Remembering Harry Belafonte

Remembering Harry Belafonte

Today, we remember the great Harry Belafonte, who died yesterday at the age of 96 due to congestive heart failure. The singer, actor, and role model is most memorable for advocating human rights while excelling as a performer.

Charismatic, with lots of charm — Belafonte is quintessential in these style points regarding his impact. What’s often overlooked is his second-class beginnings, growing up in Harlem, New York. Early in his life, he faced many difficulties including family poverty and being dyslexic. At age 17, he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Navy. During that time, he met college educated black men, who were highly influential in his coming-of-age. He learned different perspectives around colonialism and segregation through their time together. To contribute to World War 2 and come back to segregation angered Harry, but stumbling upon theater gave him hope and changed his life for good.

Harry Belafonte’s Claim to Fame

One day while working as a janitor’s assistant, he was given tickets to the American Negro Theater. Belafonte attended a show one night and became inspired to act and sing. The next week, he began training at the theater alongside greats like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. Additionally, he sung in clubs consistently to work on his voice. Pretty soon after, he caught the eye of a music exec who gave him a recording contract even though his passion was acting.

As a dual threat in the business, he grew notoriety in Broadway productions and starred in different movie roles. Belafonte’s first major award was a Tony in 1954 for a review called John Murray Anderson’s Almanac: A Musical Harlequinade. His next big act was his most famous picture, “Carmen Jones,” which solidified Belafonte as a breakout star. That success helped him to win an Emmy award first as an African-American in the late 1950s. His ‘hunk’ appeal and infectious smile helped him record two successful albums; one including his hit recording of “The Banana Boat Song.”

An Advocate for Activism

Despite his fame and success, Belafonte made sure to use his platform for change. Time after time, he risked his entertainment career for civil rights activism. In the 1960s, Dr. King became one of his closest friends. One night out with King impressed Belafonte and encouraged him to do more for racial justice. In addition, Belafonte had a generous heart. Examples include the times King went to jail and Belafonte bailed him out. Also, when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, Harry Belafonte took him on a trip to the U.S.

Until the day he died, he was steadfast in his radical thoughts and socially responsibility. Not only to himself, but also to major prominent black figures like Barack Obama and Jay-Z. ‘Injustice should never go unchallenged’ is what his mother taught him and what will always be a part of his legacy. To learn more about Harry Belafonte, click here.

Featured Image by MPTV/Reuters

activism | black history | civil rights | culture | Harry Belafonte | icon | Race

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