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Tally Mon Come, Name Belafonte

At 79, calypso legend Harry Belafonte is vocal as ever -- as a critic of the Bush administration and the president in particular.
At 79, calypso legend Harry Belafonte is vocal as ever -- as a critic of the Bush administration and the president in particular. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

A few years later, the head of Revlon canceled a series of television specials because Belafonte insisted on having integrated acts in every episode. Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover was keeping tabs because of Belafonte's leftist organizing and association with King.

Along the way, Belafonte turned down potentially career-making roles in "Lilies of the Field," "To Sir, With Love," and others, because he considered the black characters "neutered," with little sexuality or humanity. Sidney Poitier, one of his best friends then and now, became a star by accepting some of those roles.

Belafonte sometimes has been too much for his friends: In the mid-1980s, he quit the board of TransAfrica when it wanted to accept Bill Cosby as a board member. Cosby was allowing "The Cosby Show" to be broadcast in South Africa during apartheid, and TransAfrica was leading the fight for divestment and sanctions. Belafonte saw hypocrisy in his own organization.

"I said, 'I'm out of here,' " he says.

But look how the edge moves: Apartheid is gone, Cosby is not involved with TransAfrica, Belafonte is back on the board, and he's receiving an award for lifetime service.

He gave his last concert three years ago, though he says he may go back in the studio this summer. A documentary is being made of his life. He just shot a film with Anthony Hopkins about Bobby Kennedy's assassination that is due out later this year. He earns as much as $20,000 per speaking engagement.

Some of those dried up this year. Kansas City Young Audiences canceled his engagement to headline a fundraiser in May because corporate and philanthropic sponsors objected to his statements, says Harlan Brownlee, executive director. He says his organization could not afford to risk funding because 150,000 children served in arts programs would be the losers.

Belafonte disagrees: "The children are the losers, for not having somebody stand up," he says.

In February he was disinvited from speaking at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The shock of that slap is still reverberating in civil rights circles. Belafonte says he thinks the Bush administration applied pressure. Yesterday afternoon the King family issued its first statement on the controversy, blaming an unnamed volunteer for both inviting and disinviting Belafonte without the family's knowledge. The family apologized to "one of our father's strongest supporters, and one of the giants of our freedom struggle."

Looking back, Belafonte remembers a piece of advice he got early on from his role model, the blacklisted Paul Robeson.

"Get them to sing your song," Robeson told him one night at the Village Vanguard in New York, "and they'll want to know who you are."

"Sure enough, I woke up one day and the whole world was singing 'Day-o,' " Belafonte says.

Now he's hoping for the edge to move again, another lurch forward. Waiting for the mainstream to catch up to Harry Belafonte, so that one more time the controversial doesn't seem so anymore.


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