Tue | Jun 6, 2023

Gordon Robinson | Harry Belafonte – global hero

Published:Sunday | May 7, 2023 | 12:53 AM
Harry Belafonte speaks during a memorial tribute concert for folk icon and civil rights activist Pete Seeger in New York in July 2014.
Harry Belafonte speaks during a memorial tribute concert for folk icon and civil rights activist Pete Seeger in New York in July 2014.

For more than 96 years a giant journeyed with us through this existence we call life.

He was born on March 1, 1927 in Harlem, New York, thus, according to the ancient Hindu science of Numerology, because he was born on a Number One Day, expected to rise to the top of his chosen profession. He fulfilled that Numerological destiny in the most difficult of professions namely that of Humanitarian. He was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jnr. But we knew him as Harry Belafonte.

By accident of birth, Harry was a USA national. But Harry belonged to no country. He belonged to every human striving for betterment. Harry’s father was likely born in Martinique (some sources say Jamaica). His mother, Melvene Love, was definitely Jamaican. Harry’s father was a “seaman” (and “wonderful cook” according to Harry). Harry recalled his father, mostly absent, would say he was “at sea” but, more often than not, his father’s “sea”, although it was anything but dry, was navigated without the aid of any ship.

Harry’s parents came to USA illegally. They spent Harry’s early life skilfully avoiding federal agents seeking to arrest and deport illegal immigrants. Harry said (Chicago, 2000): “We changed our names so constantly that after a while I didn’t really know who I was.”

But, first, Harry’s mother wanted her children to escape squalid circumstances and an unforgiving land so sent them to their maternal Grandmother in Jamaica where Harry spent 12 of his most formative years.

Down the way

where the nights are gay

and the sun shines daily on the mountaintop,

I took a trip on a sailing ship

and when I reached Jamaica I made a stop.

This is where Harry learned values and attitudes that would shape his life. He saw his grandmother caring not only for her grandchildren but always reaching out to the community. Harry called her “a pillar of strength” who guided him through his most “mischievous” years.

So, make no mistake. Harry Belafonte was American by birth but very much Jamaican by nature and nurture. He NEVER forgot his Jamaican roots.

When World War II started his mother feared for his safety in a British Colony so sent for him.

But I’m sad to say I’m on my way.

Won’t be back for many a day.

My heart is down.

My head is turning around.

I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town

Melvene wasn’t happy about the “mischievous” pre-teen that returned. She felt it would help with Harry’s discipline and Harry wanted to advance his country’s foreign policy so, in 1944, he volunteered for the Navy. That crucial time helped to shape what Harry would become. The armed services were segregated. He found himself in a “black camp” with talented, bright and ambitious men (including musicians).

Their deeply philosophical discussions and commitment to the fight against fascism inspired him. Harry tells a very funny story ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw3y2ay7bSU) of his introduction to the thoughts of civil rights legend W.E.B. DuBois that is must watch material. Back as a civilian, Harry started as a Janitor’s Assistant. As life usually happens (unplanned), he received a “tip” from a resident of two tickets to the Negro Theatre. The tiny establishment’s atmosphere overwhelmed him and the players (Harry called them “people with purpose”) further inspired him to pursue a career in theatre.

Early in his fledgling career an audience member named Paul Robeson came backstage to meet him. Robeson convinced Harry that “The purpose of art is not only to show life as it is but as it should be.”

That sent him on his life’s mission to reduce world inequity and injustice. This he pursued, with the help of great friends, with a dignity and commitment that made his legendary artistic achievements pale by comparison. Like Robeson, he was targeted, maligned and blacklisted for his humanitarian activism. His career, especially in film, was sporadic at best and nowhere as commercially successful as it would’ve been had he lived in a just society.

Still his artistic achievements were remarkable:

• first recording artiste to sell 1,000,000 records in a year (breakout album Calypso; 1959);

• first Jamaican American to win an Emmy (1959);

• he recalled his Jamaican childhood with a big hit Mama look a Bubu (Boo-boo) dere about a mischievous child;

• he introduced Anti-Apartheid activist and exile Miriam Makeba to American audiences. They recorded the seminal duet One more Dance.

In film, like his great Caribbean American friend, Sidney Poitier, he insisted on advancing the black man’s image. His influential early work with another legend, Dorothy Dandridge, included his debut in Bright Road (1953) and the critically acclaimed Carmen Jones (1954) directed by the great Otto Preminger. In 1957 he shocked white America in Island in the Sun, where his character had an affair with Joan Fontaine. Harry refused many roles due to racial stereotyping but starred in two uplifting movies about black culture with Sidney Poitier titled Buck and the Preacher (1972; Harry was brilliant) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974).

But his life, including his art, was all about exposing and attacking injustice. He threw himself into the mission for equality through treasured friendships. He was friends with Martin Luther King so gave heart and soul to the civil rights movement. Martin was a stickler for financial integrity so refused to take a dollar from the movement. Quietly and without fanfare, Harry paid for Martin’s children’s education.

He was friends with Nelson Mandela at a time when it was dangerously unfashionable. He helped an imprisoned Mandela in the anti-apartheid struggle for which he was unceremoniously blacklisted and vilified at home including during the McCarthy era. He was warm friends with Michael Manley who admired Harry’s civil rights work. That friendship was also unpopular with USA Governments.

So I cringed when I heard Mark Golding, a teenager when Harry and Michael became friends, claiming Harry as “a friend of the PNP” in Parliament. Harry Belafonte was a humanitarian NOT a politician or tribalist. His relationships were driven by personal friendship and philosophical kinship NOT politics. Michael’s ex-wife Bev kindly contributed this note:

“Michael had few friends who combined the intellectual, the political activist and the personal. They had the same ideological worldview. In Michael’s joyful and sad moments, he could always call on Harry who was a plane ride away. They were Buddies and it was a delight to be in their company and listen to their analysis of various issues as they connected the dots. Above all he was a friend and Jamaican to his core.

They truly delighted in each other.”

As much as his political philosophy was closer to USA’s Democratic Party than the Republican Party, Harry often criticised the Democrats scathingly.

On September 22, 2005, at a Congressional Black Caucus Town Hall Meeting on Poverty (sitting beside Senator Barack Obama), Harry delivered one of his greatest performances. He began: “I guess part of the reason I’m here is to really look through the ravages of the Democratic Party and see if anything is really worth salvaging!”

He called himself one of MLK’s firemen tasked to turn a hose on the burning house that was USA:

“This country reveals its moral decay every day of its existence. Our prisons, the largest prison system in the world, are filled with the VICTIMS of poverty. Women are disenfranchised. Young teenage mothers are victims of poverty. Poverty has been knocking at our door all day long. It sits in the mirror for us to look in. Every. Morning! When we look at what’s going on in the schools in this country, we build more prisons than we build schools. We have more young black men and women in prisons in America than in Universities. Poverty is in our face all day long.

“Why is everybody behaving all of a sudden like this is some great revelation?

“There are a lot of people here who are really angry; we’re upset; we’re sad. We’re holding our children; we’re wheeling our wheelchairs; we look around for some comfort; and we don’t find any!

“Well we have to look to ourselves. Because I think the last frontier of truth and hope in this country are the people themselves!”

Can I get an Amen?

Especially today, as Government tries to trick us into swallowing diktat as consensus in a sham constitutional reform process, We the People can take inspiration from a man driven by a consuming passion to uplift his fellow humans; beholden to no political party; a Global Hero who sacrificed personal advancement for improvement of the human experience.

Harry George Belafonte, born March 1, 1927; died April 25, 2023; made a difference. R.I.P!

Peace and Love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com