Elegant. The adjective describes Harry Belafonte perfectly. First, there is his presence. This is a man who could look equally compelling in a tux or a basic tank top and whose cultural dexterity enables him to wear either to fit the social world where he is interacting. Then, there are the 89-year-old icon’s politics and process. He is at once thoughtful and deliberate, yet seemingly effortless when discussing issues that continue to drive him. One notices these traits long before pondering the catalog of history and anecdotes of that history his mind contains. Belafonte had formative relationships with nearly everyone who shaped the mid- to late 20th century, from Martin Luther King to Eleanor Roosevelt to African leaders across the diaspora who forged paths away from colonialism. His role in history already secure, Belafonte is working on the Many Rivers to Cross Festival to be held in Atlanta October 1-2 to continue his social justice legacy through encouraging a new generation to lead the charge. He does it with the elegance that won him many admirers.
Belafonte credits his mother as a primary influence on his style sense, noting he needed to be fastidious in his appearance to pass her critical eye. “My mother saw social etiquette in terms of British tutoring. She considered herself as a Caribbean very different from black Americans.” And though he grew up poor, she told him, “Poverty is no excuse for the absence of class.”
As a pioneer in entertainment, his mother’s lessons would serve him well. “I was always on the cutting edge of spaces where white America didn't always make our presence comfortable,” he recalls, recounting the racism he experienced as the first black entertainer to perform at the Waldorf Astoria. “My mother was tenacious in her pride and never wanted folks to take liberties with her. And she imposed this on her children.” He forged his path with grit and style to earn acceptance. That half the crowds of the spaces he invaded were adoring females didn’t hurt his ascent either.
The fashion world began to frequent the worlds he invaded, and he reveled in it. Asked what he enjoys about the fashion process, “All of it!” he animated. “I don’t just do it as an act of accommodation. I like to dress. I like looking through magazines and looking at color combinations and tie patterns, socks, shoes.” (He delighted in telling the story about the time his friend, Kenneth Cole asked him to walk the runway in Mr. Cole’s fashion week show without introduction or narrative that left the audience abuzz, wondering if the handsome man was, in fact, Belafonte.)
From Artist to Activist
Political and social events often dictate one’s ability to make a mark on history. Belafonte benefited from a confluence of forces that would propel his arc: New York and Hollywood were (relatively) more hospitable to black entertainers, which allowed Belafonte to cement his celebrity and crossover status. Around the same time, the struggle for independence in Africa coincided with the burgeoning Civil Rights struggle in the U.S. Belafonte’s Caribbean heritage afforded him an excellent perspective to bridge the African diaspora and act as a powerful voice for change.
He quit high school and said he gained his education through social observations of peers and mentors like W.E.B. Dubois (“a man of Harvard!”), Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and of, course, King. “I didn't set out to lead, I didn't set out to teach anybody anything. This is who I am. I wasn’t trying to effect anything. When Dr. King called and introduced himself, I was a willing disciple.” Their bond would send Belafonte on his way to becoming an international voice in civil rights, anti-apartheid, and humanitarianism.
Leaving a Legacy
The Many Rivers Festival in Atlanta is an opportunity for Belafonte to create a platform he can leave as a legacy that bears his brand. The festival’s roots began with a conversation he had with Prince, who asked, “Why can’t we have a festival to celebrate the beauty of the power of rebellion?” Belafonte responded to the question and challenged young artists think about their activism. He asked those he approached for the festival, “What song in your repertoire would fit the design of social struggle?” Many artists realized they had no such song, so he asked them to compose music that fit. His conversations with them prompted many to evaluate their ability to effect change through their art, to act, as Robeson called artists, the gatekeepers of truth. With any success, the festival will flourish to honor his vision.
Harry Belafonte is a transcendent figure who successfully married his style and celebrity with politics and activism to do a world of good. As he solidifies his mentorship of his festival, he looks to inspire a generation of new voices at a critical time in history. No doubt, he will be there looking and speaking elegantly, as always.
Craig Mills is a New York City-based freelance writer and editor. He teaches writing and research at NYU and reports on social issues, education, and politics.