Cover of Harry Belafonte's autobiography, My Song.
Human and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Malik El-Shabazz) have become so indelibly symbolic of 1960s African America that students of the era sometimes forget that not all of the important leaders from the period died when they were assassinated. One such still-surviving leader is Harry Belafonte. The release of his biographical documentary, Sing Your Song, along with accompanying book titled My Song in 2011 reminded the world just how far African America has come since the 1960s and how much work apparently remains to be done.
Belafonte also appeared during 2011 in The Black Power Mixtape, released earlier this month on DVD. In it, his voice is presented alongside that of such astounding American citizens as Angela Y. Davis, Erykah Badu, Stokely Carmichael, Danny Glover, and Bobby Seale within a context rarely entertained when looking at the “black radicalism” of the 1960s.
Some of the images in Sing Your Song are exactly what you might expect to see in a documentary on the life of a man once described as “America’s first black matinee idol,” and whose singing career in the 1950s rivaled Elvis Presley’s. There are clips of the political turmoil that characterized so much of the 1960s, others of Belafonte’s impoverished beginnings in Harlem, New York, and vintage footage of the actor-singer at the height of his creative powers. Binding all of these together in the film, just as it does in the book is Belafonte’s gravelly voice now tempered by a lifetime of lending it to showmanship and movement-building.
Among the images that might startle many modern viewers are those which reveal just how influential, and daring, Belafonte was during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. While his initial involvement came in 1956 at the request of Martin Luther King Jr. himself, he eventually came to serve for all intended purposes as the unofficial liaison between the White House and the movement. He did the same on behalf of the movement and the world. The position of orator and leader of peaceful demonstrations made King more visible. But that as an empowering liaison who won the support of white celebrities to the civil rights cause, and who channeled untold numbers of dollars toward financing that cause, made Belafonte equally essential.
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