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Harry Belafonte… Exit of the activist-musician

‘…you were the standard bearer for what it meant to be an artist/activist. For those who had no voice & those who seemingly had no hope, you made the world a better place, Harry, & there can be no higher calling than that’

THE poet, civil rights activist, and giant music maker, HARRY BELAFONTE transited to greater glory on Monday, April 24, signalling the end of an era. He was 96 when he died of congenital heart failure at his home in Manhattan, according to his spokesman, Ken Sunshine.

His wife, Pamela was said to have been bu his side when he gave up a life that had been full of colours on stages around the world, and dark shades, especially during his black civil rights activism.

Tributes have since being pouring out for the man would be remembered for his masterpieces including Island In The Sun, Mary’s Boy Child and the UK number one Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) — from many quarters. One of the most moving is that by his comrade, Quincy Jones, the ace music maker and producer, which he shared on his facebook page, and reads:

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“Rest in power to my dear brother-in-arms, Harry Belafonte. From our time coming up, struggling to make it in NY in the 50’s with our brother Sidney Poitier, to our work on “We Are The World” & everything in between, you were the standard bearer for what it meant to be an artist/activist. For those who had no voice & those who seemingly had no hope, you made the world a better place, Harry, & there can be no higher calling than that. God bless you & please give our other brothers a long-awaited hug from me as well”

Queen of the talkshow, Oprah Winfrey was among the first to pay tribute, remembering Belafonte as “a trailblazer and a hero to us all”.

Oprah wrote: “Thank you for your music, your artistry, your activism, your fight for civil rights and justice,” she continued. “Your being here on Earth has blessed us all.”

Singer-songwriter John Legend, who counted Belafonte as a friend and mentor, wrote: “We just have to thank God that we had Harry Belafonte for 96 years.

“He used his platform in almost a subversive way, because he would sneak messages in there, revolutionary messages, when people thought he was just singing about good times.”

The BBC on its obituary announcement of the passing, wrote:

His success was such that he was the first black person allowed to perform in many upmarket US venues – including some that had been off-limits to artists like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

His music endures in the streaming era – with the song Jump In The Line (Shake Senora) registering more than 115 million plays, thanks to its use in the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice.

As an actor, Belafonte made his Broadway debut in the musical John Murray Anderson’s Almanac in 1953, for which he won a Tony Award for supporting actor. Hollywood soon came calling, and he scored his first lead role in Island in the Sun, where he starred alongside James Mason, Joan Fontaine and Joan Collins, with whom he had an affair.

In 1957, he was described in Look magazine as the first black matinee idol in entertainment history.

His achievements were all the more remarkable in an era when black actors were usually cast as maids and labourers, stereotypes that he refused to bow to. In 1959, he famously turned down the musical Porgy and Bess, describing the lead role as demeaning.

He continued making films into his 80s, making his final appearance in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

In his music career, he recorded more than 30 albums, including collaborative records with Nana Mouskouri, Lena Horne, and Miriam Makeba.

Bob Dylan even made his first recorded appearance playing harmonica on Belafonte’s 1962 album, Midnight Special.

A close friend of Martin Luther King, the artist was a notable and visible supporter of the civil rights movement, who bankrolled several anti-segregation organisations and was known to have bailed Dr King and other activists out of jail.

He was one of the organisers of the 1963 March on Washington, and also took part in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

“Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the Civil Rights movement,” Dr King once observed.

“We are blessed by his courage and moral integrity.”

The star also campaigned against poverty, apartheid and Aids in Africa; and became an ambassador for Unicef, the United Nations children’s fund.

‘A moral and caring man’

In 1985, he organised the charity single We Are the World, an all-star musical collaboration that raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia.

After watching a news report on the famine, he rallied artists to raise money in the same way Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had done with Band Aid in the UK a few weeks earlier.

Featuring Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Diana Ross among many others, the song – written by Jackson and Lionel Richie – generated millions of dollars for charity.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?'” Belafonte said in a National Public Radio interview in 2011. “I say to them, ‘I was long an activist before I became an artist.'”

Even in his late 80s, Belafonte was still speaking out on race and income equality and urged President Barack Obama to do more to help the poor.

Fiercely left-wing, he campaigned against nuclear armament, and caused controversy in 2006 when, in a meeting with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, he described US president George W Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world”.

Belafonte also compared Bush’s secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, both of whom were black, to slaves who worked in their master’s house rather than in the fields.

Statements like those made the star a frequent target of criticism, but he continued to be honoured for his artistry and humanitarian work.

Among his many awards, Belafonte was bestowed with a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989 and the National Medal of Arts in 1994. He was an EGOT – one of a rare group of people who have received all four of entertainment’s biggest awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.

Other stars paying tribute included rapper Ice Cube, who called the star “more than a singer, more than an actor and more than a man”.

Actress Mia Farrow remembered Belafonte as a “beautiful singer,” and “a deeply moral and caring man”.

“If we could be more like Harry, what a wonderful world it could be,” she added.

Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice, shared a photograph of the Belafonte at her father’s funeral, and shared her personal gratitude to the star.

When I was a child, HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways,” she wrote on Instagram.

“In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings. Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College. I won’t forget. Rest well, sir.”

Belafonte was married three times. He and his first wife Marguerite Byrd had two children, including actress-model Shari Belafonte. He also had two children with second wife Julia Robinson, a former dancer.

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Harry Belafonte... Exit of the activist-musician 3


SCHOLAR and Literary activist, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote a comprehensive reflection on the art and act of the great man in 1996, which is reproduced below.

“Belafonte’s Balancing Act”

Negotiating his place in popular culture and his political conscience, Harry Belafonte has made some of the hardest choices in show business.

By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

‘Harry Belafonte was radical before it was chic and remained so long after it wasn’t. He made decisions, in consequence, that hurt his career. Many of these decisions strike me as misguided, contradictory, shortsighted, and bullheaded – but impossible not to admire’

FOR one week in February of 1968, something strange happened to the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson: it became the “Tonight Show” with Harry Belafonte. I was a high-school student, growing up in Piedmont, West Virginia, a partly segregated hamlet in the Allegheny Mountains, and television was the only thing that connected any of us there with the larger world. Night after night, my father and I stayed up late to watch a black man host the highest-rated show in its time slot—history in the making.

