Belafonte by William Klein

We recently lost the great Harry Belafonte who died in NYC at the age of 96.

During the taping of the song “We Are the World,” an activist song recorded to help the famine ravaged people of Ethiopia, the star-studded celebrity cast pays tribute to the man by singing his famous song “Banana Boat Song.”

On one hand, it is an ironic twist as they’re identifying with his work song, working into the night to get it right, and the challenges the character faces in it. On the other hand, they are subtly inspiring one another and acknowledging his dedication and activism — what an extraordinary soul that has visited this planet.

Belafonte was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned him in his book “Why We Can’t Wait.” King talked about how instrumental he was in inspiring other celebrities to join the movement and Belafonte financed some of the movement.

I watch an old clip of him performing the song, and he is summoning the spirit at the beginning. The spotlight is on him, and he is alone and magnetic, at first, as he draws people into the song. I imagine that this is how much of his life was. He was able to draw people into it.

It is a black and white clip. As the camera zooms out, there are musicians and singers dressed in neat dark suits and standing in support. Some cannot be seen others stand full front and wait for him to lead. He steps up and then steps back center stage even with the other musicians. He cuts a hulking handsome figure with chiseled features. He wears a stylish shirt and slacks and moves carefully. His silky voice has a bit of an edge to it.

He slowly turns and with a primal yawp, he sings, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaay-ohhhhhh!” It is a call to action and invitation to the experience of the song and the audience takes the bait with applause. Bongos softly patter in the background. He scat sings and finishes the line with “Daylight come and me wanna go home.” 

“Work all night and drink a rum… Stack banana till the morning come.”

It’s a song about work and the struggles of life. He’s drunk his rum to get him through it, and it’s all been too much. He recalls the work of the day picking bananas presumably in the Carribean, but it could be anywhere.

Belafonte sells the song with his acting. His shoulders are slumped like a man who’s been beaten by life. He’s fatigued as he invites the tallyman to tally how much he’s done. The tallyman is the counter, but if you look at the definition of the tallyman it could mean so much more. A tallyman can be a vote counter, a head counter or a debt collector.

He’s picked “a dutiful bunch of ripe bananas,” but he is also confronting a deadly tarantula. What is that tarantula in Belafonte’s life, I wonder? Was it the indecency he faced coming to this country? Was it the indifference of racists who could not recognize his humanity and spit on him as he marched? Was it the toils of providing for his family?

Songs mean different things for different people at different times in their lives. I watch other versions of the young man and singing in different eras in his life. He exudes joy as an older man, and he gets the audience to sing along. In 1957 Belafonte sold more records than Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. His success was immense, but he was not afraid of using that success to leverage it for social change.

Belafonte is the everyman, but he is a man who knew when to step up front and be heard. He was born in Harlem, but ended up living for a time with his grandmother in Jamaica. He saw firsthand the problems of colonialism. When he returned to this country, the racism was palpable. He had his own encounters and spoke about them openly and honestly. Belafonte was blacklisted in the 50s during the Red Scare and McCarthyism.

Growing up, his mother told him, “When you grow up, son, never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.″

Although he would later have an excellent relationship with Robert Kennedy, at the beginning of their friendship he challenged him. He told Kennedy, “You may think you’re doing enough, but you don’t live with us, you don’t even visit our pain.” Belafonte was the conscience of some of the greatest civil rights leaders of our time. It sounds like Kennedy got the message and made a concerted effort to meet the everyday people and their problems face to face.

This brutal honesty was needed in those days and is still needed today. No one will replace this tremendous activist, but his example may inspire a few more people to speak their peace in the name of justice.

We’ve lost a real giant!

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