Harry Belafonte (born 1927), triumphed over a difficult childhood and racial barriers, as an African American growing up in the United States. His songs were extremely popular in middle class American households in the mid-1950s, and helped to popularize calypso music throughout the world.
Harry Belafonte stands out as one of the best-loved singers and entertainers of the 20th century. His dream began in December 1945, when he saw his first play and enrolled in acting classes with Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau. In 1949, he sang for the first time at New York's Royal Roost. This appearance opened the way to his first recording contract. Later, a two-week singing engagement at the Village Vanguard, a showcase for the premier blues, jazz, and folk artists of the 1950s and 1960s, was extended to 14-weeks. From that point, both Hollywood and Broadway took notice. Belafonte made an impact on screen, in addition to his recordings and stage performance. These achievements assisted him in his most vital passion: the civil rights cause. However much he loved to sing or act, Belafonte was most grateful for the access it gave him to large audiences, with whom he could make the biggest impact. By the end of the 1990s, he worked as a director and producer on film projects, breaking racial barriers and creating new opportunities for African Americans in the entertainment industry.
Two Marriages, Many Different Lives
Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was born in New York City, on March 1, 1927. He was baptized as an infant into the Roman Catholic faith. His father, Harold, Sr., was from the Caribbean island of Martinique, in the French West Indies. His mother, Melvine Love, was from Jamaica. Both were products of racially mixed marriages. In Arnold Shaw's biography, Belafonte, the singer explained: "On both sides of my family, my aunts and uncles intermarried. If you could see my whole family congregated together, you would see every tonality of color, from the darkest black, like my Uncle Hyne, to the ruddiest white, like my Uncle Eric, a Scotsman." He had one brother, named Dennis. His father was gone often, working for British merchant boats as a chef. When Belafonte was six, his father left his mother for a white woman, which was thought to have added to his own hostility toward whites as a child. At the age of nine, his mother sent him and his brother to her native Kingston, Jamaica, where she thought it would be safer than the restless streets of a poverty-stricken, Depression-era Harlem. There he attended private British boarding schools, where caning for misbehavior was a common practice. As a boy with darker skin, he was not always treated well by his lighter-skinned relatives. Still, he enjoyed the sounds of calypso music, which would influence his later career. In Shaw's biography, Belafonte noted his thoughts about of life in Jamaica: "I still have the impression of an environment that sang. Nature sang and the people sang, too. The streets of Kingston constantly rang with the songs of piping peddlers or politicians drumming up votes in the lilting singsong of the island. I loved it. I loved also night gazing. I used to climb up a mango tree and lie back and munch mangoes and gaze through the leaves at the star-filled sky." When he was 13, Belafonte returned to New York, where he was a star on the track team at George Washington High School. In 1944, he left school to join the Navy. That same year, he met his first wife, Margurite Byrd.
Belafonte married Byrd on June 18, 1948. They had two daughters, Adrienne and Shari. Shari would grow up to be an actress. The troubled marriage eventually ended in divorce. In 1957, Belafonte married Julie Robinson. They had a son, David, and a daughter, Gina. Gina became an actress, as well, starring in the 1980s hit television series, "The Commish."
Belafonte first studied acting at a dramatic workshop affiliated with the New School for Social Research and run by German director, Erwin Piscator. Among his classmates were Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Sidney Poitier. Belafonte's recording of "Calypso," with RCA Victor in 1955, was the first recording ever to sell over one million copies. That same year he won a Tony award on Broadway for his performance in a musical revue, "Three for Tonight." Belafonte had completed two movies by that time, Bright Road, in 1953, and Carmen Jones, in 1954. Carmen Jones, was the first movie with an entirely black cast to become a box office success. In a 1972 interview with Guy Flatley of The New York Times, Belafonte discussed his success with the public. "From the beginning, I cut a certain figure on stage, a figure that has come to mean something specific in the minds and hearts of people around the world. I'm the guy in the cutaway shirt and the tight pants, the guy doing all those catchy songs. People have always brought this image of me into the theater with them, and no matter what I've felt internally, they just wouldn't buy a lot of the things I was trying to project."
Whether Belafonte appeared on television, film or live concerts, the American public was unaware of his anger. He received Grammy awards for recordings in 1960, 1961, and 1965. In 1989, he was recognized as a Kennedy Center Honoree, the annual award recognizing careers of distinction in the arts. Some of his films included, Buck and the Preacher, in 1972; Island in the Sun, 1957; White Man's Burden, 1995, and the made-for television movie, Swing Vote, 1999. His complete recording history numbers in the thousands. His soft melodic voice crossed any barriers of racial prejudice, whether or not he approached that subject directly.
After completing work on the light-hearted comedy, "Uptown Saturday Night" in 1972, Belafonte made few films, until he was approached by director Robert Altman in 1996. When Altman asked him to play the role of Seldom Seen in his film, "Kansas City," Belafonte was surprised. It was unlike any role he had ever taken—breaking his stereotype as a happy, easy-going character. "Here I had to play this rather debased, degenerate, complicated, evil man. To have Bob Altman believe that I could do it strongly enough never to let the audience even think of the 'Belafonte' they're familiar with, but just to stick completely to what the character does, was an enormous trust. And an enormous challenge," Belafonte told Henri Behar in a 1999 interview for Film Scouts. By the late 1990s, Belafonte was making his way as a director and producer. His work as executive producer for a television mini-series, Parting the Waters, premiered in 2000. In his interview with Behar, Belafonte discussed his consciousness as a black person in Hollywood, trying to make a difference. "I'm denied to the degree that all black people are denied that. I don't mean me Harry personally. I'm denied it because nobody has done it. Sidney Poitier had a certain level of work, Spike Lee has a certain level of work, Denzel Washington has a certain level of work. I have a certain level of work. But if you take a good look at black life, and its diversity, and how much there is in that life… . There is a life in Brazil, a life in Africa, a life in Paris. There's a very intense black life in Paris and in England. We tell very little of that canvas. It's so small it hardly equates."
Leading the Struggle
Belafonte was constantly visible to anyone with a television set in the 1960s. He was photographed on the pages of Time, and Life, magazines, often arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King and others, as they marched for civil rights in the United States. Belafonte was convinced that nonviolence was the only means to affect change for African Americans. The ongoing struggle to improve the lives of African Americans and blacks throughout the world occupied a great deal of his time and attention. In June 1998, Belafonte was present at Newcastle Upon Tyne University in Northern England when that institution memorialized his friend Martin Luther King, with a permanent plaque. They also honored Belafonte with an honorary doctorate, only the second person in the school's history to be so honored. Dr. King had been the first.
Further Reading on Harry Belafonte
Shaw, Arnold. Belafonte: An Unauthorized Biography, The Chilton Company, 1960.
Ebony, November 1981.
The New York Times, April 7, 1996; June 3, 1998; February 8, 1999.
The New York Times Biographical Edition, July 2, 1972.
Behar, Henri, "A Conversation with Harry Belafonte," Film Scouts, October 9, 1999. Available at: http://www.filmscouts.com.
"Harry Belafonte," (Kennedy Center Honors), AfroPop, 1989.Available at: http://www.afropop.org.
"Harry Belafonte." AFAMNET, 1998. Available at: http://www.afamnet.com.
"Harry Belafonte." EOnline, 1999. Available at: http://www.eonline.com.