This was the year my father and I bonded over the Vietnam War—or, anyway, over our ongoing arguments on the subject, the point being that it gave us something to talk about. By now, I knew I had the moral high ground, a fact I determined by a rough head count of the celebrities who had weighed in on my side. So it was in that spirit—vindication on my part, mistrust on his—that my father and I sat together on our rust-red brocatelle sofa in front of the television set. Who had ever seen so many famous black folks (Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, Wilt Chamberlain, for starters) on the “Tonight Show”?

On the second evening, Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged from behind the curtain. “What do you have in store for us this summer?” Belafonte asked him, flashing a provocative smile: white folks were still reeling from the riots that had come with the previous year’s long hot summer. The studio audience laughed nervously.

King, looking tired and a little heavy, announced that he was shifting his emphasis from strictly racial issues. “The time has come to bring to bear the power of the nonviolent direct-action movement on the basic economic conditions that we face all over the country,” he said, in his rich, rolling baritone. He pointed out that poverty among blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and Appalachian whites had reached “Depression levels.”

“Then someone is lying to the American people,” Belafonte declared, in a voice that was half silk, half outrage.

Back in Piedmont, I rose from my seat. “Go ahead, brother!” I shouted: Johnny Carson was never like this.

King went on to argue that the war in Vietnam was at odds with the war on poverty. “A major myth, the guns-and-butter philosophy,” King said. All the money spent on that senseless war meant that “you don’t get butter—in fact, you don’t even get oleo!”

“Right on, Dr. King!” I yelled at the TV set. And my father snapped, “I told you he was a Communist.”

“Do you fear for your life?” Belafonte asked King, abruptly striking a sombre note. King explained that he’d reconciled himself to the danger he faced. “Suffering is redemptive,” he said. “If something happens to me, maybe something good will come of it.” Enormous applause burst forth from the studio audience, and my eyes misted over.

Harry Belafonte: Was he not Negro manhood at its finest? Was he not the perfect hybrid of popular culture and political conscience? It was the air of principle, of moral certitude, of engagement—not to mention those teeth, those cheekbones. You simply didn’t hear this kind of thing in those days, not on network TV. That week, I knew I had been witness to a great event, though in time it became less clear whether it was the start of something or the end. Two months after his appearance on the show, King was assassinated; Robert F. Kennedy, who had appeared later that week with Belafonte, was shot in June.

It’s close to three decades later, and Harry Belafonte is giving me a tour of his Manhattan apartment, on West End Avenue. He’s closing in on seventy, and his face isn’t uncreased, but his mocha skin still has a glow and his movements have a rangy, almost feline grace. Two physical anomalies lend his presence a peculiar intensity. First, he’s ever so slightly walleyed, and somehow the result is to make his gaze seem especially intimate. Second, his speaking voice is a husky whisper, which has the inadvertent effect of giving everything he says a tone of confiding urgency, though in fact it’s just the aftermath of a long career. (“My chronic laryngitis,” he said back in the fifties, “is the organic symptom of subconscious feelings of guilt about my success.”) He’s still the great talker he always was, though. Get him started on international politics and he’ll perorate like Che Guevara or, anyway, Jesse Jackson. If he hadn’t been Mr. Entertainment, he would have been huge on the hustings.

Belafonte bought the apartment building, one of the grandest on the street, in the late fifties; he sold off the apartments as co-ops a couple of years later but kept a floor for himself. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a guest here often, described it as “palatial,” and after visiting all twenty-one rooms I can see why. Belafonte and Julie, his wife of forty years, have made the place into a sort of museum. There are paintings by Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera; there must be half a dozen works by the African-American social realist Charles White. The décor has the settled air of mid-century leftism: canvases by artists who had congenial views on the relation between art and social action.

Photographs of Paul Robeson are prominent here, and for good reason. If Belafonte had a hero in life, it was Robeson, the legendary singer, actor, intellectual, social activist, and left-wing martyr. The shadow of Robeson haunted a generation of black artists and performers, and Belafonte, who loved him and witnessed his destruction during the Red Scare, was part of that generation. Belafonte’s pronouncements on the state of the world retain an old-time Robesonian fervor. He says things like “Monopoly capitalism is bigger than government—it buys and sells governments.” Despite the hushed gravel of his conversation, his singing voice is actually quite well preserved: even now, his “Daaay-o!” comes out full-throated enough for any banana loader to hear. A good thing, too, because—what with the legacy of colonial exploitation and the depredations of the United Fruit Company—he still worries about those dockworkers.

Politics, it sometimes seems, is what Belafonte did instead of the more wholesome, more normal preoccupations of the American superstar—namely, drugs, debauchery, and dissipation. On some level, surely, we want our idols to engage in the sins of the flesh—on our behalf, as it were—and, being obliging souls, they usually do. By contrast, the celebrity who makes heavy weather of his political convictions strikes us (when they are not our convictions) as recklessly indulgent: what’s violated is the intricate, unwritten covenant between celebrities and their fans. We elevate them to godlike stature, but heaven forbid they should think they’re better than us. If you follow.

Harry Belafonte was radical before it was chic and remained so long after it wasn’t. He made decisions, in consequence, that hurt his career. Many of these decisions strike me as misguided, contradictory, shortsighted, and bullheaded—but impossible not to admire. If Belafonte is, as publicists say, “back”—playing one of the leads in Robert Altman’s latest experiment in improvisation, “Kansas City”—it helps to know what, in Belafonte’s case, “back” really means.

For a couple of years in the late fifties, Belafonte was arguably the most desirable man in the Western world. He was the first black matinée idol in the history of the film industry. He was the first artist (of any color) in the history of the recording industry to have a platinum album. As a live performer, he was unrivalled both in the size of the crowds he attracted and in the size of his contracts. Such success could be explained by his being a brilliant actor with an amazing voice, except that he wasn’t a brilliant actor and didn’t have an amazing voice. It was nothing so undemocratic as supernal talent that made Belafonte a demigod.

Over the past year, I’ve heard dozens of explanations of what did make him one, and why he survived. The critic Stanley Crouch says, “I never underestimate the skin-tone factor. The thing is, he wasn’t black black.” Johnny Carson tells me, “I think people perceive him as a nice person, and, if people seem to like you, that’s half the game in the entertainment business.” And, Carson delicately explains, the comfort factor figures all the larger when you bring in the race factor: “That’s why today, for example, a lot of white Americans find great comfort with a Colin Powell and find discomfort with a Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson, who has the strident cadence of a preacher, gets people excited. Colin Powell is not perceived as a threat. Perception is a lot in this business.” The explanation I like the best, though, comes from the great folk singer Odetta. Speaking as if to a slow child, she says, “Did you get a look at the man?”

