Today Harry Belafonte is most commonly known as a singer of “Day-O,” sometimes called “Banana Boat Song.” New York Yankee fans have heard the song reverberate throughout the stadium; new generations have encountered its memorable presence in Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice and have heard it sampled in recent releases by rap artist Lil Wayne and popular singer Jason Derulo. (Other Belafonte hits, such as “Mary’s Boy Child” and “Jump in the Line,” have shown up in mixes by hip-hop, ska, dance, and R & B artists from the United States, Jamaica, and England, such as Ginuwine, Pitbull, Prince Buster, Bounty Killer, and Shaft.) In the late 1950s, Belafonte was labeled as the “King of Calypso.” Show business headlines trumpeted his sex appeal for women fans across the color line by promising to reveal “why girls are wild about Harry.” Photographs of appearances with the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., linked Belafonte with the call for integration.
But the prevalence of these one-note characterizations has concealed a much more complex figure, a multitalented artist, questing radical intellectual, and relentless political provocateur. The “King of Calypso” was also the first black artist to head a Hollywood film production unit. Martin Luther King’s friend and associate was involved in efforts to confront Jim Crow segregation as a part of social justice campaigns at home and abroad years before and after the era of King’s leadership. In contrast with Belafonte’s appearance as a supporting actor in various accounts of popular music, civil rights, and Caribbean culture in the United States, and in Hollywood, this study features Belafonte’s leading man performance on multiple stages―in nightclubs and concert halls; on Broadway, television, and film sets; and up front at rallies and demonstrations.
The aim of Becoming Belafonte is to reintroduce this peerless cultural figure in all his dimensions, shining a spotlight on Belafonte’s emergence as a working black artist and public radical from his early musical performances in the second half of the 1940s through his rise to stardom in the 1950s and his uses of celebrity in the 1960s. I focus on how he crafted a public persona that enabled him to navigate the minefields of racial discrimination, anticommunist blacklisting, and the demands of stardom while still speaking out on issues of racial and social justice and putting his career and body in jeopardy to support major expressions of black resistance.
Two versions of Belafonte’s personal story have appeared recently: his 2011 memoir, My Song, written with Vanity Fair writer and biographer Michael Shnayerson, and a 2011 film documentary, Sing Your Song, produced by his daughter Gina Belafonte. As a form, memoirs fall between fiction and nonfiction. Both My Song and Sing Your Song offer invaluable and well-crafted narratives of Belafonte’s chosen memories of his own life, shaped primarily by his decisions about what to reveal, to confess, to memorialize, to celebrate.
The aims of a historical account of Belafonte’s “becoming” are different from the personal and individual reckoning of memoir and documentary. With the exception of Muhammad Ali, it is hard to think of another African American figure of the 1950s and 1960s who so successfully translated popular success and acclaim into such a broadly ambitious national (and international) agenda. What Becoming Belafonte offers, then, is an archeology of the years during which Belafonte began to figure out how to spend the cultural capital he accrued as a popular singer and actor in order to take on some of the most pressing social issues of his time.
Belafonte’s “becoming” was part of a larger theatrical, musical, and political story. While his memoir and documentary chronicle his acting efforts, musical career, and political activism, there is much more to say about the exhilarating social, cultural, and political world of New York arts radicals between the late 1940s and the late 1960s that provided the context in which Belafonte came of age and became a star. Born into a Harlem West Indian working-class family, a high school dropout and a WWII navy vet, Belafonte transformed racial anger and street rage into an artistic, intellectual, and political vision that could sustain him through decades of performance and activism.
Belafonte’s chosen music repertoire, of American and international folk songs, work songs, and calypsos, constituted his first form of artistic expression. His calypsos drew on diverse Afro-Caribbean and Latin American musical traditions, and his recording success accelerated an already well-established process of musical exchange in the Caribbean and between the West Indies and New York. He chose music that exposed the color line as a tool of white supremacy. His songbook revealed black history as a source of cultural wealth, and black and white working people’s determination and creativity as fueling resistance around the world.
On stage in the 1950s, Belafonte’s musical charisma and repertoire were inseparable from his stance of racial equality. His 1956 hit recordings made this commitment tangible for wider circles of fans beyond those who heard him live. One of those fans was Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s mother, who held him up, alongside Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, as a role model for her black son. A Belafonte record was the first single bought by Patti Smith, future rock-and-roll singer-songwriter and poet, growing up in a working-class family in South Jersey.
The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron described his “debut as a vocalist” singing Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell” while a second grader living with his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee. Northern California high school student and Quaker pacifist Joan Baez remembered his song “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” on the first folk album in her parents’ house. Soon after he arrived in New York in 1961, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan made his first professional recording playing harmonica for Belafonte, whose “radiating greatness” made him feel he had “become anointed in some way.” When their guards allowed music piped into their cells in the 1970s, the South African freedom fighters imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island liked hearing Belafonte sing “Sylvie”: “She brought me nearly every damned thing, but she didn’t bring the jailhouse key.”
Belafonte rose to national stardom in the years when anticommunist repression, surveillance, and blacklisting shut down the careers of much better-established mentors and peers. Becoming Belafonte decodes the forms of camouflage Belafonte had to don in order to sustain public performing momentum in the Cold War years notoriously inhospitable to radicalism. Belafonte’s protective public stance was reinforced and expanded in 1960 with the appearance of music writer Arnold Shaw’s “unauthorized” celebrity biography. Shaw had lost his own university teaching position as a result of anticommunist blacklisting, and his account assiduously erased any traces of Belafonte’s left-wing political affiliations.
