by Harry Belafonte; Knopf, 2011; 443 pages; $30.50
I was introduced to Harry Belafonte the same way I imagine most people my age were: a dance number to “The Banana Boat Song” in Tim Burton’s 1988 movie “Beetlejuice.”
Since then, I’ve always enjoyed Belafonte’s music — I even have “Calypso,” one of Belafonte’s best-selling albums, on vinyl.
Belafonte’s memoir, “My Song,” reveals a troubled life for the musician, who is widely known for his calypso music, influenced by his Jamaican heritage. He was born into poverty in New York City 85 years ago; his mother, Millie, made a living cleaning and cooking, and his father, Harold, was an on-board cook for United Fruit Company boats — banana boats — that traveled between New York and the Caribbean and South America. When Harold was home, he got drunk and beat Millie, often until she bled.
Belafonte was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in Jamaica when he was 18 months old. It was in that time that Belafonte blinded himself in one eye with a pair of sewing scissors. His mother brought him back, but from then on, Belafonte lived between Jamaica and New York until he was 13. After high school, Belafonte joined the Navy and served during World War II. He left the Navy in 1945, and began work as a janitor. He attended a play at the American Negro Theatre one night — the tickets were given to him as a tip for hanging someone’s blinds — and after that, he began volunteering with the company. It was there he met Sidney Poitier, another wannabe actor who dreamed of becoming a star. Belafonte, determined to become a successful actor — which he eventually would — enrolled at the Dramatic Workshop, where he studied acting with fellow students Walter Mathau, Bea Arthur, Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, among others.
By 1948, Belafonte’s acting prospects were looking bleak, so he threw himself into political organizing, from fighting for equality for blacks to union hall rallies. He began singing in a nightclub to pay for his acting classes, and signed a contract with RCA Victor in 1956. Belfonte’s success continued to grow, and by the 1960s, he was a well-established singer and actor on both television and the big screen. He met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 and they quickly became close friends. Belafonte, who was making quite a bit of money by this time, financially supported King’s family and donated tens of thousands of dollars to civil rights organizations. Anniston even gets a mention in the book — Belafonte was one of the underwriters for the Freedom Riders. He bailed King out of jail in Birmingham, as well as many other jailed activists.
Although he had a successful career, Belafonte’s personal life was in a bit of trouble. By 1960, Belafonte had been married, divorced and remarried. Because of his political activism, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was on the road for most of his (and his children’s) lives, either performing or helping people in need. In 2008, he would marry a third time.
Although his music career began to diminish by the mid-1960s, Belafonte continued to be an activist, from helping organize “We Are the World” in 1985 to his outspoken criticism of the Bush Administration in the 2000s.
Well-written and fascinating, “My Song” gives an honest view into Belafonte’s life. It’s a song worth listening to.