Belafonte points out that he was born the same year, 1927, that Marcus Garvey was deported to Jamaica from the United States. But, while Garvey wasn’t without his influence in the Belafonte family, neither was he the household god he had been for many other West Indians in New York. Though Belafonte’s mother was from Jamaica and his father from Martinique, both his mother’s mother and his father’s father (a gentleman named Bellanfanti, from Marseilles) were white. Belafonte was born in New York and spent most of his early years there; but in 1935, when riots and looting erupted in Harlem, his mother, a domestic worker, decided to take her family back to Jamaica. Belafonte spent the next five years in the Blue Mountains, in St. Anne’s, and in Kingston.

Sidney Poitier, who is Belafonte’s best friend and nearly exact contemporary, says that the childhood years they spent in the West Indies gave them a psychological advantage: colonialism aside, growing up in a black-majority country meant that most of the doctors, nurses, lawyers, and policemen you encountered were black. “I firmly believe,” Poitier says, “that we both had the opportunity to arrive at the formation of a sense of ourselves without having it fucked with by racism as it existed in the United States.”

In 1940, Belafonte returned to Harlem, and ended up in a largely Italian neighborhood. On the streets, kids squared off as the Hawks versus the Scorpions. Most of Belafonte’s relatives in America, he recalls, were in rackets like the numbers business. Nor did school provide any respite: burdened by dyslexia, he dropped out after ninth grade. He finally escaped from the neighborhood, at seventeen, by joining the Navy. He scrubbed the decks of ships in port—the sort of menial work that most Negroes were assigned. It wasn’t a career, but it was an education. For it was in the Navy that he was radicalized.

“I ran into a group of young men who, as it turned out, were the intellectuals in our crowd—Pullman-car porters, college graduates,” Belafonte says. He mostly sat and listened until one of them handed him “Color and Democracy,” by W. E. B. Du Bois. Belafonte struggled with the words, spending hours poring over a single paragraph. He recalls, “I discovered that at the end of some sentences there was a number, and if you looked at the foot of the page the reference was to what it was all about—what source Du Bois gleaned this information from. So when I was on leave, going into Chicago, I went to a library with a long list of books. The librarian said, ‘That’s too many, young man. You’re going to have to cut it down.’ I said, ‘I can make it very easy. Just give me everything you got by Ibid.’ She said, ‘There’s no such writer.’ I called her a racist. I said, ‘Are you trying to keep me in darkness?’ And I walked out of there angry.”

In the Navy, stationed near Newport News, Virginia, in 1944, he met Margurite Byrd, a campus beauty at the nearby Hampton Institute. They were an odd couple from the start. Margurite was a sorority sister and a class officer, from a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. She had grown up in the insular comfort of the black bourgeois world, segregated but secure; her perspective on racial politics couldn’t have contrasted more strongly. She later recalled, “Our courtship was one long argument over racial issues.”

And Belafonte really was, by all accounts, an angry young man out of a juvie-menace flick. For instance, he was given to defacing subway posters that annoyed him—like one for a skin lotion that promised to preserve the soft white beauty of your hands. “What about Negro hands?” the young Belafonte scrawled in pencil. Margurite has said, “He reminded me of a big kid who was about to get into trouble if somebody didn’t watch and help him. I had to keep him from becoming a delinquent.” They were married in June, 1948, and their first child, Adrienne, was born the following year.

Shortly after leaving the Navy, Belafonte saw a play at the American Negro Theatre, in Harlem, and decided that he had glimpsed his destiny. He joined the A.N.T., initially working backstage, and there he and another aspiring actor, Sidney Poitier, began their nearly fifty-year friendship. From the beginning, it was a complicated relationship—compounded of affection, admiration, and rivalry. “Harry was then very competitive and I was then very competitive,” Poitier says. “Harry Belafonte is today very competitive and Sidney Poitier is today very competitive. And then there was the fact that we were eligible for pretty much the same kind of parts.”

Belafonte made his stage début as the juvenile lead in an A.N.T. production of “Juno and the Paycock”; parts in other plays followed. Paul Robeson was in the audience at one of those performances, and told him afterward, “Job well done, young man.” Belafonte felt anointed. Poitier says, “I remember times when he and I would meet Robeson in a bar on Fifth Avenue just off a Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, and sit there and talk. He was very fond of Harry. And Harry loved him.”

These were tough times for Belafonte and Poitier both; and they were better at concocting schemes to get rich quick than at making ends meet. Poitier still remembers a plan to bottle and sell an extract of conch, a shellfish that, in the Caribbean, anyway, was reputed to be an aphrodisiac. At another point, the two decided that their fortune lay in standup comedy, and they spent weeks practicing routines that they’d perform as the comic duo Belafonte & Poitier, until they figured out that their routine was about as effective as their aphrodisiac.

In 1948, Belafonte was performing in an A.N.T. production of a play called “Days of Our Youth,” with Poitier serving as his understudy. Belafonte had a job as a janitor’s assistant, bagging garbage, but he paid someone else to cover for him during his evening performances. “This particular night, the person who was covering for me couldn’t do it, and I had to go take care of the garbage,” he recalls. “That was the night Sidney Poitier went on for me. That was also the night some people from downtown were coming up to look at casting an all-black show of ‘Lysistrata.’ So Sidney got the job, which led to his being cast opposite Richard Widmark in the film ‘No Way Out’—and on from there.” As a result, Belafonte has long joked that Poitier’s career is “based on garbage.” His daughter Shari Belafonte-Harper sees it as a joke with dimensions: “They’ve been best friends forever, but—and I’m being a junior psychologist here—Daddy has never forgiven Sidney for stealing his career.”

Belafonte’s break came when a friend coaxed him into appearing on amateur night at the Royal Roost jazz tavern, and he ended up landing a full-time gig. He’d done some singing in a musical once, but singing had never been a consuming passion. Still, a job was a job. He started as a jazz singer but soon switched to a pop repertoire—songs like “Lean on Me,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and one of his own composition, entitled “Recognition.” In clubs, he was billed as the Gob with a Throb, and for his act he sat on a stool wearing a dinner jacket and a St. Christopher medal. Jack Rollins, who was soon to be his manager, describes his routine in those days as a “vanilla imitation of Billy Eckstine.” “That’s probably a fair description,” Belafonte admits.

