[Marxism] Harry Belafonte Knows a Thing or Two About New York

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 5 15:07:03 MST 2017

NY Times, Feb. 5 2017
Harry Belafonte Knows a Thing or Two About New York
The city native, about to turn 90, looks back at a
glorious past and wonders what his next act will be.

Harry Belafonte’s New York was a lot like yours and mine. He was born in 
Harlem, got his first singing gig through Lester Young, his first acting 
role in a company with Sidney Poitier and his first lessons in a class 
with Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Bea Arthur, Elaine Stritch and Tony 
Curtis. He met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Harlem church 
basement through Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and met W. E. B. Du Bois 
through Paul Robeson; his uncle Lenny, who ran a numbers racket, 
introduced him to the elite of Harlem’s gangsters. He took Nelson 
Mandela to Yankee Stadium, planned an Amos and Andy movie with Robert 
Altman and, at 89, he was a co-chairman of the Women’s March on 
Washington last month, along with Gloria Steinem, though his health kept 
him from the event.

Mr. Belafonte could tell you a thing or two about New York.

He has been the best-selling singer in America and a pillar in the civil 
rights movement. But these days, he is anxious about the movement he 
helped build and about his role in the new era.

“When I took up with Martin,” he said, “I really thought, two, at best 
three years, this should be over. Fifty years later, he’s dead and gone, 
and the Supreme Court just reversed the voting rights, and the police 
are shooting us down dead in the streets. And I look at this horizon of 
destruction, and I watch the black community by our state of being mute 
— we have no movement. I don’t know where to go to find the next 
Robeson. Maybe I don’t deserve a next one. Takes a lot of courage and a 
lot of power to step into the space and lead a holy war.”

Mr. Belafonte, who will turn 90 on March 1, speaks in a hoarse rasp that 
ended his singing career in 2004; he gets around using a three-wheeled 
walker since having a stroke around that time. The stroke dumped him on 
the sidewalk on 72nd Street but did not dull his sense of humor. “I 
missed the opportunity,” he said, “but if I had a paper cup, I could 
have made a fortune.” He wore a down jacket indoors and drank water 
because his blood thinner made him thirsty. He looked good.

Of his role now, he said: “I’m trying to sort out what that is. There’s 
just so much left that’s in my basket of possibilities. I’m not as young 
as I feel, or as young as I would consider myself to be. The 90 figure 
is a blur. But I do know that if there’s anything left for me to do, I 
had best hurry up and do it, because time is not an ally.”

In a long interview in his apartment on the Upper West Side of 
Manhattan, he talked about people he had known and the city they left 
behind. “One of my big difficulties in dealing with 90 is when I start 
to think about, Where is so and so?” he said. “I kind of treat it like, 
‘You don’t talk to me anymore, we don’t do like we used to do, what 
happened?’ ‘Well, very simple: I’m dead.’ They’re all gone. Ossie Davis, 
there’s no more Saturday call, no more poker. All my friends. It’s amazing.

“This last period of my life is absolutely fascinating to me. I’m like, 
I’m outside, looking at a story, and I have no idea what’s on the next 
page — none.”

Mr. Belafonte was in a reflective mood, recalling the Harlem apartments 
his mother fled in the middle of the night to avoid paying back rent, 
and the majesty, years later, of his own 21-room apartment on West End 
Avenue, where guests included Dr. King, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor 
Roosevelt and Ralph Abernathy.

“I often look at the journey, and I don’t get it,” he said. “I really 
don’t. I have lasted longer than I understand why. I often feel that 
there must have been something that I should’ve done that I didn’t do. 
But I can’t identify what it is that I didn’t do. That’s the first 
difficulty. And the second is, what makes you think you’re it?

“This is not modesty. This is part of a bigger search for me. What was 
all this about? Why?”

He was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr., and dropped out of school in 
ninth grade, frustrated by what was later recognized as dyslexia. His 
parents, both light-skinned immigrants of mixed race, dodged landlords 
and immigration officials by changing the spelling of the family name, 
and avoided housing covenants by claiming to be Hispanic. Harry was 
drawn toward his uncle’s numbers business, which his mother forbade.