The interracial radical movements that shaped Belafonte’s political sensibilities prioritized the demand for racial equality as integral to fulfilling the unmet promises of postwar democracy. They viewed the work of promoting black arts and history and rejecting racial confinement as urgent for black and white allies. By the 1960s, Belafonte’s efforts to maintain popular acclaim and political commitments took place amid dramatic shifts in musical tastes and civil rights demands. When integration came to seem incompatible with black power, Belafonte again had to tread carefully to convey his particular artistic and political vision.
Belafonte was unusual among his peers for his determination to leverage his triple-threat celebrity as popular performer, matinee idol, and top-selling recording artist into gaining artistic control within commercial television and film production. As a radical black artist, he was deeply aware of the power of popular cultural forms to deliver crucial messages about citizenship and national belonging. In the United States in the late nineteenth century, efforts to reinstitute racial boundaries via a new legal apparatus of Jim Crow segregation and the mass disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South coincided exactly with the emergence of the mass-culture industries of sound recording, film, and journalism. These developments resulted in the expanded and endless circulation of demeaning stereotyped images of black bodies, black voices, and black culture on records, in print, on-screen, and in radio broadcasting. Belafonte grew up feeling the painful power of those degrading images. At the same time, he knew firsthand the cultural riches and modernity of black experiences that never registered in public popular culture. As a star, he dedicated his efforts to demanding and promoting new forms of black representation across popular media in music, television, and film, challenging conventions and genres audiences were accustomed to expect.
The political significance of publicly circulating racial representation was very clear to Belafonte, convincing him, along with other black arts colleagues, that postwar democracy absolutely required new forms of racial representation imagining multiracial citizenship and belonging. If African Americans were to win the double victory of World War II―against fascism abroad and racism at home―then new forms of racial representation would have to be constructed in order to displace whiteness as the norm and blackness as the problem. This task seemed even more urgent after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision discredited long-standing arguments for school segregation and generated a fierce white supremacist backlash. Belafonte consistently drove himself to create and circulate alternative and multifaceted racial representations in music, television, and film that protested racialist exclusions and resisted racialist boundaries while celebrating black arts and culture as foundational, regenerative, and resistant to national boundaries.
How audiences did or did not recognize and respond to Belafonte’s efforts as a producer helps explain his mixed record of commercial success and dismal failures in the 1950s and 1960s. Concert crowds and record and ticket sales were the central measure in the culture industries, and the measure that mattered enormously to Belafonte, despite his attraction to challenging material that might not have commercial potential. By and large, white audiences determined commercial success, but the black press closely followed Belafonte’s accomplishments, public positions, and pronouncements. Analyzing the reception of Belafonte’s work, and especially the different responses of black and white critics to Belafonte’s television and film projects in the 1950s and 1960s, offers unusual access to otherwise unspoken assumptions about the character and significance of racial difference and to public debates on how best to represent racial equality.
A focus on “becoming” is by definition partial, and Belafonte’s lifetime accomplishments extend far beyond these chapters. But locating Belafonte in these decades, as a creative participant in the era’s theatrical, musical, and film innovation, as a critical voice in debates over race and representation, and as a visionary radical committed to making a better world, offers an intriguing alternative route to “discovering America.”
NewsOne Now’s Top Books Of 2015
“This is the book I’ve been waiting for: a penetrating, revelatory account of how this Harlem-born child of Jamaican immigrants became Harry Belafonte, the multiply talented singer, actor, and radical activist. Judith Smith brilliantly reveals all facets of the man, devoting as much attention to his original musical contributions and dramatic training as his political work. From her rich portrait of Harlem’s cultural milieu to the exigencies of the Black Freedom movement, Smith embeds Belafonte firmly within the world that made him, delivering a fresh and original perspective on the man, the artist, and the citizen.”
—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
“Judith Smith enhances our roadmap of the long civil rights era, charting the formation and rise of a renewed civil rights ‘public’ out of the scorched earth of the McCarthy era. Far more than a biography of Harry Belafonte as both activist and artist, Becoming Belafonte documents a web of critical collaborative relationships and the tight alignment of progressive cultural production and anti-racist activism from the Popular Front through the 1960s in theater, film, music, and, later, television. A rich, compelling, important book.”
—Matthew Frye Jacobson, Yale University
“I thought I knew Harry Belafonte pretty well, but Judith Smith’s book has given me deeper insights into him. A wonderful portrait of Belafonte and his times.”
—Robert DeCormier, musical director for Harry Belafonte, 1957–1961
"So engaging that readers will crave a sequel: Belafonte since the '70s?"
"Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical is a magnificent tour de force! Judith Smith’s bold, brilliant, and necessary account of the life and times of Harry Belafonte should be required reading for all historians and students interested in the long civil rights movement. Beautifully written and powerfully argued, Becoming Belafonte had my students questioning everything they thought they knew about the black freedom struggle."
—Crystal Feimster, Yale University
“Becoming Belafonte proved to be a touchstone text in my course on Social Movements Through Song in Modern America, not only for the rich historical contexts Smith provides for a range of musical genres, but also for the deep analysis of the American Left and of the politics of performance. This readable and revealing study is a major contribution to the history of civil rights and culture in America."
—Estelle Freedman. Stanford University