To read Harry Belafonte's new memoir, My Song, is to discover a man who has packed enough life for 10 people into 84 years. There's the smash hit from 1956, "Banana Boat Song." There's a film career that made great use of his matinee-idol looks. And then there's Harry Belafonte the activist.
In the 1960s, he was a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.'s. By the '80s, he was helping organize "We Are the World," the anthem for famine relief in Africa.
For all his success, his path was not a sure one. The child of Jamaican immigrants, he had a beautiful voice that led him out of poverty and struggle. Belafonte never intended to be a performer. Back in the 1940s, he was a high school dropout in Harlem just glad to have a job that he made his own.
"Well, the job could not be considered artistic, but I did the job artistically," Belafonte says in an interview with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne. "I was a janitor's assistant. And I loved mopping the halls, and I tried to look a little like Charlie Chaplin on skates as I just rushed up and down the hallway with a wet mop, trying to take the boredom out of all day long mopping halls and hauling garbage and stoking furnaces. But it paid off, because one day I did a repair at a tenant's apartment and they gave me, as a gratuity, two tickets to a theater. So I went to this place, the American Negro Theater, and it was there that the universe opened for me.
"I was, first of all, touched by the silence of the people in the audience," Belafonte adds. "Everybody seemed so deeply reverential. I took my cue from that that something was up; something's coming. And when the curtain opened and the actors walked onstage, the evening overwhelmed me. And I decided with any device I could possibly find, I wanted to stay in this place. What I had discovered in the theater was power: power to influence, power to know of others and know of other things."
Between Harlem And Kingston
Born just eight days apart, Harry Belafonte and actor Sidney Poitier shared the silver screen and were both instrumental in the civil rights movement. But before that, they were sneaking into theaters on one ticket.
"You kept the stub," Belafonte says. "You walked in and one of us saw the first half. We'd give each other an update about what we just saw, and the lucky one got to see the second half. It was called 'sharing the burden and the joy.' "
Belafonte describes Poitier as his first friend in life, but they hadn't met until the age of 20.
"Well, my life was quite nomadic," Belafonte says. "I spent so much of my formative years traveling back and forth between the islands of the Caribbean and New York, where my mother resided. I was born in New York and my mother, with her away much of the time looking for work, that meant a lot of times that the children were left on their own. And that terrified her, so she took us back to the Caribbean. And for the next 12 years, I shuttled back and forth. I did not get rooted long enough to develop what many people have the joy of experiencing, and that is childhood friends."
Unexpected Songs Of Rebellion
In his memoir, Belafonte writes that the Kingston Street vendors would sing as they worked.
"The vendors used to sing those songs, baskets on their heads, and they'd call out the names of the things they were selling," Belafonte says, referring to "Banana Boat Song." He then sings: "Guava jelly, guava. Guava jelly, guava. Cheeeeese. Come and get as much as you please."
"Now, let me say this about the songs of the Caribbean — almost all black music is deeply rooted in metaphor," Belafonte says. "The only way that we could speak to the pain and the anguish of our experiences was often through how we codified our stories in the songs that we sang. And when I sing the 'Banana Boat Song,' the song is a work song. It's about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid, and they're begging the tallyman to come and give them an honest count — counting the bananas that I've picked, so I can be paid. And sometimes, when they couldn't get money, they'll give them a drink of rum. There's a lyric in the song that says, 'Work all night on a drink of rum.' People sing and delight and dance and love it, [but] they don't really understand unless they study the song that they're singing a work song that's a song of rebellion."
Belafonte has been an activist since the early days of the civil rights movement. In My Song, he recalls something his mother told him when he was 5. He calls it his "Rosebud moment."
"The severity of poverty kept us all deeply preoccupied with our survival," Belafonte says. "And nobody had survival skills and greater cunning than did my mother. She was tenacious about her dignity not being crushed. And one day she said to me — she was talking about coming back from the day when she couldn't find work — fighting back tears, she said, 'Don't ever let injustice go by unchallenged.' And that really became a deep part of my life DNA. A lot of people say to me, 'When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?' I say to them, 'I was long an activist before I became an artist.' "