Of the many (many) job titles you could lay on Harry Belafonte — singer, actor, entertainer, talk show host, activist — the one that nails what he’s come to mean is folk hero.
Not a title one puts on a business card or lists in, say, a Twitter bio. “Folk hero” is a description that accrues — over time, out of significance. You’re out doing those other jobs when, suddenly, what you’re doing matters — to people, to your people, to your country.
Belafonte was a folk hero that way. Not the most dynamic or distinctive actor or singer or dancer you’ll ever come across. Yet the cool, frank, charismatic, seemingly indefatigable cat who died on Tuesday, at 96, had something else, something as crucial. He was, in his way, a people person. He understood how to reach, teach and challenge them, how to keep them honest, how to dedicate his fame to a politics of accountability, more tenaciously than any star of the civil rights era or in its wake.
The forum for this sort of moral transformation probably should have been the movies. But the Hollywood of that era would tolerate a single Black person and, ultimately, it chose Sidney Poitier, Belafonte’s soul mate, sometime suitemate and fellow Caribbean American. Belafonte did make a handful of movies at the beginning of his career. “Odds Against Tomorrow,” a naturalist film noir from 1959, is the meatiest of them — and his last picture for more than a decade, too. Poitier became the movie star, during a dire stretch for this country. Belafonte became the folk hero.
It began, of course, with the songs, actual folk music. Well, with Belafonte’s interpolation, which in its varied guises wed acoustic singing with Black spiritual arrangements and the sounds of the islands. He took his best-selling music on the road, to white audiences who’d pay a lot of money to watch him perform from his million-selling album “Calypso,” the one with “Day-O.” A major part of his knowing people was knowing that they watched TV. And rather than simply translate his hot-ticket cabaret act for American living rooms, Belafonte imagined something stranger and more alluring. In 1959, he somehow got CBS to broadcast “Tonight With Belafonte,” an hourlong studio performance that starts with a live commercial for Revlon (the night’s sponsor) and melts from the gleaming blond actor Barbara Britton (the ad’s pitchperson) into the sight of Black men amid shadows and great big chains.
They’re pantomiming hard labor while Belafonte belts a viscous version of “Bald Headed Woman.” The whole hour is just this sort of chilling: percussive work songs, big-bottomed gospel, moaning blues, dramatically spare sets that imply segregation and incarceration, the weather system that called herself Odetta. Belafonte never makes a direct speech about injustice. He trusts the songs and stagecraft to speak for themselves. Folks — Black folks, especially — will get it. It’s their music.
“The bleaker my acting prospects looked,” Belafonte wrote, in “My Song,” his memoir from 2011, “the more I threw myself into political organizing.” That organizing took familiar forms — marches, protests, rallies. Money. He helped underwrite the civil rights movement, paying for freedom rides. He maintained a life insurance policy on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with Coretta Scott King as the beneficiary, because Dr. King didn’t believe he could afford it. The building he bought at 300 West End Avenue in Manhattan and converted into a 21-room palace seemed to double as the movement’s New York headquarters. (“Martin began drafting his antiwar speech in my apartment.”) So, yes, Belafonte was near the psychic core and administrative center of the movement.
But those bleak Hollywood prospects — some incalculable combination of racism and too-raw talent — kept Belafonte uniquely earthbound, doing a kind of cultural organizing. It wasn’t the movies that have kept him in so many people’s lives these many decades, though he never stopped acting altogether, best of all in a handful of Robert Altman films, particularly “Kansas City,” from 1996, in which he does some persuasive intimidation as an icy 1930s gangster named Seldom Seen. His organizing happened on TV, where he was prominently featured throughout the 1960s, as himself, and where his political reach was arguably as penetrating as his soul mate’s, on variety shows he produced that introduced America to Gloria Lynne and Odetta and John Lewis.
There was also that week in February 1968 when Johnny Carson handed his “Tonight Show” over to Belafonte. The national mood had sunk into infernal tumult driven by the Vietnam War and exasperation with racist neglect, for starters. (It was going to be a grim election year, too.) Whether a Black substitute host of a popular talk show was an antidote for malaise or a provocative reflection of it, Belafonte went beyond the chummy ribbing that was Carson’s forte. He was probing. His guests that week included Poitier, Lena Horne, Bill Cosby, Paul Newman, Wilt Chamberlain, the Smothers Brothers, Zero Mostel and, months before they were murdered, Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. King. Belafonte turned the famous into folks, mixing the frippery of the format with the gravitas of the moment.
Paul Robeson preceded Belafonte in an activism partly born of artistic frustration. Robeson’s pursuit of racial equality, for everybody, won him persecution and immiseration and derailed his career. He personally warned Belafonte and Poitier of the damaging toll this country will take on Black artists who believe their art and celebrity ought do more than dazzle and distract. Belafonte watched the American government drag Robeson through hell and decided to help drag white America to moral betterment in any arena that would have him, somewhat out of respect for his elder. (“My whole life was an homage to him,” Belafonte once wrote about Robeson.) Those arenas included everything from “Free to Be … You and Me” and “The Muppet Show” to Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and, on several indelible occasions, “Sesame Street.”
With some artists, a legacy is a tricky reduction. What did it all come down to? And it just can’t be that the immense career of Harry Belafonte — with its milestones and breakthroughs, with its risks and hazards, with its triumphs and disappointments, with its doubling as a living archive of the latter half of a 20th-century America that he fought to ennoble — can be summed up by the time he spent talking to the Count.
But that, too, is how a people person reaches people. That’s how Harry Belafonte reached a lot of us: little kids who were curious and naturally open to the wonders of the human experience. So it makes sense that the sight of this elegant man, reclined among inquisitive children and surly felt critters, speaking with wisdom in that scratched timbre of his about, say, what an animal is (and, by extension, who an animal is not), told us who we were. People, yes, but perhaps another generation of folks with this hero in common, learning through the osmosis of good television how to live their lives in homage to him.