By Michael Derek Roberts
“I often look at the journey, and I don’t get it. I really don’t. I have lasted longer than I understand why. I often feel that there must have been something that I should’ve done that I didn’t do. But I can’t identify what it is that I didn’t do. That’s the first difficulty. And the second is, what makes you think you’re it? This is not modesty. This is part of a bigger search for me. What was all this about? Why?” [Harry Belafonte to the New York Times on turning 90].
He’s quite literally done it all. He’s outlived his peers and rubbed shoulders with the greatest leaders of the 20th century across America and the world. He was born in Harlem and got his first acting role with Sidney Poitier and took his first acting lessons in a class with Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis. And he met Dr. Martin Luther King at a church basement through Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The great Paul Robeson introduced him to W. E. B. Du Bois. His street smarts and education of the poor and forgotten of New York City was supplied by his uncle Lenny, who ran a numbers racket, and introduced him to the elite of Harlem’s gangsters. He took Nelson Mandela to Yankee Stadium, planned an Amos and Andy movie with Robert Altman and, at 89, was a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington in January.
Harold “Harry” George Belafonte, Jr. was born on March 1, 1927 in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican parents. An actor, humanitarian, and the acknowledged “King of Calypso,” Belafonte ranked among the most seminal performers of the postwar era. One of the most successful African-American pop stars in American history, his staggering talent, good looks, and masterful assimilation of folk, jazz, and world-beat rhythms allowed him to achieve a level of mainstream eminence and crossover popularity virtually unparalleled in the days before the advent of the Civil Rights movement – a cultural uprising that he helped spearhead, lead, fashion and popularize.
A high school drop out, Belafonte spent his early life “back home in Jamaica” when he was 8 years old with his mother and grandmother, before returning to the United States and enlisting in the U.S. Navy. After his discharge, he resettled in New York City to build a career as an actor, performing with the American Negro Theatre, while studying drama at Erwin Piscator’s famed Dramatic Workshop that boasted on its roster such acting luminaries like Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando.
You could say that Belafonte was born at the right time and in the right era. Black consciousness was thrusting itself on to the American society as the Civil Rights struggle got on the way. He embraced all of his talents as actor, singer, and performer marrying them with civic activism and became a fearless and outspoken defender and voice of the oppressed in America, the Caribbean, Africa and the wider world. At the turn of the 1960s, Belafonte became television’s first black producer. His special Tonight with Harry Belafonte won an Emmy that same year.
Belafonte spent the 1970s and 1980s as a tireless humanitarian, most noticeably, he was a central figure of the “USA For Africa” effort, singing on the 1985 single “We Are the World.” A year later, he was named UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. After a long absence from the screen, Belafonte resurfaced in the mid-’90s in a number of film roles, most notably in the reverse-racism drama “White Man’s Burden” and Robert Altman’s ‘s jazz-era period piece “Kansas City.” So what’s the next step in his long and fruitful life? Belafonte admitted to the New York Times in February that he still has one last act to live out – he just didn’t know what it was. Here’s how he put it:
“It’s my last chance to say whatever I feel the need to say. And I think I’m formulating what that utterance should be. What have I not said that needs to be said more forcefully and more precisely? There are times we mute ourselves, we censor ourselves because we have this false pride, this need to be liked. Rather than worry about being liked, are you telling the truth, putting your best foot forward? I try to, but there’s something missing here, and that’s what I’m looking for: What’s missing?”