Harry Belafonte published his memoirs, My Song, in September. Now that el V has gotten to read it too, there's been someone with whom I talk about it. With many friends visiting this means we both talk about it. It turns out that they, like many of the readers and reviewers of the book are surprised to learn -- or, had forgotten -- that Belafonte was such an activist, who, in a very large way, helped bankroll the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's and 70's. But My Song isn't only about himself. As Mr. Belafonte described during his time with Smiley and West on the program this last weekend, he was prompted to do this book because Marlon Brando died without doing one, and hardly anybody knew how much he did for the Movement and other Civil Liberties causes -- thus documentary, Sing Your Song, that Belafonte made for HBO, that aired back in October.
Now that el V's been able to read My Song too, I've had someone to talk with about it, which brought to mind Langston Hughes's autobiography-memoir, The Big Sea. The two artists are a generation and a half apart. Langston Hughes was born in 1902, Belafonte in 1927. They both grew up poor, they both worked extensively in theater, they both were all their lives activists for equality and civil rights. There's a photo in Belafonte's book with him and Langston Hughes together. They were both very good looking. Belafonte's noted for his Caribbean roots. Hughes spent significant periods in Mexico when he was young, as his birth father emigrated there.
I discovered Langston Hughes around the same time I discovered Harry Belafonte, while a girl on the farm: Hughes, in a poetry anthology, Belafonte on a Caribbean Christmas album, singing "The Borning Day."
Mr. Belafonte's book didn't get that much attention upon publication. Some reviewers were overtly were hostile and dismissive of both him and the book, because of his "liberal" stance, his activism, for his "paling around with dictators like Castro and Chavez." They said he was sexist because he's had three spouses in the tradition of very successful show biz people have memorably done, at least in his generations (successful female entertainers of the era married several times also). The hostility of these reader-reviewers reminded me that reader-editors of Hughes's The Big Sea (1943) -- his publishers hated his Harlem Renaissance section, declaring it far too long, overblown, filled with all these names and events that nobody cared about. Finally Carl Van Vechten intervened and insisted the section remain, just as Hughes had written it. Not long after this section was recognized for the brilliant piece of writing it is, everyone's favorite section. It has become an invaluable primary source for cultural, political and art historians. This may well be the fate of My Song.