Writer: LeKeisha Edwards
On April 25, 2023, at the age of 96, Harry Belafonte, a supreme diamond of talent and beacon for civil rights passed away, and his loss stirs a cause to honor the calypso king, actor, and activist, with poignant moments of his life and history that led the Harlem-bred, son of West Indian immigrants on a journey to open doors, break barriers, and eradicate the restraints of racial lines imposed upon Black Americans during a time of segregation.
Born in 1927, Harold George Bellanfanti Jr.’s road to iconic levels began in New York, where as a child, he, his brother, and his mother, experienced grueling poverty, convincing his mother to leave her children in her native land of Jamaica to be cared for by relatives, while she returned to New York to find work.
Years later, Belafonte returned to New York at the age of seventeen in 1944, dropping out of high school and enlisting in the Navy during World War II. Upon returning home, he hoped that the discrimination that plagued Black Americans prior to his departure would be reduced to nothing as a result of the War’s impact. However, disappointment reigned when he realized that Black people were still being subjected to mistreatment and in his words, “‘[…] relegated to second class experiences.’”
While a janitor for a Harlem apartment building, a tenant tipped Belafonte with a ticket to the theater, a venue he had never experienced before. He was instantly drawn and began taking acting classes. He trained with Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and other acting greats, who at the time were unknown, yet had similar acting aspirations.
Singing jazz standards to pay for acting classes, Belafonte could not escape the memories of traditional folk songs of his native West Indian home. In due course, he earned a recording contract and in 1956 released the album, Calypso, filled with Caribbean songs and rousing an enormous interest in Caribbean music in the United States. The album topped the Billboard album chart soon after its release, delivering the world renowned single, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Belafonte made history with Calypso as it was the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies.
Belafonte began performing traditional folk songs at concerts worldwide, holding audiences in awe with his charm, good-looks, and amazing voice. By 1959, the New York Times writes that Belafonte was the most highly paid Black performer in history, garnering hefty contracts for appearances in Las Vegas, the “Greek Theater” in Los Angeles, and the “Palace” in New York.
His success as a singer forged a path to acting in movies, and Belafonte soon began receiving offers, ultimately becoming as the Times highlights, “the first Black actor to attain major success in Hollywood as a leading man.” The 1955 classic film, Carmen Jones, that featured an all-Black cast, starring Belafonte and the beautifully talented, Dorothy Dandridge, received Oscar Nominations for Best Actress (Dandridge) and Best Music Original Dramatic Score.
Despite tremendous success in the performing arts, it was Belafonte’s friendship with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that led Belafonte deeper into the pursuit for racial equality. Belafonte supported the efforts of Dr. King by not only providing much of the seed money needed to start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but was one of the key fundraisers for the organization and for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Belafonte’s efforts in civil rights do not stop there. The New York Times details how he provided the money to bail Dr. King and other activists out of jail, helped organize and took part in the March on Washington in 1963, and quietly maintained an insurance policy on Dr. King’s life, with the King family as the beneficiary, donating his own money after Dr. King’s 1968 assassination to ensure the family was taken care of. Belafonte’s legacy will continue to shine as we remember his activism and hear his enduring voice in folk songs.