He lived a long and influential life that made an impact for 96 impressive years and involved him in a high profile career as a singer, actor and civil rights campaigner. The world has been enhanced by his presence.
I first encountered him at the cinema 50 years ago when I went one evening to watch him act and sing in a top quality movie called ISLAND IN THE SUN which was based in the Caribbean. This was when I first heard him sing the Banana Boat Song and caused me to take a huge liking to his Calypso music. It has stayed in my memory all those years. I remember it fondly whenever I painfully listen to ear deafening modern music which is absolutely appalling and without any soul or tone. Even worse is its capacity to make it impossible to have a conversation with anyone.
Belafonte went on to become a household name on screen and stage.
As the years advanced and, as he had always displayed in the passion of his singing and acting, he readily moved into the world of the civil rights movement as he had a profound sense of justice. He was living from experience, having as a black man suffered racial discrimination in hotels, restaurants, transport and public places, often denied admission because he was not white.
Regularly, he marched for justice with Martin Luther King and was often hit with police batons and arrested for disturbing the peace.
He went to South Africa to campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela causing the apartheid government much embarrassment as anti Mandela whites turned up in their thousands to hear him sing. Those people then hastily told all around them that they really were unhappy with his support of Mandela, but simply couldn’t miss his concert.
Poverty was on his agenda too, no matter whether the poor were black or white, and as the years advanced he became more politically radical and generated a huge number of outspoken critics.
But that was Harry Belafonte. He could never betray his conscience.
Some years back, I read a significant biography of his journey. It spelled out his life in fascinating detail. He lived his justice commitment in public and his songs always gripped people as an expression of personal compassion.
One racist incident I remember vividly.
When ‘Island in the Sun’ was first released, many bigots descended on cinemas in several Southern States of America and set fire to them in protest. The lead female actor in the film was Joan Fontaine who was white and she and Harry acted a couple who developed an intimate relationship. White bigots were affronted by this, claiming it would encourage black white marriages that would destroy American society. This was one of the fundamental reasons why he joined forces with Martin Luther King.
Belafonte was a MAN. He was not a BLACK MAN.
In writing this article, I recall two other African Americans whose lives were lived on a similar path to him.
One in recent times was Sidney Poitier who died last year. I immensely enjoyed his films TO SIR WITH LOVE and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.
Another was a century ago. Paul Robeson, one of the greatest singers of all time. He was declared to be a communist because he fought for his right to live in equality with whites. His singing of OLD MAN RIVER was just magic. A wonderful way to die would be to quietly go to sleep listening to him singing and telling me that old man river will just keep rolling along.
In my book, A BEAUTIFUL SUNSET, the prime character of the story, who has a terminal illness, listens to Paul Robeson as he departs by Voluntary Assisted Dying.
But let us all also remember a great Australian, David Gulpilil. Like Belafonte, Poitier and Robeson, he too suffered unwarranted humiliation as an indigenous person, but highlighted his proud heritage in several wonderful films which greatly helped me to understand the racial issues Australia must overcome on its path to reconciliation. I will always remember his roles in THE RABBIT PROOF FENCE and THE TRACKER.
So, let me come back to Harry Belafonte. He showed us that famous actors and singers can use their fame to achieve great things for society. May there be many more like him.
The final words come from his great friend Martin Luther King,
‘I dream of the day when my children will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the quality of their souls’.
Everald (a calypso fan)