A good friend recommended Harry Belafonte’s My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance. Knowing little about Belafonte beyond songs like Jamaica’s Farewell and Day-0., I bought it online for around five bucks with free shipping – basically I got the book for free. It is a hard cover version on that luxurious linen paper with wide margins – a library discard from the Southwood Library in Calgary Canada. That a book from 2012 is so soon discarded seems odd. That it is a memoir of Harry Belafonte, one of the most successful entertainers of the 20th century with an incredible life of civil rights work and activism, adds to the mystery. Everyone, including the dear Canadians – slow down. Indeed, value has been turned upside down. In the end, it was my gain and Calgary’s loss.
It is possible to learn a great deal about the civil rights era simply through the lens of My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance. It is safe to say that Harry Belafonte not only was in the middle of the civil rights movement, he was a key historical figure and instrumental in the struggle for justice and equality. The book begins in 1964 like a screenplay. Harry Belafonte is attempting to convince his long time friend Sidney Poitier to help him on an unusual mission. He has $70,000 in cash in a leather doctor’s bag that he has raised and needs to deliver the money in person to the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) who at the time where doing lunch counter sit-ins and other non-violent acts of civil disobedience. The money was to help the SNCC in many ways but most often for legal support and bail. It was not the first time that Harry Belafonte had financially supported people and organizations in the “movement” during the civil rights era. It would not be his last.
The beginning of the book is meant to draw you in to a defining moment in Harry’s life. This dramatic start of the book helps pull the reader in and is effective, but many other moments and amazing happenstances fill the pages. When people live to be over ninety, often their lives take on an unreal, mythical, Forrest Gump-type of narrative. Their lives become like historical fiction, similar to an E.L. Doctorow novel, where meetings and scenarios seem made up and impossible. These unbelievable scenes fill the pages. Not to spoil the book, let me recount a few in the remarkable life of Harry Belafonte.
Late 1940’s – Early 1950’s
After returning from his deployment in World War II, Harry studied acting in New York City on the GI Bill. In his class were Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis to name a few. Pretty fine acting company. He then would go on to be friends with this group for his entire life.
At the same time, when he was but twenty years old, Harry would hang out at the Royal Roost in Harlem with the likes of Lester Young and other be-bop legends who encouraged his talents. Harry Belafonte was crazy about Lester Young. According to the memoir, the first time that Harry sang on stage, which happened to be an intermission gig at the Royal Roost, the entire Charlie Parker band, Tommy Potter, Al Haig and Max Roach got up on stage and backed him up. You cannot make this stuff up. The musicians did it just to help the new kid out.
In little time his singing career took off and Harry was a leading voice in the folk revival of the early sixties. It was a dynamic time when folk music had made its way into all parts of society. In Vegas you could get the whole room to join you in Pete Seeger songs like If I Had a Hammer. The next week Harry would be speaking at a demonstration, on the street perhaps leading a song. The idealism must have been intoxicating.
Soon you learn that Harry’s hero is Paul Robeson, the great singer and political activist. He learns a lot from Robeson and is moved to activism by his spirit. Major figures of the 1960’s are his close friends. Harry becomes the conduit between his good friend Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, oddly bridging the racial and cultural divide between a Southern Baptist preacher and a blue-blooded northern Irish Catholic. He also talked regularly with Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General.
Another, interesting week is when he was asked to host the Tonight Show in the early 1970’s for and entire week Harry was allowed to have control of the guests. He had Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman and many others on. A week of interviews that would be interesting to revisit.
There are many other interesting turns during this memoir, including all the work Harry did in Africa, his visits to Cuba and his relationship with Fidel Castro. The last fifty pages become less compelling reading, but you do learn that Harry Belafonte regards George W. Bush as a terrorist for invading Iraq – as always a pretty accurate assessment of the facts. Harry Belafonte – committed, intelligent and honest to the very end.
The memoir is a modern vehicle for story telling. With every memoir there is a natural tendency to tell the story from the most forgiving and perhaps self-serving perspective. Surely, history is part what actually happened but also the lens through which it is retold. His voice, now gone after decades of work as an entertainer, actor and singer, Harry Belafonte as of this writing is still alive, fighting the good fight. A remarkable life and a book well worth the read. It is almost 500 pages long, and when the book finishes you do not want it to end. Excellent story telling from the source.
MY SONG : A Memoir
By Harry Belafonte with Michael Shnayerson
2012 – Knopf. 469 pp