Mainstream media obituaries of Harry Belafonte emphasize his breakthrough successes as a singer, actor, and producer of records, films, and television, but tend to limit their praise to his iconic public figure stature as an advocate of civil rights. In fact, Belafonte was an unreconstructed radical and socialist throughout his long life and career.
Born in Harlem of West Indian immigrant parents in 1927, he lived in Jamaica with his grandmother from 1936-39 as his parents tried to keep him out of trouble in New York. But his youthful experiences there only deepened his commitment to and desire for social transformation and an end to racism and colonialism. As Vanity Fair wrote: “What motivated him all those years—both in the forging of his art and in his use of it as a weapon for justice—was anger. As he wrote in My Song, he never forgot the anger he’d felt as a boy growing up poor and feeling out of place in both New York and Jamaica. “Yet why this little boy, among all others, should use his anger to push himself up, make a name for himself, and then make it his mission to smash racial barriers and injustice with such grim determination, I’m not sure I can say,” Belafonte wrote [about himself in his memoir]. “Perhaps, in the end, where your anger comes from is less important than what you do with it.”
Belafonte actually began performing as a jazz singer, fronting for Charlie Parker and Max Roach, then as a folk singer and in Broadway musicals. He met Sidney Poitier at the American Negro Theater company, beginning a life-long friendship, association and political comradeship. His break-out hit with Day-O, the Banana Boat Song that launched the calypso craze, obscured some of that earlier work, including his performances as an opening act for the blacklisted and red-baited Paul Robeson. Belafonte also gave Bob Dylan his first recording gig, playing harmonica on Belafonte’s Midnight Special album in 1962. Belafonte also boosted the US careers of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
Belafonte risked his life and his career supporting the Freedom Riders and driving cash for civil rights activists down to Mississippi immediately after the disappearance (and killings) of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Belafonte subsidized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., introduced him to JFK, and later pressed Robert Kennedy towards more resolute action for Black, poor and working people.
Belafonte had no illusions about “Black faces in high places.” He denounced Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell as being similar to house slaves during the George W. Bush administration, while condemning the Iraq War, and was equally unsparing in his challenge to Barack Obama in the White House. He continued to support radical anti-apartheid and Black liberation forces in South Africa after the formal end of minority white rule, and was a staunch friend and defender of revolutionary Cuba and Venezuela. He also called for the release of Leonard Peltier and other political prisoners.
His artistic, cultural and production contributions must also be acknowledged. He launched the first Black film production company of the modern era. In 2015, he became one of a handful of entertainers to complete the rare EGOT grand slam when he added to his Emmy, Grammy, and Tony wins an honorary Oscar. the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He marked the occasion with a speech noting the highs and lows of Hollywood’s depiction of people of color in the century since the racist first feature film, The Birth of a Nation, helped revive the KKK. Until his death, he maintained an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, posting pictures and videos and linking to activism sites.
On Facebook, Gina Belafonte posted the following message: “Gina and the Belafonte family would like to acknowledge the outpouring of support that we’ve received over the last few days. We appreciate your words of encouragement and love as we navigate these difficult times. Over the coming days we will have more to share, but for now please support Sankofa.org as we work to continue the vision and legacy of our founder and father. If you are interested in making a charitable financial contribution, please go to our website.
“With love and light, Team Sankofa – The Belafonte Legacy Foundation”