Harry Belafonte's childhood began in Harlem, where his neighbors were Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. His mother regularly took him to see jazz greats at the Apollo Theater.
Following his parents’ divorce, he lived with his white grandmother in Jamaica, then endured a stint in a British boarding school.
This wide range of experiences, explains Belafonte, gave him a lifelong ease in moving between races and classes, from janitor to entertainer to activist.
While studying acting in New York he landed his first singing gig at the Roost, singing standards for $70 a week, which led to higher profile radio and club dates at previously segregated venues, such as the Riviera in Las Vegas.
With his multi-racial looks and Caribbean diction, Belafonte presented a reassuring presence to early fifties white audiences – “Black, but ... not too black,” he writes in his autobiography, My Song. From there, he went on to film, television, theater and musical success, continuing to break down barriers along the way.
His long, rich entertainment career is now in its seventh decade – but there is so much more to the song of Belafonte. A meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 led him to channel his energy and talents toward the struggle for social justice.
As a highly successful and beloved show business figure, he used his stature to benefit the Civil Rights movement, even serving as its liaison to the Kennedy Administration. His dedication to social causes has continued throughout his life and takes center stage in his new book.
How did the racism and extreme poverty Belafonte faced as a child shape his future as an activist? What forces drove his talent and career?
Harry Belafonte, entertainer, activist and author of a new memoir, "My Song" (Knopf)
Belafonte discusses his new memoir with Tim Robbins this evening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, sponsored by Live Talks Los Angeles and KPCC. Reception at 6:30, discussion begins at 8:00. For ticket information, click here.