Conjuring the Artist/Activist Line

By John ClineJuly 1, 2012

Conjuring the Artist/Activist Line

My Song: A Memoir by Michael Shnayerson and Harry Belafonte

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 responsible for funding a great deal of the Civil Rights movement, initially through his personal friendship with Martin Luther King, but also by banding together with the younger activists in SNCC, and later campaigns to alleviate famine in Ethiopia and end apartheid in South Africa. Belafonte doesn’t reproduce his financials in the pages of My Song, but it seems likely that he gave away a substantial portion, if not the majority, of his lifetime earnings as an entertainer to various political causes — and this despite following his mentor Paul Robeson’s advice to lay aside enough money to care for his family and an admitted problem with gambling when he was a top-billed Las Vegas performer. Such activities were not the same kind of late-in-life penance so often undertaken by the extraordinarily wealthy, i.e., “robber baron philanthropy.” Belafonte might have been making $200,000 a week at Caesar’s Palace in the early sixties, but the very next week he’d use most of that money setting up a bail fund for SNCC in Mississippi. If occasionally he seems to take a bit too much credit for enabling the events of the Civil Rights era, he can perhaps be forgiven for wanting to remind a public of his seminal role as a historical actor, lest the dubious fame achieved from an old novelty song overshadow this fact. Besides, who can fault a little reputation burnishing by an octogenarian who “walked the walk” with his wallet and his time for decades, having no parallel among celebrity activists of this or any other decade?

In that sense, My Song is the capstone to an image rehabilitation project that began with the release of The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music in 2001 — a collaborative endeavor Belafonte began in 1961 — and the 2011 debut of Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song, a documentary tracing his long career as an activist-artist. Still, for all the respect that Harry Belafonte unquestionably deserves as a political activist, the memoir leaves many questions unanswered, and doesn’t reconcile a fundamental contradiction between the “activist” and “artist” variables in his self-formulation.

Belafonte isn’t exactly averse to unflattering personal revelations, having spent by his own admission half a century in classic, Freudian analysis.  His problems with gambling and to a lesser extent drinking are addressed in My Song, as are his conflicts with his parents, and his failings as a husband and father. But if he periodically hints at adultery, his sense of decorum keeps the book from devolving into a tell-all. Belafonte’s relationship to his parents, both Jamaican immigrants, is explored through the way poverty affects human behavior, which reads like a modified psychoanalytic interpretation of his abusive childhood. But the early chapters on life in Depression-era Harlem avoid another topic that would seem to be of interest to readers: although born in the U.S., Belafonte spent substantial portions of his childhood in Jamaica, either with his (white and Scottish) grandmother, or in boarding schools. How this may or may not have contributed to a self-conscious adult identification as West Indian is barely touched upon, except as a way of explaining his initial connection to Sidney Poitier, or certain stereotypical cultural traits that emerge in Belafonte’s personality.  For example, he attributes his political militancy to his mother’s Jamaican-ness, and she herself was a youthful Garveyite. However, if you come to My Song looking for a depiction of West Indian life in black Harlem akin to Windrush-generation books in England (like Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners or George Lamming’s The Emigrants and The Pleasures of Exile), you won’t find it. Since West Indians from the Anglophone islands made up a near majority of Harlem’s population in the years before WWII, this fact is curious, even if it is in keeping with the tendency of West Indian writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Jean Toomer, Claude McKay) to limit reference to their Caribbean heritage. Perhaps, unlike the first generation of West Indians in London, the mere fact of blackness was less traumatic to Belafonte’s adolescence inside an established African-American community in New York; whether they were from Birmingham or St. Ann Parish, they were all escaping from somewhere, together.

