To put a cap on its annual Black History Month celebration at the City College in New York last week, the Black Studies Department, along with several other departments, summoned Harry Belafonte as its keynote speaker, and surprisingly he responded.
Not only did the great actor, singer, activist, philanthropist respond, he delivered a mini-memoir of his life and times, from his early days at the American Negro Theater (ANT) in Harlem, under the tutelage of Frederick O’Neal and Abram Hill to the moment which witnesses his tireless global resolve in the fight for civil and human rights.
Whenever Belafonte (who turned 84 March 1) takes to the podium, within minutes he cites the name of Paul Robeson. “He has always been a role model for me, someone who combined art and politics without compromising either,” he told an almost full house at the Marian Anderson Auditorium at Aaron Davis Hall on the campus.
Belafonte recounted his coming of age in Harlem and how he began his legendary singing career. “I had the first million selling album,” he said, and then stunned the audience with a loud “Day is it Dayo, daylight come and me wanna go home.”
That calypso classic and others came after he ended his foray into jazz during those first trembling appearances at the Royal Roost with Charlie “Bird” Parker, Lester Young, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach backing him. “Can you imagine how intimidating that was?” he laughed.
He talked about several of his old friends, including Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, all of whom studied with him at ANT. And he reminded listeners of the dedication his friend Marlon Brando gave to various causes. “A lot of people are not aware of just how generous and caring he was to so many important causes,” Belafonte explained.
One of the things he was proud to emphasize was the completion of a documentary on his life “Sing Your Song,” which was recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Can the autobiography or memoir be far behind?
At the end of his hour-long presentation, he touched on the Obama administration, beginning with a remembrance of Eleanor Roosevelt and how gracious she was and the role she played in keeping her husband on point. On FDR, Belafonte said it was A. Philip Randolph who was most instrumental in making sure Roosevelt lived up to his promises. After Randolph had threatened a massive march on Washington in 1941 if the president refused to do something about discrimination in the factory and munitions plants, Roosevelt capitulated and signed an executive order.
“Obama has asked us to do the same thing,” Belafonte said. “He said make him accountable, so we have that obligation to do just that. But we haven’t so we can’t blame Obama. The blame is ours.”