In 1950, Belafonte, with two friends, opened a hamburger joint in the Village, called the Sage; it lasted all of eight months, but it did provide him with rehearsal space to work after hours on his new act—as a folksinger. Certainly folk music was in the air: the jukebox at the Sage played Burl Ives, Josh White, and the Weavers. And this was a musical genre that somehow resonated with his political sensibilities. “People see Harry as the Adonis—sensual and sexy, and all that,” Poitier points out. “But when the same remarkable presence was singing ballads they did not electrify the world. He wanted what he believed to be a part of his work. That’s what took him to folksinging. The whole history of black people was in the texture of folksinging.” To the usual folk repertoire Belafonte added a particular emphasis on West Indian folk songs.

The larger cultural milieu was changing in auspicious ways, too. Imprinted on Belafonte’s memory to this day is a photograph he saw in the April 24, 1950, issue of Life, which showed Billy Eckstine being embraced by a white woman. “Nat King Cole, who was one of the greatest singers in pop culture, didn’t quite make it across the line, because of his physical cut, his fully Afrocentric being,” Belafonte says matter-of-factly. “Billy Eckstine—light-skinned, gloriously good-looking, suave—just had people swooning all over the place. And when that photo hit, in this national publication, it was as if a barrier had been broken.”

In 1951, another light-skinned, gloriously good-looking, suave crooner presented his new act as a folksinger at Max Gordon’s already legendary Village Vanguard. His folk songs—“John Henry,” “A Man Ain’t Nothing but a Man,” “Mark Twain,” “Hold ’Em Joe”—were interspersed with songs that had something of an island lilt, like “Venezuela Matilda” and “Coconut Woman.” As his following grew—and it rapidly did—he moved uptown to the posher Blue Angel, another Max Gordon venue, where he met with even greater success. Before long, he found himself booked at the upper echelon of night clubs and hotels across the country, and under contract as a recording artist at RCA. If being a singer had never been one of Belafonte’s dreams, the world clearly had its own plans for him.

These were years that mixed exhilaration with humiliation: the bigger he got, the harder it was for him to ignore the petty indignities of Jim Crow. The exhilarating part was, for instance, being booked to play the swanky Thunderbird Hotel, in Las Vegas. The humiliating part was then being forced to sleep in a Negro boarding house on the outskirts of town, and denied use of any of the hotel’s facilities.

In 1953, enjoying his first real taste of affluence, Belafonte moved from Washington Heights into a white neighborhood in Elmhurst, Queens. “Right when we moved in,” Margurite recalls, “you suddenly saw a number of ‘For Sale’ signs appearing.” One day soon afterward, Adrienne, who was then four, announced, “Mother, we’ve got to move! There are Niggeroes moving into the neighborhood.” It seemed that one of her playmates had confusedly let her in on the neighborhood anxiety. “Why don’t we wait to see what these Niggeroes are like?” Margurite replied.

That same year, John Murray Anderson signed Belafonte for “Almanac,” his annual talent show on Broadway, and Belafonte, the only black member of the cast, wound up winning a best-performance Tony. This, in turn, earned him an appearance on the annual “musical evening” of the “Ed Sullivan Show”—which led to many more appearances. Indeed, Belafonte went on to become perhaps the most frequently heard singer on the show.

Belafonte was receiving his greatest popular exposure so far, but he was also—and not for the last time, either—experiencing the bitterness of being shunned by his own people. “A lot of people on the left turned against me, because they thought there was no way I could get on the Sullivan show if I hadn’t talked to the Committee, or whatnot. I had to live for a long time with the pain of rejection from people who were in the same camp.” As I have learned, there are a number of people around who still harbor such suspicions. (Even Paul Robeson, Jr., the son of Belafonte’s great hero, says, “I just have to leave it as an open question.”) Poitier, though, says, “Harry escaped Robeson’s fate partly because Robeson paid the dues. They crucified him—and the black community knew it, the white liberal community knew it. It stained an awful lot of hands.”

What really changed Belafonte’s life was the 1954 film “Carmen Jones”—adapted from Mike Todd’s all-black version of Bizet’s opera—in which Belafonte played the dashing young Army officer whose romance with Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) proves fatal. Not all the critics were impressed, but for many black viewers, in particular, the performances were electrifying, and remain so. “It was incredibly evocative and very sexy, and it was two of the physically most beautiful human beings on the planet,” the theatre director George Wolfe says.

During this time, Belafonte’s marriage to Margurite was disintegrating. Margurite, who had done graduate work at the Sorbonne and the University of Heidelberg and was soon to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, found herself temperamentally at odds with the milieu in which Belafonte travelled. “I just found the show-biz world to be shallow, and false,” she recalls. “And, more and more, that was his whole life.” (Their daughter Adrienne observes, “Mom had the drive and focus of many black contemporaries. She came from a family that was striving to be in the upper echelon of black society, which then moves you into the middle echelon of white society. For Dad, it was about changing all of society.”)

Then, during the filming of “Carmen Jones,” Belafonte met a dancer named Julie Robinson, and things soon grew serious. Robinson, who had been dating Marlon Brando, had the distinction of being the only white dancer in the Katherine Dunham Company. Though she was of Russian-Jewish ancestry, she knew a lot more about African and African-American folk culture than Belafonte did: she had attended the Little Red School House, in the Village, and was involved with the N.A.A.C.P. In short, she was a thoroughly modern bohemian. Margurite, soon after giving birth to Shari, in 1954, discovered a cache of love letters that Julie Robinson had written to her husband. The Belafontes separated soon thereafter. (More acrimonious was Belafonte’s breakup with his manager, Jack Rollins, around the same time. Rollins went on to become a high-profile agent and producer, but he remains bitter. “You look at this guy, and some people might say he’s a credit to his race,” Rollins says now. “The guy’s a bum!”)

