” (416)

    “I really did think-still do-that George W. Bush was a terrorist. My only mistake was in calling him the greatest terrorist in the world, since I had not met them all. His launching a war against Iraq without cause,and with treacherous intent, resulting in the needless deaths of thousands of American servicemen and women and tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens, the majority of them civilians, qualified him for the title, as far as I was concerned. Those thousands of innocent lives lost were, to the Bush administration, just “collateral damage,” a phrase that I find infuriating. To me, collateral damage is just a brazen attempt to find moral grounds for crimes against humanity.” (434-5)

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