Harry Belafonte's biography was riveting from its introduction, read by Harry himself, imparting his terrifying experience of visiting the "Deep South" with Sidney Poitier during the Civil Rights Movement. As the book began, it continued: exciting, intimate, profound, and colorful. When it was almost over, I wrote to Harry and told him I didn't want it to end. I felt like I would be losing touch with an old friend. (And yes, I mailed it in triplicate just to make sure it got to him.)
If you're about my age, you knew Harry as "the guy who sang 'Day-O' and that song from Beetlejuice" and not as the activist he was - and continues to be. Harry was raised by his mother, "Millie", a poor immigrant woman from Jamaica, and grew up in Harlem. His humble beginnings didn't stop him. He grew, joined the Navy, got into theater, began singing folk songs, and went on to win music awards and play international venues. He used his talents and his fame to work in the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, raised funds to assuage hunger in Africa, pushed for Nelson Mandela's release and organized his 90's U.S. tour... and oh yeah, he taught Fidel Castro about rap music.
I've read other autobiographies that seem cold and damp in comparison to this warm, smart, dramatic, epic story. Harry's stories brought depth to the characters and icons I knew only from history books. He described so well the Civil Rights Movement, a period of American history that I hadn't experienced myself, which had been a cold combination of facts, places, and names up until now. Through Harry, I heard Martin Luther King laugh out loud, heard Sidney Poitier say the "f" word, was horrified at Eleanor Roosevelt's driving, and gained a new respect for fellow political activist Marlon Brando (who I had always seen as an overweight spoiled brat.) Other public figures who had seemed almost too good to be true - Bobby Kennedy, for example - were brought down to a more human level. I kept thinking that the book should be incorporated into a required reading program for high school students, if just to show how history can be engineered to smooth over wrongdoing and overlook achievement.
Although every book changes your life in one way or another, some books make a major impact. For me, this book made me feel powerful. I saw that one person's life could be used to benefit others. On many civil rights initiatives, Harry worked back channels, fundraising and promoting the cause whichever way he could. I think if he hadn't mentioned some of them in this book, we might never have known about them, so secretive were his strategies.
I'm grateful that Harry was led to write this book. For me, he brought our chiseled history and icons to life.
Thanks, Harry! I loved it.
Thanks, Harry! I loved it.