In the winter of 1957, following the shooting of his next film, “Island in the Sun,” Belafonte managed to conceal two legal events: his divorce from Margurite and his subsequent marriage to Julie Robinson. Alas, news of his revised marital status leaked out shortly before the new film was released. “Island in the Sun” itself provoked controversy, with its story of an interracial love affair between characters played by Belafonte and his co-star, Joan Fontaine. (In fact, a bill was introduced in the South Carolina legislature proposing to fine any theatre that showed the film.) But many blacks felt equally troubled by the developments in Belafonte’s personal life. In the spring of 1957, the Amsterdam News ran the headline “belafonte weds white dancer,” and the paper cited in its story a saying from the twenties: “Give a Negro man fame and fortune, and he’s got to have a white woman, a Packard car, and a bulldog.” Readers were further informed that “Belafonte’s popularity with his own race is hanging in the balance at the moment.” That wasn’t the wild hyperbole it may seem. In the late fifties, Eartha Kitt said, “I am not sure that Harry has completely healed the breach.” She went on, “This is something that no Negro performer can afford. It has to play havoc with him inside.”

What made the issue of particular moment was the fact that by 1957 Harry Belafonte had emerged as perhaps the country’s most popular performer. The album “Harry Belafonte—Calypso,” released at the end of 1956, ended up selling more than a million and a half copies, more than any single-artist album ever had before, and it remained on the charts for a year and a half. Elvis and Sinatra were big in 1957, yet Belafonte—the King of Calypso, as he was touted—outsold both of them. (With fetching modesty, Belafonte told one reporter, “I don’t want to be known as the guy who put the nail in the coffin of rock and roll.”)

Belafonte had plenty of help, to be sure. “Listen to his voice without looking at him, and it is clear that his sound is not a sexy one, as the sound of Sinatra, of Nat Cole, and even of Billy Daniels, are sexy,” the music executive Arnold Shaw wrote in 1960. “What Harry sounds like and what he looks like are not the same thing.” So what he looked like was crucial, and his managers worked hard on sexing up his image: putting him in tight, form-fitting mohair pants, and colorful silk shirts that opened nearly to his navel. The King of Calypso also had a lot of help from his court—including the Juilliard-educated musician and songwriter Irving Burgie—or Lord Burgess, as he called himself, calypso style—who helped write or arrange most of the songs on the “Calypso” album.

The Belafonte craze swept the country. Claims adjusters in Tucson, driving to work in their white Hudsons, chorused along with their radios, “Daylight come and me wan’ go home,” at least when they weren’t worrying about having “left a little girl in Kingston-town.” Pete Seeger explains, “ ‘Day-O’—it’s something that just makes you feel like taking a lungful of air and singing. A lot of people who never thought of themselves as singers could sing it.”

In fact, to purists the problem with Belafonte was that he was too much of a singer, and not a calypsonian at all. As Daisann McLane, a calypso scholar—and singer—points out, echt-calypso is less about crooning than about percussion: “You don’t necessarily have to be on key, but you do have to be on time.” The King of Calypso title caused outrage for other reasons, too. Calypso—which had enjoyed brief spells of popularity in this country in the thirties (largely due to Rudy Vallee’s radio show) and again in the forties—is a distinctively Trinidadian tradition; its French and Yoruba influences reflect the peculiar history of the island’s settlement. In Trinidad, where calypsonians had long since formed something like a trade guild, a king of calypso was determined during an annual carnival known as the Calypso War: the calypsonian who most inventively insults his competitors wins the title. So Trinidadian calypso, which was traditionally extemporized, and which zestfully blended political protest and personal invective, was thus a far different creature from what usually passed under that name in the United States. As for what Belafonte brought in the guise of calypso, McLane says, “I would call it calypso with a conk.”

Belafonte is unapologetic. “There were great calypsonians who could never see the light of day in this country, because they were so distanced from this culture. Now I came along and I modified the dialect, I put it into a rhythm that was more closely identified with the American scene. If, instead, I came in and sang this stuff with a thick Jamaican accent, it would have been like listening to Italian opera.”

He recalls a press conference where a Trinidadian journalist berated him for styling himself King of Calypso when he had never been to Trinidad and had no contact with its traditions. Belafonte replied that he had no control over how his record label promoted him, and conceded that he wasn’t really a calypso singer. “And then I said, ‘I’ll tell you, though, that I find that most of the culture coming out of Trinidad among calypso singers is not in the best interests of the people of the Caribbean community. I think that it’s racist, because you sing to our own denunciation on color. You sing about our sexual power, and our gift of drinking, and rape, and all the things we do to which I have, and want, no particular claim. What I have sought to do with my art is take my understanding of the region and put it before people in a positive way. And doing these songs gives people another impression than the mythology they have that we’re all lazy, living out of a banana tree, fucking each other to death.’ ”

But then Belafonte was never going to get any benedictions from the keepers of the Volksgeist. The mighty Odetta says, “There were lots of times when the folky-poos, as I call them, loved some particular singer, until his records became popular, and then all of a sudden they decided he wasn’t a folksinger anymore. It depended on what they thought the bank account was. Isn’t that pitiful?” By that yardstick, too, Belafonte was handily disqualified.

Belafonte had known the worship of strangers since his mid-twenties; but it was in 1957 that he experienced for the first time what Leo Braudy calls the “frenzy of renown.” Each week brought more articles in newspapers and magazines, biographical sketches in Life and Time and the Saturday Evening Post. And this declaration from Look: “Singer-actor Harry Belafonte, one of the most acclaimed entertainers in America today, has also become the first Negro matinée idol in our entertainment history.” That he succeeded where so many others failed was, in the eyes of some, no real mystery. Belafonte’s friend and collaborator Bill Attaway observed, in the late fifties, “At the present stage of the struggle for human freedom, the need is for a bridge Negro—one who serves to connect white and Negro. Harry fills that need remarkably. Although he is brown-skinned and unmistakably Negro, he is acceptable in terms of white standards of beauty. Brown up Tab Hunter and you could hardly tell him from Harry Belafonte.”

The status of bridge Negro did not sit very well with Belafonte, who wanted to be adored as much as the next man, but whose political sensibilities were in rebellion against the terms of that adoration. Nevertheless, he concedes, “I think the whole thing came in a package that was quite comfortable—attractive, articulate. With all my passion, I’ve never driven people to extremes. And what they loved so much was ‘Banana Boat’ and ‘Jamaica Farewell,’ and all that stuff.”

