The rise of the once-popular singer and actor (b. 1927) who
used his celebrity and suasion to aid liberal causes.
Few books have a more accurate title and subtitle than this one. Smith (American Studies/Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston; Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960, 2004, etc.) focuses sharply on Belafonte’s background: his boyhood in Harlem, early departure from high school, stint in the segregated U.S. Navy, experiences with Jim Crow (which outraged him) and eventual decision to become an actor in New York. Smith periodically reminds us of Belafonte’s friendship with singer/actor/political activist Paul Robeson, who served as mentor for the young man and whom Belafonte continues to credit. The author also shows how Belafonte, discouraged that there were so few acting opportunities for black performers, moved toward music, a career for which he’d had no formal training or real experience. But he had talent. He had colleagues and mentors ranging from Charlie Parker to folksingers of the 1940s and ’50s: Lead Belly, Josh White, Pete Seeger and others. As Smith points out repeatedly, Belafonte also had an electrifying stage presence and a steamy sexuality that soon rocketed him into popularity. He devoted himself to human rights causes throughout his career, using his celebrity and evincing no fear that he would hurt himself financially. He became an intimate of Martin Luther King Jr. and used his unusual (for the time) access to TV and movies to promote his agenda. Smith gives us plenty of detail about his movies (the good, bad and ugly), his recordings, his relationships with women, and his battles with the ugly racial status quo in 1950s and ’60s America.
So engaging that readers will crave a sequel: Belafonte since the ’70s?