The Many Lives of Harry Belafonte

Singer, actor, activist—he’s packed a lot into his 90 years. Let’s look back at his achievements as he celebrates a milestone birthday today.
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Singer, actor, activist—he’s packed a lot into his 90 years. Let’s look back at his achievements as he celebrates a milestone birthday today.
Harry Belafonte in 2009

Singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte turns 90 today.

Most 90-year-olds would be content to put their feet up and let younger people sort out the problems of the world. But most 90-year-olds aren’t Harry Belafonte. The nonagenarian remains as committed to today’s issues as he was when he was in the trenches of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 60s. In an editorial he penned for The New York Times last November, right before the presidential campaign, he wrote of one of the candidates: “With his simple, mean, boy’s heart, Mr. Trump wants us to follow him blind into a restoration that is not possible and could not be endured if it were . . .What old men know is that things blown up—customs, folkways, social compacts, human bodies—cannot so easily be put right.”

Belafonte is not going quietly into what he calls the “Fourth Reich” of the Trump era. “The best that’s in America is yet to come. The worst that’s in America is yet to come,” he commented. But anger has never blinded him to the possibility of change for the better. “I wake up at the age of 90, and I look around and say, ‘What do we need now? Well, the same things needed now are the same things needed before,” he told the Times. “Movements don’t die because struggle doesn’t die.”

There was constant personal struggle in his youth. He was born in Harlem, and his mother, a housekeeper, was always just one step ahead of the rent collector. He spent his formative years in her native Jamaica before returning to New York, his home ever since. Following a stint in the Navy during World War II, he worked as a janitor’s assistant, when he received two free tickets to attend an American Negro Theater performance. The evening opened his eyes to a possible career. He and a new friend, fellow legend-to-be and freshly minted nonagenarian Sidney Poitier, joined the Dramatic Workshop of the New School and were in time onstage at ANT. Broadway beckoned, and in 1953 his musical talents were put to Tony Award-winning use in a popular revue, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac

Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and Joe Adams in Carmen Jones

Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and Joe Adams in 'Carmen Jones,' the 1954 adaptation of Bizet’s opera 'Carmen,' featuring an African-American cast.

He made his film debut that year in a modest feature, Bright Road, with Dorothy Dandridge. The two performers found a more acclaimed showcase in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), a lavish updating of Bizet’s opera Carmen to the American South. “Carmen Jones was the first all-Negro film that became a great box-office success,” Belafonte recalled. “It established the fact that pictures with Negro artists, pictures dealing with the folklore of Negro life, were commercially feasible. This was a sign of growth that had occurred in the United States and throughout the world.”

But Belafonte never found the movies as hospitable as Poitier. There were notable parts, with Dandridge again and Joan Fontaine as a daring love interest in Island in the Sun (1957), in a post-apocalyptic triangle with Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), and as a bank robber uneasily aligned with race-baiting partner Robert Ryan in the gripping film noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Roles thereafter would be intermittent, including collaborations with Poitier like the 1974 action comedy Uptown Saturday Night, the 1984 hip-hop musical Beat Street, which he produced and scored, and the scene-stealing part of a gangster, “Seldom Seen,” in Robert Altman’s Jazz Age melodrama Kansas City (1996). 

Harry Belafonte in 1954

A photo of Harry Belafonte singing in 1954 by photographer Carl Van Vechten. 

By then music had long eclipsed movies in Belafonte’s artistic career. The breakthrough, selling a record-smashing million copies worldwide, was the 1956 album Calypso, showcasing the hits “Jump in the Line” and “Banana Boat Song,” known far and wide as the “Day-O song.” He was, he recalled, “shaped by the Jamaican culture, by that economy, by the people in my family, who are agriculturalists, who were plantation workers, who harvested those crops and took them down to the boats run by the United Food Company, to load those ships at night, hence all the songs that I sing that come from that environment.” Touching on his Jewish roots (his grandfather on his father’s side, whom he never met, was a Dutch Jew who wandered the islands) he had another signature hit with his rendition of the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila.” Belafonte won two Grammys at the height of his recording career, and a lifetime achievement honor in 2000. 

He poured his passion into his art, as well as his activism. “I wasn’t an artist who became an activist,” he said. “I was an activist who became an artist. Ever since my mother had drummed it into me, I’d felt the need to fight injustice wherever I saw it, in whatever way I could.” Poitier and Belafonte, a mainstay of the civil rights movement, helped organize King’s watershed March on Washington on August 28, 1963. “The day was a complete win-win. The Kennedys heaved a huge sigh of relief that there was not one act of violence,” he said. “And to see at the end everybody singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and all the arms linked—we’ve said it often, but it’s worth saying as often as necessary—there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And it was all of America. All of it.” 

Time has slowed Belafonte, and his performing has wound down. But this work, which included organizing the “We Are the World” initiative in 1985, stints with UNICEF, HIV/AIDS activism, and involvement with a host of other causes, has never ended. Never far from controversy (he embraced Fidel Castro, lambasted president George W. Bush and secretary of state Colin Powell, and picked a fight with Jay Z over the rapper’s perceived lack of engagement in black-related issues), the struggle goes on. “I’ve always looked at the world and thought what can I do next? Where do we go from here? How can we fix it? And that’s still how I look at the world, because there is so much to be done. We have to do more.”