Belafonte recalls that at about that time Otto Preminger wanted to cast him in a film version of “Porgy and Bess.” He found the script racially offensive—a romance between a druggie and a whore, wasn’t it? “A host of people in the black community said no. The one who broke the chain was Sidney, who agreed to do it.” In the event, the movie didn’t do much business when it came out, in 1960, and it was roundly criticized in the black press. But a pattern was established. Belafonte’s disenchantment with Hollywood grew. Over the next decade, his friend Poitier made seventeen major motion pictures; Belafonte made exactly none.

For one thing, the scripts he was offered appalled him. He mentions a couple of movies that he turned down. “One was a film called ‘To Sir, with Love.’ ”

“You turned that down?” I’m aghast.

“Oh, shit, yeah. And also ‘Lilies of the Field.’ ”

This, of course, was the 1963 film that established Poitier as a significant presence in postwar cinema: noble, selfless, saintly. When I saw it, at thirteen, I was moved to tears. It was the perfect civil-rights vehicle for its moment. Its message to white America was practically telegraphed: We are a friendly and kindhearted people; we are good citizens.

Belafonte had another take on it. “When I read ‘Lilies of the Field,’ I was furious. You’ve got these nuns fleeing Communism, and out of nowhere is this black person who throws himself wholeheartedly into their service, saying nothing, and doing nothing except being commanded by these Nazi nuns? He didn’t kiss anybody, he didn’t touch anybody, he had no culture, he had no history, he had no family, he had nothing. I just said, ‘No, I don’t want to play pictures like that.’ What happened was that Sidney stepped in—and got the Academy Award.”

Which was just typical, according to Belafonte. “In the early days, Sidney participated in left affairs, but once he became anointed he gave it up,” he says, without bitterness. “Sidney was always more pliable, more accommodating. He handpicked each one of those pictures to continue to exercise that beauty and make sure that he never, ever disturbed the white psyche in anything he did. Not once. Not in public utterance or in private utterance.” In the meantime, Belafonte says, “I put script after script before people who just rejected them out of hand, and I just said there’s no point in trying to change this monster. They would not listen to my gods.” In the end, Belafonte decided that “Hollywood was symptomatic, and the problem was the nation: I figured unless you change the national vocabulary, the national climate, the national attitude, you’re not going to be able to change Hollywood.”

Belafonte’s involvement with the civil-rights movement in the sixties was no parlor project, and his friendship with King was no celebrity air kiss, either. Belafonte first met King in 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycotts. Though the black clergy’s betrayals of Du Bois and Robeson had left him skeptical of the breed, King won him over by his humility and his earnestness. “I need your help,” King told him. “I have no idea where this movement is going.” An alliance was forged that lasted until King’s death. King was a frequent guest of Belafonte’s in New York, and Belafonte was one of the few who could serve as trusted conduits between King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on the one hand, and the Washington establishment, on the other. He put up the seed money to support the newly founded Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee. He financed a group that included Fannie Lou Hamer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Jim Foreman, and John Lewis to tour Africa and establish international liaisons there. It was Belafonte who bailed King out of the Birmingham jail, and who raised money to bail out a number of jailed student activists. Belafonte can be oddly reticent at times, and, though he’s obviously proud of the role he played in the civil-rights era, he speaks of these matters with some hesitancy. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, is more forthcoming. She recalls a day in the early sixties when Belafonte told King, laughing, “Martin, one of these days some of these crackers are going to kill you, and I’m going to end up having to take care of your family.” Both things came to pass, Belafonte having insured King’s life heavily for his family’s sake. Mrs. King describes him as a member of King’s small “strategy committee,” a trusted adviser as well as one of the few effective fund-raisers in the movement; and in moments of crisis Belafonte’s friendship with Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, proved invaluable.

Meanwhile, Belafonte held on to his day job, continuing to tour and make television appearances. But TV had its vexations for him, too. In 1960, for example, he received an Emmy for a television special he did for the “Revlon Hour,” called “Tonight with Belafonte.” Since the show was also a hit with viewers, Revlon decided that it was on to a good thing. According to Belafonte, an agreement was reached in which he would be given a million dollars to produce and serve as host of five shows. The second show, featuring black and white luminaries from jazz, folk, and pop, earned raves. Then he was brought up short by reality.

“Now I get called by Charlie Revson to have a meeting,” he told me. “Would I come alone? I can’t wait—I’m figuring he wants to give me half the company, or something. So we’re having lunch in his private dining room, and he’s saying, ‘As a Jew in Jersey City, I understand oppression’—da, da, da, da—‘but we have to talk about the show. Good ratings. Good reviews. Very nice. But we’re getting some response that says you should do it all-black. If you could just take all the white people out . . .’ I couldn’t believe it. And I said, ‘Mr. Revson, let me tell you something. If you’d asked me to put on a flowery shirt and sing more calypso tunes, and dance more, because that’s what white people would like, I would consider it. But what you’ve asked me to do—there’s no way to square it. I cannot become resegregated.’ He said, ‘O.K.’ Four o’clock that afternoon, I had a check for eight hundred thousand dollars. Charlie Revson said, ‘Goodbye. You’re off the air.’ ”

Belafonte’s first impulse, he says, was to raise a stink, but on talking it over with friends he reconsidered. Revson was just one of a number of advertisers who were looking to sponsor the occasional black entertainer. “If I blew the whistle and it became very political, they were going to run scared on black folk. People said, ‘Just walk soft on this one, Harry. Don’t say anything. It’ll make it difficult for others.’ So I didn’t say anything.” Seven years later, he was co-host of a TV special with Petula Clark, and at one point their hands touched. This time, when objections were raised by one of the marketing vice-presidents Belafonte did not walk softly. “I was thinking, After all the marches and protests—not this again.” Belafonte told some journalist friends and was not displeased by the small ruckus that ensued.

But, if the political climate was changing in ways that were congenial to him, racial aesthetics were changing in ways that were less clearly advantageous. In 1967, Sidney Poitier was Hollywood’s largest-grossing matinée star (“In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir with Love,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” all having been released that year), and this happenstance was not lost on his friend. “From a Hollywood perspective, ironically, Sidney cut the mustard more than I did in terms of appearance,” Belafonte says. “They were looking for somebody who was truly African in his heritage line. He certainly reflected that more than I.” So Belafonte had been caught in what amounted to a temporal double bind: in earlier years, the material was too tame to suit his sense of amour propre; in later years, the Tab Hunter-with-a-tan look wasn’t providing the racial frisson that filmmakers, and audiences, were seeking.

