Sunday April 30, 2023
Harry Belafonte (1927-2023)
I believe I first heard about Harry Belatonte from Archie Bunker on an episode of “All in the Family.” I remember the line, I just don't remember what prompted it:
“Harvey Belafonte ain't black. He's just a good lookin' white guy dipped in caramel!”
My mother or father (or both) may have laughed at the line, which I didn't get at all. Who is Harry Belafonte? Why is he not black? Oh, he is black? So why did Archie say it? Why is that funny?
I grew up in the '70s, not Belafonte's heyday, and I didn't see either “Buck and the Preacher” or “Uptown Saturday Night,” so where did I next come across him? Somewhere in the '80s. Through...
- His daughter Shari?
- “Beetlejuice,” featuring “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and (my personal favorite) “Jump in the Line”?
- “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch?
That's part of the irony of Archie's line: that good-looking white guy dipped in caramel was all over the Civil Rights Movement. He was a front-line man. He was a race man. In the index to Branch's book, under “Belafonte, Harry,” these are some of the subcategories:
- Albany Movement and
- Atlanta concerts of
- Birmingham campaign and
- Freedom Rides and
- King's imprisonments and
- King's meetings with
- March on Washington and
- 1960 elections and
- R. Kennedy's meeting with
- SNCC and
- voter registration and
Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s great 1996 New Yorker profile of Belafonte begins with that week in Feb. 1968 when Belafonte hosted “The Tonight Show” for the vacationing Johnny Carson. At the time, Gates was a young college student, radicalized, and Belfaonte didn't disappoint. He brought the truth. He talked bluntly about race and power. He welcomed guests such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. It seem an era of possibilities. And within four months both men were dead of assassin's bullets. One wonders how '68 didn't break him. How do you deal with all that? How do you go on?
From Gates' profile, I learned that in the late 1940s Belafonte was friends and rivals with Sidney Poitier at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, and the two men were befriended by the already legendary Paul Robeson, and all three would meet a bar on Fifth Avenue off of 125th Street and drink and talk. How is there not a play about that? “One Night in Miami” but in Harlem in the late 1940s. “He was very fond of Harry,” Poitier said of Robeson. “And Harry loved him.”
While Poitier was starring in Hollywood movies by 1950, Belafonte wound up with another path to stardom. Here he is on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956. It's a year after Emmett Till. He's shirtless but for a vest, and gorgeous, and romantic, and one can only imagine how this fucked up the racists of the world—not to mention their wives.
He had six gold albums between 1956 and 1961. He had #1 singles in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium. He had TV specials and sang with Odetta. And he organized.
I didn't know until recently that the whole “DAAAYYYY-O” thing was about laborers; and I didn't figure out until writing this that “Mr. Tally Man” was just the guy who tallied the bananas that the laborers brought in. I thought it was a spectre of some kind. But it's just another way of saying “accountant.”
Everyone always talks about lowering the ladder for those coming after you. Belafonte manned the ladder. He built more ladders. He wondered why others weren't manning and building more ladders. He spent a lifetime doing this.