Once, more than half a century ago, he was the handsomest man in the world. A radiant man. It was a matter of bearing, of voice and gesture and timing. He had that high, buttery baritone, nothing special really, except, he says, “I knew how to use it”; and that smile, the genuine pleasure that seemed to roll off the so-called King of Calypso in soft little waves; and those eyes, bedroom eyes but darker, almost cadaverous but alert, ready. The eyes revealed the simmer inside. “This hard core of hostility,” a director once said, comparing him to Marlon Brando. That mesmerizing anger. “He’s loaded with it.”
And now? In a diner he asks a kid in a ball cap where he’s going to college. Kid raises his brim and squints up at him—who are you? At a museum he tries to chat up a guard from Jamaica, where down by the docks he learned to sing as a boy. The guard murmurs and smiles. Old man, the guard says with his eyes.
One day we’re walking up Broadway with his wife, Pam. She admires a Porsche, antique and teal. “What year do you think it is?” she asks. Sixty years old, nearly a quarter century his junior, she’s his youthful bride. He walks over to the car’s owner: rumpled and pasty, wearing shorts and an Izod, plugging coins into a meter.
The old man takes out his money roll. It’s fat and bound by a gold clasp. “How much?” he rasps. His voice sounds familiar but scraped down, sharp pebbles beneath sand.
The owner looks at this stranger, his skin the color of dark honey, with a half smile of alarm. “Uh . . .”
The old man grins, a shining, slightly crooked expression. It’s like a light turning on; you can almost hear the pasty man think, Wait—you’re still alive?
The pasty man twitches, excited now. “One hundred thousand dollars?” he says, just in case Harry Belafonte—it’s Harry Belafonte!—isn’t joking. Belafonte pats his shoulder and moves on, keeping time with his carved wooden cane. “I’m going to tell my wife you tried to buy my car!” the pasty man chirps after him.
One day Belafonte says, “I’m taking you to a movie.” There’s a recent documentary about his life called Sing Your Song, a brightly inspiring companion to his 2011 memoir My Song (written with Michael Shnayerson). They’re both elegant testimonies, both surprisingly candid, and yet neither quite bridges the peculiar gap between Belafonte’s past, when he was labeled “subversive” and spied on by the FBI, and his present: a nice old man who used to sing folk songs with a Jamaican accent, a “national treasure.” “Our heritage.” How did that happen? To him? To us?
“I’ve seen Sing Your Song,” I tell him.
“That’s not the movie,” he says. He won’t tell me its name. He and Pam and I pile into a cab and shoot downtown to a theater on West 23rd. Invitation only: the families of the movie’s stars, there for a special screening of a documentary, Zero Percent, about a prison-college program at Sing Sing called Hudson Link. The program’s director, Sean Pica, is waiting. “Mr. B!” Pica says, bouncing on his toes. Pica is a graduate himself. He earned his high school, college, and master’s degrees inside. “I grew up in the town of Sing Sing,” he likes to say. That’s where he learned about Harry Belafonte. “I’ll tell you about Mr. B,” he says. At Sing Sing, five times a day, every man’s in his cell for a head count. One man missing, the whole prison shuts down. Belafonte’s there one afternoon to meet about thirty inmate-?students. The superintendent has turned over his conference room for the gathering. All he asks is that he be allowed to sit in. “Huge Mr. B fan.”
Almost 4 p.m. Head count approaching. “Gotta wrap up,” the deputy of security tells Belafonte. “Gotta get these men back to their cells.”
Belafonte waits a beat before giving the deputy the smile.
“We’ll take another fifteen minutes,” he says.
“But—” goes the deputy.
“We will take another fifteen minutes.”
And that’s how it happens: 4 p.m., no count—not at Belafonte’s table, not anywhere in the prison. Pica couldn’t remember anything like it. “I love Mr. B,” he says. “He’s the guy who stopped the clock.”
Don’t get stuck on the bananas. You know the bananas. Day-o! Day-o-o-o. Come Mr. Tally Man, tally me banana. “The Banana Boat Song” was the hit that made Calypso, Belafonte’s third album, the first LP in history to sell a million copies—?1956, the same year a white boy from Mississippi released a record called Elvis Presley. Belafonte outsold Elvis. This fact is important to him. Even now, eighty-four years old, his left eye wandering, his right hand curled around the head of his walking stick, his still-?great frame folded into the front row of a film archive’s darkened screening room, just us and Pam this time.
Belafonte was first. First black man to win a Tony; one of the first to star in an all-?black Hollywood hit (Carmen Jones, 1954); first to star in a noir (Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959—“best heist-gone-wrong movie ever made,” says James Ellroy); first to turn down starring roles (To Sir, With Love?; Lilies of the Field?; Porgy and Bess?; Shaft) because, he said, he’d play no part that put a black man on his knees or made of him a cartoon. We’re here in this screening room to watch a forgotten hour of television for which he won the first Emmy awarded to a black man for production, for being in charge.
When I found the show in the archive, I thought it would be more of what I believed I already knew about Belafonte. The albums I’d bought were labeled “easy listening” or “folk,” as in harmonizing trios who wore matching sweaters. Then I watched. My eyes went wide. I started shaking my head in disbelief. I think I gasped. I was wearing the archive’s cheap headphones, sitting at a monitor in a dark room. Other researchers hunched over screens, all our faces flickering blue. I laughed. I slapped the desk. My eyes watered. Goddamn. I felt like I was watching a different past, one in which the revolution had been televised. Goddamn. As if that was what TV was for. A signal. This, I thought, this.