As we sit in what Belafonte refers to as the Red Room of his West End Avenue apartment, he tells me about a recent countrywide tour. Hunched slightly forward on a nine-foot damask sofa, he sounds depleted. “I’m going to tell you, man,” he says. “I never saw so many white people in my life.”

Neither had I. Belafonte’s road show today consists of the standards he has sung for forty years, which he performs in a colorful silk shirt before a cardboard set of palm trees. When I caught up with him in Minneapolis, I saw a sold-out auditorium—the audience, from the looks of it, consisting of the same people who had bought his albums back in the fifties. But they loved him still. Onstage, he radiated energy and charisma, and you could see what it was that made him keep at it: the ovation was tremendous. It’s also true that I was practically the only black person in the house. But then what was I expecting? Banjee boys in gold-fronts and skullies? Besides, it was Minneapolis.

Belafonte now says, sadly, “Let me tell you something. I don’t know of any artist at my level who has ever been as much on the line for black liberation as I have and has as few black people in attendance at anything that he does as I do.”

“That must hurt,” I venture.

“Oh, I’ve layered it over so heavily it’s stopped hurting now,” he says, and for a moment I almost believe him. Then he shrugs. “Even before, because of my social and political position, most black people distanced themselves from me,” he says. “Because I’m a tough package. In California, I walked into a place and somebody said, ‘Here comes Mr. Conscience,’ and all the cocaine left the room—you know? On the other hand, there’s always been that noise and roar, and that approval I think in many ways saved me. Because, whether it was out of envy or jealousy or just plain fear, there was always that— I’ve always been out of the loop. I didn’t grow up in the church, I didn’t grow up in Mississippi, I didn’t come out of the blues valleys of the Mississippi Delta. But most black Americans don’t support anybody.” And he cites such international performing artists as Miriam Makeba and Milton Nascimento. “There’s a handful of people in the end who respect you and know you, but that’s it. No black American artist has ever got the support of black America.” I suppose he is overstating the case, but I know what he means. Belafonte goes on, “So there was some comfort in the fact that I was in a crowd.”

Later, Sidney Poitier reflects on the vagaries of crossover success. “Let me tell you something,” he says heavily. “We both suffer from that a lot. That kind of success is a bitch.”

Longevity is one advantage that the career of the activist has over that of the entertainer, and in the last couple of decades Belafonte has devoted most of his energies to charitable organizations, among them unicef; indeed, it was Belafonte who conceived the idea of “We Are the World,” the 1985 concert and recording that raised a hundred million dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia. Of course, for his own children, and now grandchildren, the competition for his attention could be something of a strain. Adrienne—who, like all her siblings, speaks of him with doting candor—says, “The family calls him ‘As Soon As.’ You know—‘I’ll come see you as soon as I get back from South Africa, Europe, the West Coast, etc. I’ll call you as soon as I get off the phone with Bishop Tutu, Sidney, the President . . .’ ” Still, I’m impressed with the way he’s kept things together. Julie and Margurite have become good friends, and the children of Belafonte’s second marriage, David and Gina, are genuinely close to those of his first.

Belafonte has also been a force to be reckoned with behind the camera: he spent much of the eighties as a producer, trying to package a television miniseries that would narrate the history of apartheid in South Africa. It would have been a perfect project for him, uniting his interest in narrative filmmaking with his interests in global politics and social justice. Instead, it ended one friendship and strained another. First, he got in a dispute with Bill Cosby over who had the rights to the Nelson Mandela story. Evidently, Winnie Mandela had signed over exclusive rights to each of them in turn, though Belafonte viewed his rights as prior and preëmptive. “So I called Bill, and he said, ‘My wife has the rights, and you have to deal with her.’ And his wife and I had never got on particularly well. After several frustrating attempts to work this out, I said to him, ‘Look, it’s a legal matter, and I have the rights. We have to work this out, and if we don’t we’ll have to turn it over to our lawyers.’ And Cosby said, ‘Well, call your best shot.’ So I did. Shortly after that, his people backed down.”

What particularly galled Belafonte was that “The Cosby Show” was a top-rated television show in apartheid South Africa, despite the cultural boycott of that country. Compounding the insult was the fact that Cosby had subsequently been asked to join the board of TransAfrica, an organization that Belafonte had helped found and had long supported. “I went to a board meeting one day, and they said, ‘Bill Cosby’s coming on board.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. Where’s your integrity?’ Here was a major violator of the boycott. Well, they smelled money, they smelled power. I said, ‘Fine. I resign.’ And Bill and I have had no exchanges since then. We see each other in public places and we give each other the nod. But the line is drawn.”

Finally, after Belafonte secured backing and lined up a director and a cast, Sidney Poitier, who had long been slated to play Mandela, backed out, explaining that he had script problems, and had been offered another Mandela project, which he preferred. “So that killed it,” Belafonte says. “I reported it to the network, and they said, ‘Well, the game’s over.’ ”

Poitier says flatly, “Of course he had to have been disappointed. But Harry knows and accepts that there have not been and never will be any artistic favors done between us. It can’t happen.”

“I guess sometime this fall it will come out,” Belafonte says of Poitier’s film, “and I can’t wait to see it—to see what he crucified us to get.”

This sort of skirmishing is far from straightforward, largely because Poitier and Belafonte really are like brothers, with all the conflict and ambivalence that usually exists between brothers. When Belafonte explains why he won’t live in Hollywood, for example, he cites the conflict between his ideals and the dominant ethos of the place, and adds, “That couldn’t have been described more clearly than in my relationship with Sidney. Sidney just picked and chose when he wanted me to come to dinner. He still does it now. Even if I’m a guest in his house, there are some things he just will not invite me to—situations where he feels it will just make it uncomfortable for the people he’s going to be with.” Then he half relents: “It’s O.K. I let him live in his comfort zone.”

Shari Belafonte elaborates: “You see where Sidney’s career has gone in terms of film, which is what Dad always wanted to do. And then you see where Dad’s career has gone. It’s one thing to have enormous success. It’s another thing to be enormously successful in something you want to be enormously successful in.” For her, the reason isn’t far to seek. “I don’t think Dad was a very good actor,” she says bluntly. She thinks he had moments in the two Poitier-directed farces he did in the early seventies, “Buck and the Preacher” and “Uptown Saturday Night,” but “they were all caricature and he was hiding behind them—‘acting,’ as opposed to just being,” she says. “And I think that now—he’s soon to be seventy—he is getting to be comfortable in his own skin. And also Gina worked hard and it shows. I think he is getting better now.”

