A friend and I wandered into Ocean Grill, a quiet, sophisticated fish restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side, for a late lunch on the recent Martin Luther King Jr holiday. I heard that unmistakable deep, gravelly voice from a nearby table. It was social activist/calypso crooner Harry Belafonte. How coincidental, not only to run into an old family friend at this retro restaurant reminiscent of a luxury liner, but to reconnect with the long time civil rights activist on this commemorative day.
Still charming, slim and sexy at 83, the gentle mannered Belafonte, leaning on a walking stick, came over to our table to catch up. He’s still as alive and passionate about his social beliefs as ever. Belafonte, who marched and crusaded with Martin Luther King Jr. and shed tears at his funeral as well as performed his songs of justice at John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural festivities fifty years ago, has aged gracefully, successfully inspiring change and gaining personal wisdom along the way. “I’ve seen it all now,” he told me.
He looked forward to his upcoming trip to Sundance in Park City, Utah, to premiere the independent documentary film about his life, “Sing Your Song.” The 50’s and 60’s superstar born in Harlem and raised in Jamaica said “justice” is the same today. He has a clear vision of that, whether he’s fighting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa with his hit, “We Are The World,” or racism here at home. The show business legend narrates his own dramatic story.
Belafonte was an international sex symbol who at the height of his popularity mid-century was turned away because he was black from white restaurants and hotels in segregated cities including Washington, DC — at the time a sleepy southern town, where I grew up and first met him.
We reminisced about the time during my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid- 60’s – that was before cell phones, blackberries and even email. There was a single pay phone –not even touch tone – mounted to the wall at the end of the hall in the dorm. Someone yelled down the dingy smoke-filled corridor that I had a call from Harry. There was Tom, Dick and Harry calling one after another in those days.
I raced to the phone. The deep gravelly voice on the other end was not only distinguishable but familiar. Belafonte told me, “I’m coming to Pittsburgh to play a date at the arena next Saturday. My brother, who is a basketball player and a little lighter in color than I am, is coming with me. I want you to meet him.”
I was excited. I had known Harry since I was a youngster. He spent many late night evenings at our home – some with his then wife, Julie, who was from Washington–and some alone. Once, I remember he brought the late Miriam Makeba, the South African singer/activist. They improvised song and dance in our den. He was always warm and kind, seemingly modest about his stardom and as outspoken as he was, always interested in what others had to say as well. He always shared his strong opinions but he didn’t seem nearly as strident in those days as he did in later years.
I didn’t hesitate to accept his gracious offer: “Meet me in my dressing room. I’ll have a ticket for the show for you; the three of us will have dinner afterwards.” I always enjoyed Belafonte’s performance and never tired of “Day-O.”
When my dad called I shared my enthusiasm that Harry had phoned to invite me to dinner with his younger brother. As the evening drew closer, I made sure my skinny black mini-dress was back from the dry cleaner, and I fantasized about a gorgeous hunk resembling the Belafonte I knew. When I arrived at Belafonte’s dressing room at the appointed time, I was startled to see my dad sipping a drink and shooting the breeze with Harry. Before I could utter a word, Harry walked toward me and stopped short, “May I still give you a big hug and kiss?” He threw his arms tightly around me and lifted me off the ground. “Your father tells me you’re engaged. Who’s the lucky guy?”
That was a surprise to me! Dad casually explained that he happened to be in town and thought he’d stop by to see the show and take us to dinner afterwards. I wondered aloud where was Harry’s brother? “When your dad called and told me you were engaged,” Belafonte explained. “I told my brother not to come.”
It certainly wasn’t the evening I had anticipated with my dad as my date. He didn’t seem to understand why I was not thrilled by his surprise visit. When I asked dad why he betrayed me and called Harry, he explained, “If someone sees you in a restaurant with a colored man, he’s just a ‘schvatsa,’ (Yiddish for black person). No one will know he’s Harry Belafonte’s brother.”
I think back and wonder why that would have made a difference. We’ve changed as a nation, but have we progressed enough. That’s why Harry Belafonte is still fighting, and his legacy is not just historical, but contemporary as well.
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