MANY READERS of biography have a strong desire to access juicy personal tidbits, whether salacious in their own right or otherwise revelatory. Hollywood autobiographies often sell or end up remaindered solely on the basis of the quantity of sexual detail they contain. But even a figure outside the tabloids, like the writer/composer Paul Bowles, can be faulted for failing to attain a certain level of exposé: William Burroughs suggested that Bowles’s Without Stopping was more appropriately titled “Without saying anything.”
For white artists, meeting the disclosure criterion is often enough to justify publishing reminiscences of a private life lived in the public eye. But the black entertainer’s autobiography is a triply burdened text. For the black artist who achieves a level of fame sufficient to draw a general — by which I mean substantially white — readership for their autobiography, there is a secondary burden: to provide a window into the obscure machinery of black entertainment. This demand is apparent as early as W.C. Handy’s 1941 Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. Where else are we able to access the world of pre-WWI African-American brass bands or blacks donning burnt cork on vaudeville stages for black audiences? Such narratives are highly prized by music scholars and fans alike as glimpses into a largely forgotten world. But — and this is a substantial “but” — there’s also an onus on the black memoirist to connect one’s life to the political climate of his or her times, even when they weren’t, in any explicit way, activists themselves. Handy himself makes occasional reference to associations with turn-of-the-century black intellectual and political figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and George Washington Carver; in his autobiography, Miles Davis recounts beatings at the hands of racist police outside of the same jazz clubs he was headlining in New York. Countless other examples exist.
Harry Belafonte’s My Song: A Memoir, written in collaboration with Michael Shnayerson and published late last year, is a peculiar offering within the genre of the black entertainer’s autobiography. Although totaling out at a doorstopper length of 450 pages, it isn’t until exactly halfway through that Belafonte gives a direct assessment of his own, very long career: “I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist.” This priority, though, is implicit at the outset. Rather than leading with an anecdote about “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” the tune for which he is perhaps best known, Belafonte chooses to recount the drama and danger of a trip with Sidney Poitier — a lifelong friend and fellow West Indian — when the two brought a bag full of cash to help fund Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee activists in Mississippi, a story replete with pursuit by Klansmen in pickup trucks and very real concerns about their accommodations being firebombed in the middle of the night.
Thus, in the realm of triply burdened black entertainers’ autobiographies, My Song makes it clear that Belafonte is, above all else, interested in the intersection between his career and the political events that occurred during his life. And, truth be told, he has good reason to make this his focus. If readers take Belafonte’s assertions and recollections at face value, he was directly or indirectly respons...read more