Harry Belafonte is best known for his inimitable folk renditions. He is West Indian American legend who manages, during a rabid climate of racism, to transcend the colour barrier and eclipse just about any other entertainer for sheer popularity. But Belafonte’s autobiography, aptly entitled My Song, is anything but the hackneyed tale of a struggling singer’s rise to the top. Rather, it is a voluminous autopsy of America’s dark days. Shocking, revolting, but, equally magnetising. Belafonte captures a period—not so long ago—that poses an existential threat to blacks, and anyone who dares embrace a communist agenda. It is a story poignantly and richly told. In many ways, this is America’s Song, and a distasteful version at that. Belafonte, reminiscent of his signature opening number, Timber, captivates the reader from the book’s exordium. He hatches a plan with Sidney Poitier to deliver tens of thousands of dollars to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi—the hotbed of Klu Klux Klan activity. It is rivetting and perfectly scripted for the movies, as the two black superstars narrowly escape a sure lynching and mutilation—hallmarks of Klan retribution for demanding racial justice.
This marks the pivotal moment for an entertainer who cements a relationship with civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr, and later Nelson Mandela. He entertains, but is steadfast in his fight to alleviate poverty through the legal rescission of institutional racism. His indefatigable work in social and economic causes, and his relations with former Cuban president Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez are well documented. My Song offers a rare and detailed glimpse into the naked evil of racism, best encapsulated in this memorable snippet: “Hatred radiated like southern summer heat. Toward the end of our tour, our bus stopped at a Greyhound station outside of Richard, Virginia, and I went off groggily to relieve myself not noticing the White Only sign on the bathroom. As I unzipped my fly in front of a urinal, I heard a low, hate-filled voice behind me. ‘You let go one drop, you’re a dead n----r.’ I turned to see a state trooper, standing there with his hand on his holstered gun.” My Song is replete with these vexingly numbing anecdotes. It also has its fair share of espionage, conspiracies, double dealings, and informants, as 1950s and 60s America wrestles with communism as a veritable threat to its national security. McCarthyism shadows every political discourse. Belafonte, like many artistes at the height of the Cold War era, is hounded as a communist sympathiser. For a while, his career teeters in the balance. It is a climate of paranoia that breaks the back of the great Paul Robeson, Belafonte’s friend and hero. Robeson is stripped of his passport—a de facto persona non grata.
However, Belafonte’s autobiography transcends America’s grim past. Beneath it all is a psychoanalytical odyssey into a troubled childhood marked by poverty, a broken home, a skewed bi-racial identity, and an insatiable quest for acceptance and love. Belafonte tirelessly works on slaying personal demons, embracing Jean-Paul Satre’s famous quote: “Self definitions based on how others see us have no reality.” He rises to every challenge and dazzles millions with one song after another, including Matilda and Hold em’ Joe—classics he culled from his indelible experience as a child in rural Jamaica. With raw talent, attitude, and charisma, he asserts his mark on an industry as competitive and unwelcoming as it gets. In the throes of political and racial anguish, My Song never fails to enthrall with a virtual front row seat to the world of entertainment. Belafonte’s friends and acquaintances are the all-time greats: Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, Shelley Winters, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Nat King Cole, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and a host of other luminaries. A gem for any show business aficionado. For everyone else, My Song oozes brilliance.
• Dr Glenville Ashby is a New York-based author and journalist
My Song by Harry Belafonte
Afred A Kmopf, New York 2011
Ratings: ***** Essential