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Why Harry Belafonte Broke Through the Race Barrier When Others Could Not
Four incidents and a concert that reveal a man who wasn’t a great singer or actor but became a demigod during segregation and beyond.
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Harry Belafonte’s 1959 Concert at Carnegie Hall was one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever experienced — and I wasn’t even there.
Not in the flesh. But I do own a vinyl recording of the live performance that took place in April of that year. After learning that the iconic singer, actor, and activist had died at the age of 96, I pulled out the two-disc LP and listened to all four sides.
In one sense, everything you need to know about Belafonte can be found in that concert. His magnetism and charisma seemed to transcend space and time.
He may not have had a great singing voice, though he could certainly carry a tune well enough. But that raspy voice was more than adequate to express the generosity, passion, and joie de vivre it was called upon to deliver.
Belafonte had been recording for ten years by the time he gave that concert. At 32, he had become the highest paidBlack performer in history. Three years earlier, his Calypso LP became the first album by a single artist to sell a million copies.
A cultural force
It may be impossible for anyone born after the Civil Rights Movement to grasp Harry Belafonte’s enormous impact and that of his lifelong friend Sidney Poitier.
But that impact was powerful enough to influence me when I was a kid on the lookout for role models. As columnist Charles Blow wrote when Poitier died last year, “There are no contemporary corollaries.”
Belafonte was a close friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., bailing him and other movement leaders out of jail, and remaining a civil rights activist all his life.* (See his comments during a 1967 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at the end of this essay.)
Cutting through the racial divide
The term color barrier sounds archaic today when interracial couples regularly appear in TV commercials. But in 1959, the legally enforced wall separating Blacks from whites was still as strong as concrete.
Let’s think about 1959 for a moment. That was the year Castro took over the government of Cuba. It was the first year you could board a plane in New York and fly all across the country to Los Angeles. In 1959 Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, the Big Bopper, died in a plane crash. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet. Gunsmoke was the highest rated show on TV. And Xerox introduced a new-fangled photo copy machine that would change our lives.
All of that was happening but the Jim Crow color line was still a fixture of American life. It was beginning to crack but had not yet crumbled. Jackie Robinson had broken through baseball’s color line in 1947. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision broke down part of it for education.
And the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56 took down another big chunk of the color barrier when the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that any law requiring racially segregated seating on buses violated the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
But segregation was still widespread, and it was rare to see a Black face on TV or in the movies. As the New York Times wrote in its obituary, “Mr. Belafonte’s ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic. He was not the first Black entertainer to transcend racial boundaries; Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others had achieved stardom before him. But none had made as much of a splash as he did, and for a few years no one in music, Black or white, was bigger.”
A magical recording
As I listened to his 1959 Carnegie Hall concert, it was easy to see why. I was captivated and enthralled. He had me in the proverbial palm of his hand, and I couldn’t even see him.
But I could hear the enthusiastic applause from the audience as he sang his signature hit “Day-O” (The Banana Boat Song). I could hear their laugher as he introduced “Jamaica Farewell” with an anecdote about the island’s foul-mouthed sailors. And how could I fail to notice the crowd’s jubilant participation in the 12-minute “Matilda,” a song about a jilted lover, the piece he closed the show with.
All that energy sprang right out at me from that 64-year-old recording, pulling me happily and willingly along.
That album became the starting point for a commemorative journey through archives documenting Belafonte’s life. Here are a few things I found, which you may not know about.
1. When a white woman touched him on TV
In 1968, Belafonte’s appearance as a special guest on Petula Clark’s Chrysler-sponsored TV special caused a national commotion. Why? Because British-born Clark took hold of his arm as they sang “On the Path of Glory,” an anti-war song Clark had co-written.
She didn’t kiss him. There was no hint of flirtation. But the advertising manager for Chrysler’s Plymouth division, Doyle Lott, did not want that shown on the air.
Doyle protested vehemently, turning a “stylish, sophisticated musical hour into an interracial cause celebre” when word of the incident reached the press. In the end, Chrysler and the network backed up the show’s producer, and Doyle later lost his job.
But the incident reveals that the white man’s oppression of the Black man has always been rooted in his fear of Black sexuality. Even though it was Clark who touched Belafonte, the mere fact that she chose to do so, however innocently, triggered fear in the diseased mind of a white racist, exposing the dark underbelly of systemic racism.
2. Belafonte wanted to bring back ‘Amos ’n’ Andy’
In the early 1950s, Amos ’n’ Andy was a popular TV show about African Americans, featuring the exploits of a schemer called Kingfish and his hapless dupe Andy. However, the program was taken off the air after Civil Rights groups complained that it promoted and reinforced negative racial stereotypes.
But many years later, filmmaker Robert Altman managed to interest Belafonte in his idea to make an Amos ’n’ Andy movie that focused on the original Black creators of the characters.
Altman and Belafonte wanted their movie to show how the two Black performers were forced to don blackface — making fun of themselves and their race — in order to survive, only to have the show stolen from them by whites who eventually took it over and made a fortune. Unfortunately, the idea was shelved and Altman died before it could be brought to fruition.
3. He and Poitier took turns using the same ticket to see a play
When the two fledgling actors and best friends were still in their 20s, trying to learn their craft, they could not both afford theater tickets. So they bought one and shared it.
“You kept the stub,” Belafonte told NPR in 2011. “You walked in and one of us saw the first half. We’d give each other an update about what we just saw, and the lucky one got to see the second half. It was called ‘sharing the burden and the joy.’”
4. What Odetta said
My favorite story comes from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a collection of stories of African American ascent, which were first published in The New Yorker.
Gates wanted to know what there was about Belafonte — who was neither a great singer nor an especially impressive actor — that turned him into an icon, a demigod. Why did he transcend the color line when other Blacks could not?
Johnny Carson said it was because Belafonte was a nice non-threatening person, who made people feel comfortable. Critic Stanley Crouch said it was because Belafonte wasn’t black Black. That you could never underestimate the role of skin color in this country.
But it was the great folk singer Odetta who gave the best answer when Gates put the question to her: “Speaking as if to a slow child, she said, ‘Did you get a look at the man?’”
Of course, the beauty that shows on the outside is no gauge of what anyone is like on the inside. But after reading about his life and listening to his 1959 concert at Carnegie Hall, I got the feeling this man — who balanced a life of activism with that of pop icon — possessed a beauty that was much more than skin deep.
©2023 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill
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