As recently as 2006, Harry Belafonte was bucking the establishment, riling many Americans by voicing his support of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez while calling George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” America shouldn’t have been so surprised. Over the course of his illustrious seven-decade career as a singer and actor, Belafonte has never shied from incendiary comments or political activism, a point he makes exhaustively in his memoir, My Song. To his credit, the book only rarely comes across as self-aggrandizing. And even then, Belafonte has the bona fides to back it up.
Belafonte has a flair for the dramatic: He begins My Song not with the tale of his birth and background, but with the harrowing account of an incident that marked his heroism during the height of racial unrest in the South. In 1964, dodging Ku Klux Klan bullets, he and close friend Sidney Poitier hand-delivered $50,000 in bail to jailed volunteers trying to register black voters in Mississippi. Against such momentous backdrops, Belafonte unpacks his life. It’s a hefty bag. A showman to the bone, he flashes to his rich, adventurous childhood in Harlem during the Depression, as the son of two mixed-race Jamaican immigrants. Then he embarked on a career in jazz that led to the pinnacle of pop stardom.
Belafonte’s Caribbean heritage was fuel for both typecasting and trailblazing. In 1956, his album Calypso—which contains his best-known hit, “The Banana Boat Song”—became the first million-selling LP in history. The following year, he starred in Island In The Sun, a Caribbean-accented film that explores interracial romance, among other topics. From there, Belafonte was caught between two worlds: whitewashed Hollywood, where he was thrust into the role of “the world’s first so-called black matinee idol,” and the burgeoning civil-rights movement, during the course of which he became a confidant of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.
My Song doesn’t gloss over the absorbing, intimate details of Belafonte’s struggles as an African-American icon navigating unknown territory. Neither does it wallow in excessive self-reflection. Striking a breezy balance even amid the most intensely charged subject matter, Belafonte traces a path through his battles with dyslexia (undiagnosed due to the era) and racial prejudice with the easygoing charm of a born raconteur. Uncluttered and free of fuss, his narrative unfolds effortlessly. And his many anecdotes about friends and contemporaries—King Jr., Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Eleanor Roosevelt—exude a humble, amiable warmth that’s casual, but earthshaking.
By the book’s end, Belafonte begins to look back and address his own failings and regrets throughout his 84 years—up to and including his infamous Chávez/Bush brouhaha, which he laments for many reasons, the least of which is Chávez’s alleged manipulation of the star’s visibility and voice. When it comes to Bush, Belafonte is unforgiving: “I really did think—and still do—that George W. Bush was a terrorist,” he reflects. “My only mistake was in calling him the greatest terrorist in the world, since I had not met them all.” Even while acknowledging his missteps, then and now, he chalks them up to an eagerness to maintain the radical fire and fierce idealism of his youth. Today, the world may think of Belafonte as an entertainer first and an activist second, but My Song makes it engagingly, compellingly clear that he wishes his legacy to be prioritized the other way around.