December 10, 1959, 8:30 p.m., live. Kids across America are groaning because the night’s entertainment, Zane Grey Theatre, white men with six-?guns, has been displaced by, of all things, Revlon. Makeup. Miss Barbara Britton, the sponsor’s hostess in ball gown and pearls and white gloves up to her elbows amidst crystal cases of Christmas possibilities, introducing “the exciting Mr. Belafonte,” the dreamiest and safest Negro in America, sweet as Nat King Cole and so much prettier.
At least part of that was true. “From the top of his head right down that white shirt, he’s the most beautiful man I ever set eyes on,” said Diahann Carroll, who costarred in Carmen Jones. His beauty was like a kindness, golden, encompassing. He’d outsold Elvis by offering a gentler thrust. Elvis stood center stage and pushed. Belafonte, a bigger man—six-two, 185 pounds—curled his shoulders around his Cadillac chest and seemed to be promising the spotlight to Miss Barbara Britton, to Mrs. America, to the married white womanhood of the nation, if she could gather the courage to come up on stage and join him. An offer, not a proposition.
But that’s not what made him a star. It was this: Elvis was going to seduce you. No, that’s a euphemism. Elvis, legs jittering, wanted to fuck. Belafonte, fingers snapping, seemed like he’d be seduced by you, and then you’d make love.
That pisses him off, even now. “People saying it in line,” he rasps, sweetening his voice to mimic the white women who presumed he was some Mandingo for the taking: “‘I’ll tell my husband, ‘I’ll leave you in a minute, he’ ”—Belafonte—“‘can put his shoes under my bed anytime.’ Never stopping to debate whether I would like to do that.” He was a sex symbol, he got that. But what kind? A man or a “boy”? Lover or servant?
Tonight with Belafonte opens: a harsh charcoal drawing of a man so twisted, so fixed in nothing but pain, that he’s barely recognizable. Belafonte. The music begins. Ca-chink. A beat. Ca-chink. A beat. Not a drum but a tool, like metal striking stone. Ca-chink. Ca-chink. Eleven times the hammer falls, and then the light comes up, a spot on Belafonte. “Voice and hammer, that’s it,” the old man murmurs now, watching himself then. Behind him, seven bare-armed black men, biceps like cannonballs, faces in shadow, let their hammers fall, shoulders heaving. Their chains hang from the darkness above, huge heavy links like anchors. Belafonte’s center stage, his signature outfit—high, tight mohair pants, a sailor’s double-?loop belt buckle, a tailored shirt of Indian cotton open almost to his navel—made over into a prisoner’s rags. His right hand is a claw, his left is a fist, his eyes are blackness and his legs are wide, his feet planted. He begins to sing. A hard dragging snarl. I don’t want no bald-?headed woman, she too mean lord-lordy, she too mean . . .
“Bald-headed woman,” Belafonte snickers now, in the screening room. “Perfect for the product. Revlon.” He snorts.
It’s a chain-gang song. Belafonte had found it ten years earlier, and he had been waiting to sing it ever since. He found the song on a record nobody listened to back then, a chain gang recorded live. Found it in the Library of Congress, flat-broke Harry bumming his way down to Washington to sit in a room with big black headphones framing his temper, soaking up songs that made more sense to him than the pop on the radio. “Folk music,” with its echoes of coffeehouses and college boys, doesn’t convey what Belafonte heard, unless you cut away the dull virtue that’s come to pad the term folk, cut it down to the gristle.
I don’t want no sugar in my coffee,
make me mean, lord-lordy,
make me mean.
There’s a twitch in his narrow hips. The hammers behind him swing. “How simple,” he murmurs now. “How very simple.” On-screen, his hands plunge down as if grabbing on for life to something that burns.
I got a bulldog, he weigh five hundred,
in my backyard, lord-lordy,
in my backyard.
Belafonte bangs his stick on the screening room’s carpeted floor, his grin gorgeous like it’s 1959 but stripped by age, plain now as what it was then: a kind of fury.
I say, “You changed the lyric.” On the original recording, it’s “jet-black woman.”
Belafonte looks at me like I’m a fool. “I changed lyrics on everything. Like that thing upstairs?” Earlier, we’d watched a happier Harry, singing a song called “Hold ’Em Joe” on Jackie Gleason’s Cavalcade of Stars, Caribbean costume and the all-?white June Taylor Dancers prancing as Belafonte leads a donkey on the stage. It made me wince. A donkey. But I wasn’t reading the code. “You know what ‘Hold ’Em Joe’ is?” He grips his stick. “It’s a phallic song. ‘My donkey’? Here I was, doing the song known by millions of people in the Caribbean as one thing, and I’m on the most popular show in America singing the same song. I made ’em think it was a song about a donkey.” He laughs. Cackles. The donkey’s a metaphor, but so is the phallus for which it stands. Metaphors all the way down, from donkey to defiance to the root, humanness. Not in the abstract but in the flesh: a body: a human being.
Belafonte nods toward the screen. “Let’s play it.”
The hanging chains tumble down and the first number ends with a close-up of Belafonte’s boot on the iron heap. But the next song’s a whisper, the guitar behind him just a little strum. Sylvie. Pause. Sylvie.
I’m so hot and dry.
Sylvie . . .
Sylvie . . .
Can’t you hear,
Can’tcha hear me cryin’?
“‘Sylvie,’?” he says now. “When I heard this at the library, by Leadbelly, it was a children’s song.” Leadbelly was Huddy Ledbetter, from whose twelve-string guitar not just Belafonte but Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others absorbed the musical truths of the ex-con Life magazine once called “Bad Nigger.” Leadbelly really had worked on a chain gang, but what Belafonte took from him wasn’t “authenticity.” His “Sylvie” doesn’t sound like Leadbelly’s; it’s slower, sadder, sharper.
Sylvie say she love me