Harry Belafonte (1927-2023)

Emeritus Professor of 20th c. US History Neil Wynn pays tribute after the singer and activist’s death this week.

“There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there’s a hole in my bucket …”  So began one of my childhood favourite songs by the great singer, actor, and civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte who has just died. The song, performed with real humour at Carnegie Hall with Odetta (another great black performer) was an international hit, as were several of Belafonte’s songs, most notably “Day-o (Banana Boat Song)”, “Island in the Sun”, “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)”, and “Mary’s Boy Child”. Belafonte’s 1956 album “Calypso” was the first album to reach a million sales and it popularised the genre and the sound of Jamaica and the West Indies where Belafonte, born in Harlem, had lived with his grandmother between 1932 and 1940.  He went on to be one of the most famous folk singers of the day, and with his friend Sidney Poitier, was probably the best-known black actor and performer of his time too.  He appeared in many films, the best-known being “Carmen Jones” (1954), “Island in the Sun” (1957), “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), “Kansas City” (1996), and most recently made an appearance in Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman” (2018). His television show, “Tonight with Harry Belafonte” won him an Emmy in 1959 – the first for an African American male. 

Belafonte appearing in Spike Lee’s 2018 movie BlackKKlansman.

But Belafonte was much more than a path-breaking black performer: having grown up with discrimination, some of which limited his career, Belafonte was a leading civil rights activist and campaigner.  He was a close friend and supporter of Martin Luther King (bailing him out of jail in Birmingham in 1963), a leading member of the March on Washington Movement, a supporter of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and an active campaigner in the South himself, risking his life on occasion. 

Belafonte with Martin Luther King Jr. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2023/04/25/harry-belafonte-activist-and-entertainer-dies-at-96/

He managed to combine his campaigning with his performing – an album of chain gang songs, “Swing Dat Hammer” won his a Grammy in 1960, and the album he made with anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, won another Grammy in 1965; he also spoke at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium in 1988. Sadly, by then Belafonte perhaps seemed to many of the younger generation as a figure from the past and his support for white politicians such as Lyndon Johnson alienated him from some of the more radical civil rights groups.  Nonetheless, his contribution to racial progress was considerable and he is rightly remembered with respect and affection as a man who entertained all ages and races and also worked for racial progress throughout his life.  R.I.P.

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