“Everybody in that world were role models in how to survive, how to be 
tough, how to get through the city, how to con, the daily encounters,” 
he said. “But my mother saw to it that unless I wanted to live life 
absent of testicles, she wasn’t going to have me follow her brother 
Lenny. Somewhere in there is a Sholem Aleichem — a rich story to be told 
of the lore of that time. My uncle was very respected by those who 
worked for him. And my mother was very dependent on him, because when 
things really hit the skids, she could always go to him and get 20 bucks 
or get the dinner or get us through the weekend.”

 From its rough beginnings, Mr. Belafonte’s life evokes the dynamism of 
midcentury New York. He was working as a janitor’s assistant when a 
customer gave him tickets to an American Negro Theater production, and 
when he volunteered to help as a handyman, he soon found himself onstage 
with Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Mr. Poitier. Early audiences included Mr. 
Robeson and Mrs. Roosevelt, who would become friends. He was learning 
about communism and global liberation movements, and also about life as 
a handsome man in New York.

“I loved Ruby,” he said. “She was very smart marrying Ossie, because the 
rest of us came after her like a herd of thugs. She was smart. She 
dumped us.”

For Mr. Belafonte, New York in the late 1940s meant visits with Mr. 
Robeson to Dr. Du Bois, and jazz clubs in Midtown, where he got to know 
Mr. Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max Roach. When Mr. Young 
tapped him to sing between sets at the Royal Roost, Mr. Belafonte found 
himself with a career he had never sought.

“I started this thing,” he said, “and it became so attractive to the 
public it scared the hell out of me. It really did. Wait a minute, this 
thing is bigger than I can handle. I’m not a pop singer. I’m here 
reading Shakespeare and dissecting ‘Othello,’ and looking at ‘Macbeth.’ 
Being a pop singer is not what it’s about. And I quit.”

It didn’t last. With two friends he opened a short-lived burger joint in 
Greenwich Village, which brought him to the Village Vanguard and the 
performances of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who mixed lefty politics 
with songs rooted in daily life. By the time Mr. Belafonte made his 
debut at the Vanguard, earning $70 a week, it was with a repertoire of 
folk songs and international songs that included “Hava Nageela.” The 
club soon could not contain his audience.

“The till,” he said, “was just beginning to carry a jingle.”

The pieces fell into place: He was said to be the first solo singer with 
a million-selling album and was one of the first African-Americans with 
his own television show in 1959. “Hava Nageela,” he said, made him “the 
most popular Jew in America.” (His paternal grandfather was Jewish, but 
Mr. Belafonte only sang the part.) His good looks and light complexion 
made him palatable to white audiences, even as his background and 
politics were alien to them. When Dr. King asked to meet him, he said: 
“I threw my lot in with him completely, put a fortune behind the 
movement. Whatever money I had saved went for bonds and bail and rent, 
money for guys to get in their car and go wherever. I was Daddy 
Warbucks.” He helped organize the third march from Selma to Montgomery, 
recruiting entertainers like Joan Baez, Tony Bennett and Mahalia Jackson 
for a concert in Montgomery.

“Dr. King gave me the space to pursue my rebellion against the system,” 
he said. “They came after Dr. King with great vigor, and they didn’t get 
him. They came after me with great vigor; they didn’t get me. If they’d 
gotten me, I’m not quite sure what they’d have done with me.”

The civil rights leader also taught him how to accept his own death, Mr. 
Belafonte said. “Dr. King had a tic, a nervous disorder that would 
present itself out of the blue,” he said. When the tic later seemed to 
disappear, Mr. Belafonte asked his friend about it. “He said, ‘I made my 
peace with death,’” Mr. Belafonte said. “He wasn’t distracted or 
preoccupied. If it was to be, it was to be. I adopted the same thought. 
I can’t just live all day long waiting for something to happen that 
either will happen or will not happen.”

On a long afternoon interview before Election Day, Mr. Belafonte 
reflected on his disappointments since Dr. King’s murder. In his late 
years, as he cut back on public appearances, he has become almost 
surgical in delivering rebuke bombs. He called former Secretary of State 
Colin L. Powell the “house slave” of the Bush administration and started 
a feud with Jay Z that lasted three years, telling The Hollywood 
Reporter in 2012 that performers like Jay Z and Beyoncé “have turned 
their back on social responsibility.” Jay Z fired back in song: “Mr. 
Day-O, major fail.”

