Monday, 24 October 2011

My Song: Belafonte's Memoir: Entertainment, Workers, and Social Justice

One of the best books I've read in recent years is Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes (Somebody Knows My Name in the US) It is the story of a woman born free in what is now Mali and who after crossing Atlantic three times dies in England in 1803 as the slave trade is being abolished. One of the latest chapters in the continuing story of what happened next is Harry Belafonte's memoir, My Song, which sounds like a worthy complement to Hill's novel.

Belafonte is a real star--in 1964 a month after the Beatles got 13 minutes on the Ed Sullivan show, Bela­fonte got 22 minutes--but he also was always involved in the struggle for justice, civil rights and economic fair play. The review (by Garrison Keilor in The New York Times on the weekend) makes the book (written with Michael Schnayerson) sound like an illuminating view of what it was like growing up in Jamaica and New York, always an outsider, always labelled black.

Keilor quotes him: “About my own life, I have no complaints. Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago. And as I write this, our president has yet to acknowledge that this fact is of any concern to him. . . . For all of his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or black.”

His hit songs from the beginning had that concern behind them. Here's one of his first hits from the 1950s which is a work song. Listen to the words closely and you'll feel the sweat of the workers who hauled bananas all night long.

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