The noted entertainer and activist looks back over his tumultuous life.
Being the first singer to sell 1 million copies of an album (Calypso in 1956) and writing his own ticket at the otherwise segregated Riviera in Las Vegas did little to assuage Belafonte’s fury at the discrimination he had experienced before he made it big. Nor had the emotional scars healed from a poverty-stricken childhood with a severely depressed, impossible-to-please mother, he acknowledges in this forthright memoir, ably co-authored by veteran reporter Shnayerson (Coal River, 2008, etc.). Not until he met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 did Belafonte find a way to channel his rage into the larger struggle for racial justice. He would become as well known for his unswerving commitment to civil rights as for his records and concerts. He planned strategy with King; funded the young rebels at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council; acted as a liaison to the hesitant Kennedy administration; and recruited the celebrity-studded lineup for the March on Washington. Though never as big a movie star as his friend Sidney Poitier, about whom he writes with equal parts affection and competitiveness, Belafonte also had some successes in film, most notably opposite Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954) and in Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996). He recounts these highlights, as well as three marriages, four kids, a half-century in Freudian analysis, and lots more, with frankness and bite. He has mellowed not at all in old age, calling George Bush a terrorist in 2006 and judging President Obama to be insufficiently compassionate and committed to the poor. Yet Belafonte’s bluntness and vast ego aren’t too hard to take, since they are so often applied to the service of others, not just in the ’50s and ’60s but into the ’80s with the “We Are the World” video for African famine relief and currently in his Gathering for Justice project to train minority youths in nonviolent activism.
Bracingly opinionated autobiography from an American original, still provocative in his ninth decade.