Nevertheless, Belafonte’s avoidance of any serious discussion of his Jamaican heritage is sharply contrasted by Sidney Poitier’s 2007 The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, where his Bahamian background is central to his self-development. This is significant not only because, as fellow acting students in the 1940s, this was their first point of commonality, but because, unlike Poitier, Belafonte’s success both as a singer and an actor was often dependent on the place of the Caribbean in the postwar U.S. imaginary, whether through the success of “Day-O” and the rest of 1956’s Calypso album — the first LP to sell a million copies — or his role in 1957’s Island in the Sun. Furthermore, it’s hard to believe that Belafonte could have been entirely ignorant of Caribbean song prior to his singing career’s takeoff in the 1950s, whether through the work songs and mentos of his Jamaican childhood (the same vernacular styles from whence “Day-O” emerged), or the Trinidadian calypso singers Wilmoth Houdini, the Duke of Iron, and Sir Lancelot, each popular entertainers in the Harlem of Belafonte’s youth. He makes it clear, however, that although his singing career began as a lark when acting gigs weren’t forthcoming, his true artistic inspiration was another black activist-artist, Paul Robeson. Like the older performer, Belafonte attempted to harness the power of “folk” tunes to further leftwing causes, and in this light the Caribbean-themed material forms a rather small part of Belafonte’s total oeuvre. But unlike Robeson, Belafonte managed to evade many of the political repercussions for his beliefs about race and class in the age of Joseph McCarthy.

It’s this evasion that points to a fundamental contradiction in Belafonte’s role as both an activist and an artist. Belafonte’s memoir, unlike Handy’s, cannot illuminate the history of black entertainment, because Belafonte was never really a performer for blacks. To be sure, his first appearance as a singer was at the Royal Roost, backed by Max Roach and Charlie Parker, a kind gesture on their part toward a scared kid. And for the rest of his life, he appears to have tried to pay back that debt, aiding the careers of singers like Miriam Makeba and Nana Mouskouri by introducing them to his sizeable audience. But Belafonte never worked the chitlin’ circuit; his showbiz memories drift to places like the Copacabana in New York, the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, and the stages of Broadway and Las Vegas. At the same time, because his repertoire was multi-ethnic and multi-national, it’s a bit harder to slot him into the same “easy listening” category as his contemporaries in the Rat Pack, even if he played the same venues and, unlike such folk-pop peers as the Weavers, displayed a similar degree of stage polish and orchestral sophistication. Being a mainstream entertainer in all likelihood protected Belafonte from the political repercussions of his activism in a way that was impossible for Robeson — even if the FBI kept a substantial file on the younger entertainer.

Still, at every possible point in My Song, Belafonte draws attention to the way in which his friendships with left-ish celebrities were exploited — usually with the other party’s full cooperation — in order to draw attention to a political cause. He revels in his ability to solicit contributions and public appearances from Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, friends since his days as an acting student, and, later, rounding up younger stars like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie for the Live Aid and USA for Africa campaigns, the latter the source for the “We Are the World” single. Belafonte’s attitude toward celebrity is, at its best, a means to an end: in Belafonte’s view, the presence of celebrities on the bridge between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 helped “swell and inspire the crowd, and turn the nation from violence.” But for all his socialist leanings, there really is no way for Belafonte the activist to completely reconcile the dependency of his political accomplishments on a very capitalist entertainment industry (where else did that money come from?), no matter how much he might have fought to break down racial barriers in his Hollywood roles and from the stages on which he performed. This contradiction is reinforced by My Song’s dearth of music-specific commentary. In all its 450 pages, there are perhaps no more than a dozen devoted to Belafonte’s attitude toward his own repertoire or singing, including the scant few regarding Calypso and “Day-O,” even if he does contend that he was always a precise, demanding performer: “And woe to the musician who missed his cue, or the agent who fouled up a booking — this man had a temper. After all, I had a lot to lose!”

In the end, My Song is a memoir shaped by the demands and choices established throughout the history of the genre of the black entertainer’s autobiography. Belafonte’s personal recollections are sometimes quite painful, especially those dealing with his family. At other points, they’re touching, like his story about Martin Luther King’s personal bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, kept at Belafonte’s apartment, carefully marked each time the great man indulged in his single glass. But always, a sense of decorum is overriding. And if Belafonte’s career doesn’t lend itself to revelations about the hidden history of black entertainment, his depictions of his mainstream celebrity friendships offer an important study in the possibilities (and limitations) of combining artistry, fame, and activism. My Song, more than anything else, demonstrates an unparalleled example of an ethical life in an ever-complex — and compromised — moral and political world. For that, we should be thankful.


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LARB Contributor

John Cline is a recent doctorate from the University of Texas in American Studies.  His work has appeared in The Oxford American, Film & History, and The Grove Dictionary of American Music, among others.  He owns an embarrassingly large collection of calypso records.


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