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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Harry Belafonte, folk hero

Harry Belafonte, in New York, Sept. 20, 2016. Of the many (many) job titles you could lay on Harry Belafonte — singer, actor, entertainer, talk show host, activist — the one that nails what he’s come to mean is folk hero, Wesley Morris writes.

By Wesley Morris

Of the many (many) job titles you could lay on Harry Belafonte — singer, actor, entertainer, talk show host, activist — the one that nails what he’s come to mean is folk hero.

Not a title one puts on a business card or lists in, say, a Twitter bio. “Folk hero” is a description that accrues — over time, out of significance. You’re out doing those other jobs when, suddenly, what you’re doing matters — to people, to your people, to your country.

Belafonte was a folk hero that way. Not the most dynamic or distinctive actor or singer or dancer you’ll ever come across. Yet the cool, frank, charismatic, seemingly indefatigable cat who died Tuesday, at 96, had something else, something as crucial. He was, in his way, a people person. He understood how to reach, teach and challenge them, how to keep them honest, how to dedicate his fame to a politics of accountability, more tenaciously than any star of the civil rights era or in its wake.

The forum for this sort of moral transformation probably should have been the movies. But the Hollywood of that era would tolerate a single Black person and, ultimately, it chose Sidney Poitier, Belafonte’s soul mate, sometime suitemate and fellow Caribbean American. Belafonte did make a handful of movies at the beginning of his career. “Odds Against Tomorrow,” a naturalist film noir from 1959, is the meatiest of them — and his last picture for more than a decade, too. Poitier became the movie star, during a dire stretch for this country. Belafonte became the folk hero.

It began, of course, with the songs, actual folk music. Well, with Belafonte’s interpolation, which in its varied guises wed acoustic singing with Black spiritual arrangements and the sounds of the islands. He took his bestselling music on the road, to white audiences who’d pay a lot of money to watch him perform from his million-selling album “Calypso,” the one with “Day-O.” A major part of his knowing people was knowing that they watched TV. And rather than simply translate his hot-ticket cabaret act for American living rooms, Belafonte imagined something stranger and more alluring. In 1959, he somehow got CBS to broadcast “Tonight With Belafonte,” an hourlong studio performance that starts with a live commercial for Revlon (the night’s sponsor) and melts from the gleaming blond actor Barbara Britton (the ad’s pitchperson) into the sight of Black men amid shadows and great big chains.

They’re pantomiming hard labor while Belafonte belts a viscous version of “Bald Headed Woman.” The whole hour is just this sort of chilling: percussive work songs, big-bottomed gospel, moaning blues, dramatically spare sets that imply segregation and incarceration, the weather system that called herself Odetta. Belafonte never makes a direct speech about injustice. He trusts the songs and stagecraft to speak for themselves. Folks — Black folks, especially — will get it. It’s their music.

“The bleaker my acting prospects looked,” Belafonte wrote, in “My Song,” his memoir from 2011, “the more I threw myself into political organizing.” That organizing took familiar forms — marches, protests, rallies. Money. He helped underwrite the civil rights movement, paying for freedom rides. He maintained a life insurance policy on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with Coretta Scott King as the beneficiary, because King didn’t believe he could afford it. The building he bought at 300 West End Ave. in Manhattan and converted into a 21-room palace seemed to double as the movement’s New York headquarters. (“Martin began drafting his anti-war speech in my apartment.”) So, yes, Belafonte was near the psychic core and administrative center of the movement.

Paul Robeson preceded Belafonte in an activism partly born of artistic frustration. Robeson’s pursuit of racial equality, for everybody, won him persecution and immiseration and derailed his career. He personally warned Belafonte and Poitier of the damaging toll this country will take on Black artists who believe their art and celebrity ought do more than dazzle and distract. Belafonte watched the American government drag Robeson through hell and decided to help drag white America to moral betterment in any arena that would have him, somewhat out of respect for his elder. (“My whole life was an homage to him,” Belafonte once wrote about Robeson.) Those arenas included everything from “Free to Be ... You and Me” and “The Muppet Show” to Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and, on several indelible occasions, “Sesame Street.”

With some artists, a legacy is a tricky reduction. What did it all come down to? And it just can’t be that the immense career of Harry Belafonte — with its milestones and breakthroughs, with its risks and hazards, with its triumphs and disappointments, with its doubling as a living archive of the latter half of a 20th-century America that he fought to ennoble — can be summed up by the time he spent talking to the Count.

But that, too, is how a people person reaches people. That’s how Harry Belafonte reached a lot of us: little kids who were curious and naturally open to the wonders of the human experience. So it makes sense that the sight of this elegant man, reclined among inquisitive children and surly felt critters, speaking with wisdom in that scratched timbre of his about, say, what an animal is (and, by extension, who an animal is not), told us who we were. People, yes, but perhaps another generation of folks with this hero in common, learning through the osmosis of good television how to live their lives in homage to him.

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