avatar
Voice and Hammer


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- 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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 font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> 

“How. Much.” 

The pasty man twitches, excited now. “One hundred thousand dollars?” he says, just in case Harry Belafonte— line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>— mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’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- line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>“
Mr. B! 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Pica says, bouncing on his toes. Pica is a graduate himself. He earned his high school, college, and master
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>“
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>? line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>“
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>” 

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— font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”> 
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>not at Belafonte
10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’
"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
Verdana”>“
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. line-height:150%;font-family:"Arial","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>?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- "Arial","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>?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- mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>“best heist- line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>wrong movie ever made,
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>? "Arial","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>?; Porgy and Bess "Arial","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>?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— line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>two, 185 pounds
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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: “ mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’ll tell my husband, line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>”— mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>— font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>‘
can put his shoes under my bed anytime. 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> 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-
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>chink. A beat. Not a drum but a tool, like metal striking stone. Ca-
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>chink. Eleven times the hammer falls, and then the light comes up, a spot on Belafonte.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’
s it, 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> the old man murmurs now, watching himself then. Behind him, seven bare-
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’
s center stage, his signature outfit— font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’
s double- font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>loop belt buckle, a tailored shirt of Indian cotton open almost to his navel
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>made over into a prisoner
150%;font-family:"Arial","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>?
headed woman, she too mean lord-lordy, she too mean . . . line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>

“Bald-headed woman, 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>“
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>”
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- I don’t want no sugar in my coffee, 
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>screen, his hands plunge down as if grabbing on for life to something that burns.
I got a bulldog, he weigh five hundred, 
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”> 

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. 150%;font-family:"Arial","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>?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 I’m so hot and dry. 
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>‘Sylvie, mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>? 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> he says now.
Sylvie say she love me
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-

Leave a comment