His age is just 10 years shy of a century, but his humanitarian work and entertainment anthology is timeless. Simply put, words cannot describe the life of actor, singer, civil rights activist and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte.
From childhood to adulthood, Belafonte walked a humble path that evoked change. Change in U.S.
poverty numbers, black music and culture and political activism. It was the change he visualized as a child of poor Jamaican immigrant parents and as an adult enduring violent racial discrimination during the 60s.
The iconic actor and activist shared intimate insights on his life and journey during Brilliant Lecture Series, “A Conversation with Harry Belafonte” presented by H-E-B at the Wortham Center in downtown Houston. A captive audience listened in as moderator Dr. Yvonne Cormier engaged the legendary actor in a 70-minute conversational chat.
Belafonte shared several facts about his upbringing, his friendly rival with actor Sidney Poitier, and the encounter with Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired him to join the fight against racial injustice.
Five interesting facts you may not have known about Belafonte
Belafonte was a janitor’s assistant – After serving in World War II, he thought Blacks would be able to find work after putting their lives on the line for the country, but upon moving back to New York City, the only job available for Belafonte was working as a janitorial assistant. A tenant of the building that he cleaned would play a pivotal role in his life by giving him two tickets to the American Negro Theater. At the time, Belafonte told audience members that he would have preferred monetary compensation for his work, however, those tickets would become his introduction to the theater and the arts.
Belafonte was a high school dropout – While working in the janitorial field, Belafonte dreamed of a better life. Because he had no tangible skills, Belafonte doubted himself at times but after his first visit to the theater he constantly dreamed of the stage and becoming an artist that would change the world. Belafonte had to take advantage of the gift that was given to him – the stage. “The stage and the lights spoke words to me, it helped people to think and to feel in ways never thought of before,” Belafonte said.
Sidney Poitier was Belafonte’s understudy in his first play – Theater was not Belafonte’s money maker in the 1940s, he practiced his craft at a number of theaters and was set to perform his first play, but never had the opportunity to perform because he could not find a replacement to assume his janitorial duties for the evening. In Belafonte’s absence, Poitier, his understudy, performed in his place. During the play two top Broadway producers were in the audience scouting for a black actor to play in an upcoming production paving the way for Poitier’s film debut in “No Way Out.” Needless to say, Belafonte’s absence paved the way for Poitier to receive the role that launched his career. Belafonte described it as a “terrible play.” Belafonte and Poitier’s friendly rivalry stemmed from their mutual love of theater. As the two flourished in their careers they continued to inspire on and off the stage and have maintained an enduring friendship.
After hearing about injustices in the Deep South, Belafonte called on Poitier to go with him to join forces with Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – Belafonte described Poitier as one who loved to perform in the theater and go back home to the Bahamas to fish once he was done with a play. Dr. King contacted Belafonte in regards to raising money for the Freedom Riders who were running out of funds to continue pushing for justice in the South. Belafonte asked Dr. King how much he needed and he said $50,000. Belafonte spearheaded an effort that raised $70,000 for the mission and also brought some of his celebrity friends down to join in the march for freedom. Belafonte also put on a benefit concert in Mississippi to aid Civil Rights efforts.
For a brief stint, Belafonte quit theater to open up a fast food establishment. The arts gave him the power to teach and instruct humans on how to change human traditions, but somewhere in between performing in plays and organizing the March on Washington, Belafonte acted on his desire to open a “fast food spot” as he called it.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner was on hand at last Thursday night’s event to present Belafonte with a proclamation from the City of Houston honoring the actor’s legacy. The visit represented the second time the iconic actor has visited Houston, the first visit during the late 60’s during the Civil Rights era left a negative imprint in his mind.
Tammie Lang Campell, a Houston activist and founder of the Honey Brown Hope Foundation, asked Belafonte about activism and what it takes to stay committed during an audience Q&A session. Belafonte offered a response that was both simple and profound, “It takes a deep, abiding love for your fellow man and woman.”
“Hearing how Mr. Belafonte has stayed committed to activism for over 60 years refueled my commitment to promote healing, hope and love,” said Campbell following the lecture series.
Added Campbell, “it is a response that will forever be etched in my memory.”