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Harry Belafonte was born on this date in 1927. He is a Black entertainer and activist.
Harold George Belafonte, Jr., was born in New York City, his parents were from the Caribbean. Both his parents were from Jamaica. In his autobiography, he explains how he came by the name Belafonte, that is a derivative of Belinfanti. His parents, Harold Sr. and Melvine, were not legal residents and varied the spelling to evade the immigration authorities. His father worked on boats that sailed between the Caribbean and the USA.
As a 20 year-old in 1919, he sailed as "Crew/Busboy" to Boston, on the ship Brighton. Prior to that he sailed on the Jose, from Port Antonio, Jamaica, to New York. These were banana boats that also carried passengers. When Belafonte was eight years old, his mother sent his brother Dennis and him to boarding school in Jamaica. He stayed there until high school, when the family moved back to New York City.
Belafonte attended George Washington High School where he was on the track team. He dropped out of school at age 17 and joined the United States Navy. In 1945, after completing his service, he returned to New York City and became a maintenance worker. As a tip, someone gave him tickets to a play. Belafonte was fascinated by the theater. He began volunteering as a stagehand with the American Negro Theater (ANT), and decided he wanted to be an actor. Belafonte studied acting and performed with the ANT. He landed a singing role in a play, and his audience discovered his great singing voice too. Soon he was singing jazz and pop songs in nightclubs professionally, but he did not really like it.
At about the same time, he began to find meaning in folk music. On weekends he’d go to Washington, D.C., where he studied African American folk music from the collections at the Library of Congress. Belafonte also studied music from the Caribbean. Singing at New York’s Village Vanguard led to his album "Calypso," the first album of its kind ever to sell over a million copies. It started a calypso music craze in the United States. Belafonte made a number of other successful recordings, as his acting career began to take off. In 1954, he got a role in the movie "Carmen Jones," where the entire cast was African American. Belafonte also produced movies and shows. He became the first African American television producer and won an Emmy Award for his show "Tonight with Harry Belafonte."
He wanted his work to promote both racial equality and racial harmony. He won a Tony Award in 1954 for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. Belafonte’s film acting credits include: "Island in the Sun" in 1957, "Odds Against Tomorrow" in 1959, "Buck and the Preacher" in 1972, "Uptown Saturday Night" in 1974, and "Kansas City" in 1996.
When Belafonte began his career, life was hard for Black entertainers. Blacks worked in the theaters and hotels. But segregation meant Blacks could not stay in the same hotels as other Whites, or eat in the restaurants in those hotels, or even socialize with their friends in those hotels. Belafonte was once denied an apartment in New York City because he was Black. So he bought the whole building. Racist conditions incited Belafonte to play a continuous role in getting racial barriers removed.
In the 1960s, he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and he has helped many people all over the world. In 1985, he produced and sang a Grammy-winning song called "We Are the World." Proceeds from the song benefited the starving people in Ethiopia. Two years later, he became the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. In 1988, the Peace Corps gave him its Leader for Peace Award. Twenty percent of his income goes to the Belafonte Foundation of Music and Art, which helps young Black people study for careers in the arts. He also heads a group called the Urban Peace Movement.
Belafonte produced a five-CD set called "The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music." It features African American music and music from Africa dating as early as the 1600s. He received the National Medal of the Arts in 1994 and the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2000. Currently, Belafonte is still entertaining, and working for quality causes. On October 8, 2002, Belafonte made news after publicly criticizing Secretary of State Colin Powell. He compared Powell’s position in the George W. Bush administration to a slave out to please his master.
Mark Lee, Editor, Abeng News magazine, Mississauga, ON L5N 1M1, Canada