Certainly Belafonte’s performance in “Kansas City”—as a garrulous gangster known as Seldom Seen—has been heralded as a real turnaround in an acting career that has had few high points since the fifties; and he gives a lot of the credit to the coaching he received from Gina Belafonte, his and Julie’s younger child. “Mainly, he wrote the lines,” Altman says. “When I sent him the script, after we’d talked about him playing Seldom Seen, there were no lines in it. And he said, ‘What kind of part is this?’ I said, ‘The one thing about you, Harry, I know, is the thing you’re best at is talking.’ ” The two have since become close; indeed, Bob and Kathryn Altman are now frequent dinner guests of the Belafontes—part of a group of friends that includes Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson and (since they moved their primary residence to Manhattan, two years ago) Sidney and Joanna Poitier.

When Altman first proposed that Belafonte should play the role of a cold-blooded villain, though, he winced. “I said, ‘That’s a lot of pressure. I can play a leading-man type. Give me a horse and a gun—I can get away with that. But this is serious business.’ A few drinks later, Altman says to me, ‘I need to ask you something. Who started that rumor that you’re an actor?’ ” The point was taken. Besides, if Belafonte were truly protective of his image he wouldn’t have become involved in Altman’s latest project, “Amos ’n’ Andy.”

The other week, I got an excited phone call from Belafonte, who was on tour in Monte Carlo. “I talked to Altman. The project is a go!” he said. Then he laughed. “People are going to say, ‘Amos ’n’ Andy’? What the fuck is Harry Belafonte doin’ with that?’ ”

“Amos ’n’ Andy”—an all-black show about an inveterate schemer and his perpetual dupe—was once among the most popular shows in the country, first on radio, then on television. In the early fifties, however, the program was cancelled, following protests from civil-rights organizations, which found its depiction of black people demeaning. “I think that was the right thing to do at the time,” says Belafonte, who joined in that protest. But Altman persuaded him that the time had come to take another look at the show and its history.

Actually, what fascinated Altman most was the story behind “Amos ’n’ Andy”—the story of its originators, two black comedians, named Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller, who themselves had to don blackface, minstrel style, to entertain audiences both black and white. There’s no script yet, but the idea is to interweave an “Amos ’n’ Andy” narrative with the earlier story of the historical creation of “Amos ’n’ Andy”—a story, in part, of exploitation, as white producers took the show away from its creators in the process of bringing it before a mass audience.

“When he told me about wanting to do ‘Amos ’n’ Andy,’ he said it was because he saw in it not only a hell of a piece of drama but a metaphor of human existence, especially as American culture is defined by him,” Belafonte explains. “Everybody lives an ‘Amos ’n’ Andy’ existence, and not just the racial connotation that we have suffered: it is the façade that we put on every day in order to advance our ambitions. We’re all living out these little plays every day in order to advance our interests.”

Belafonte’s association (presumably as a producer) will be no vaccine against controversy; the complexity of Altman’s sensibility will have to suffice. But Belafonte says, “If we can successfully crack the back of telling that story, I think we’ll have launched into the most troublesome subject in American culture, and that is the issue of race.”

These days, of course, Americans are disposed to react to talk of racism the way you might to a discussion of one of those now banned artificial sweeteners: Cyclamates, cyclamates—didn’t we already do something about that? And as for Harry Belafonte’s perorations about social injustice, didn’t that kind of talk go out with—well, with Harry Belafonte? But that’s the thing: he’s still here.

A cultural punishment is exacted from those lucky few to whom it has been given to embody the Zeitgeist: in the fullness of time, they become ridiculous. The former idol now headlining in second-string venues, cheesily reprising the smash hits of yesteryear, is uniquely a figure of bathos: the has-been can seem absurd in a way that the never-was doesn’t. Unlike Engelbert Humperdinck, say, Belafonte has largely escaped that fate: his road show may verge on camp, but it doesn’t cross over. In the funniest scene in Tim Burton’s 1988 movie “Beetlejuice,” a malevolent ghost compels the members of a straitlaced dinner party to perform “The Banana Boat Song.” Against their will, they find themselves dancing to a Caribbean beat and belting out “Day-O!” But the impression you’re left with isn’t how silly the song was but how bewitchingly catchy it still is: even without any supernatural agency, you find yourself wanting to join in the chorus.

Belafonte’s daughter Adrienne told me, “One of my father’s songs has a line about ‘A secret soldier with pieces inside broke,’ and that’s how I see him. He wants to fix the world, and he’s sad because he sees it slipping away. I believe he feels alone.” A secret soldier with pieces inside broke: I watch Harry Belafonte relax in the elegant comfort of the Red Room, amid oversized club chairs with eighteenth-century needlepoint pillows, a wide fireplace flanked with wrought-iron church candlesticks, and carved religious figures from Bahia and the Philippines on the mantelpiece. A restive energy emanates from him all the same: he seems both perfectly at home and somehow caged.

We’re speaking about a recent cancer scare he had, the prostate surgery from which he’s still mending, and the way he dealt with the usual questions raised by such reminders of mortality. “There wasn’t all that much I would have done differently, when I look back on it,” he muses. He’s still acutely conscious of being an autodidact, and says he wishes he’d read more, learned more. I think he wishes he were loved more, too. I was struck by something a friend of his remarked decades ago, when Belafonte was a young man on top of the world: “Friends had to love him. Business associates had to love him. Relatives had to love him. And so on down the line—to children, animals, insects, and perhaps even bacteria.” I was equally struck by the realization that Belafonte is one of the few mortals around to have come close to that blessed state. He stares straight ahead when he recalls the exhilaration of being shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King, and the “onrush of love” he felt from civil-rights marchers when he’d get up to speak. “Ask most black Americans,” he says, “and they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s a standup guy. Oh, yeah, you can always count on Harry.’ ” He breaks off, sags a little, and sounds almost resigned when he adds, “But then don’t ask them very much past that.” ♦

Published in the print edition of the August 26 & September 2, 1996, issue.

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