On this fall afternoon before the election, he said that the rise of 
Donald J. Trump alarmed him, but not as much as the passion and numbers 
of Mr. Trump’s supporters. “I’ve never known this country to be so” — he 
paused before saying the word — “racist as it is at this moment,” he 
said. “It’s amazing, after all that we have been through.”

Though he was encouraged by the energy in the Black Lives Matter and 
Occupy movements, he felt that both lacked an ideology to make real 
change. But he was hardest on people of his generation, who he said did 
not follow through on what they started.

“The rewards for what we achieved in the civil rights movement have more 
than corrupted the movement,” he said. “What happened in the black 
community, when they finally won the right to vote, they picked the ones 
who they knew, which is not to be unexpected. But the ones they knew 
were all the leaders. They knew Jesse.

“They knew Andy Young. They knew John Lewis. They pushed them right into 
the electoral political sea. Go run the state. Go run the government. 
Become a senator. I even encouraged them to do that as the next step to 
the civil rights movement. When you get the opportunity for that 
presence in government, let’s fill it with our best. Well, our best were 
guys in the movement. Once they went off into electoral politics, they 
abandoned the community. They abandoned that work. They abandoned that 
developmental process.”

By January, after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Belafonte was more focused 
on the new president, whose coming administration he had compared to a 
“Fourth Reich.” Mr. Trump, he said, was not a break from America’s 
traditions but a resurfacing of energies that have been there all along.

“I look at him as a continuation,” he said. “With all of the images that 
we throw up about our generosity as a nation and so forth, America tends 
to ignore the fact that there is a parallel history from which we come 
that’s not quite so pleasant. And I think Donald Trump reminds us that 
that value, that negative component, is still strongly in our midst.”

Looking ahead, he said, “I often think about how the German right wing 
emerged in the ’30s and ’40s, and what came of that, and I think we’re 
in the same space. Here we are, a highly educated, highly economically 
secure society. Everything is in our favor, and if everything is in our 
favor, what is it that we want as a people and as a nation that makes 
Trump so attractive? Something’s askew here, terribly askew.

“I think it’s an opportunity for the left to take this wake-up call. We 
need to be much more radical in what we do and how we do it than we have 
been up to now. The liberal community has compromised itself out of 
existence. The black community has been so passive in its response to 
this onslaught. Labor is strangely silent. All those reverends that were 
part of the progressive front are no longer heard from in any 
appreciative way. And out of that vacuum comes Trump.”

Yet Mr. Belafonte was not mired in despair. In his apartment, he has a 
hallway of photographs of himself with Dr. King and other important 
figures from his life, with one wall showing them angry or mournful, and 
on the other wall smiling or laughing. “I love the happy wall,” he said. 
“People never get to see that side.”

With his milestone birthday around the corner, he was re-examining 
moments from his past, counting his fortunes along with his mistakes. 
New York, he said, still mystified him in its grandness — as unlikely as 
his own rich life.

“I think there’s no city quite like New York,” he said, “and I’ve seen 
most of the developed cities of the world. I admire this place, its 
energy. It’s the repository of so much history and culture and 
diversity. I think New York City most represents what it is that America 
in general aspires to. It’s big, it’s dense. I’ve known this city from 
all of its social arcs. The best that’s in America is yet to come. The 
worst that’s in America is yet to come.”

For himself, he said, he still had one last act to live out. He just 
didn’t know what it was.

“It’s my last chance to say whatever I feel the need to say. And I think 
I’m formulating what that utterance should be. What have I not said that 
needs to be said more forcefully and more precisely? There are times we 
mute ourselves, we censor ourselves because we have this false pride, 
this need to be liked. Rather than worry about being liked, are you 
telling the truth, putting your best foot forward? I try to, but there’s 
something missing here, and that’s what I’m looking for: What’s missing?”

He did not have an answer for his question. But after 89-plus years, one 
thing is almost certain: When he figures it out, his scratchy voice will 
make itself heard.

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