“Day-O, Day-O, daylight come and me wan’ go home.” It’s safe to say, nearly everyone across the globe has heard the timeless “The Banana Boat Song/Day-O” made famous by singer, songwriter, social activist, actor, benefactor and strategist extraordinaire, Harry Belafonte, Jr., a proven legendary master of many trades.
Despite a misconception that is held by many, Harold George Belafonte, Jr., who was born on March 1, 1927, is actually a Harlem, New York native. Belafonte’s parents came to these shores from the islands of Martinique and Jamaica. The pair later sent their son to Jamaica at age 8, where he was raised by his maternal grandmother until his return to the states five years later. Upon coming back to these shores, Belafonte attended school but then eventually made the decision to drop out in the ninth grade. At age 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After his World War II military stint, Belafonte thought he would try his hand at acting.
The 1950s was a pivotal decade for the young performer. An acting role led to a singing job, and this resulted in a string of cabaret gigs that eventually landed him a recording contract. Belafonte first tried his hand at singing pop, then folk, and eventually sashayed into calypso. He soon became known as the ‘King of Calypso.’ Belafonte struck gold when his recording “The Banana Boat Song/Day-O,” released in 1956 was met with rave critical reviews. The dynamo was juggling singing and acting and did so with apparent ease.
Belafonte won a Tony Award in 1953 for his performance in a Broadway revue, “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” He also managed to snag some unforgettable film roles like “Bright Road” in 1953 and the following year’s “Carmen Jones” and both times, he played opposite the legendary and beautiful actress Dorothy Dandridge. The man, whom actress Diahann Carroll once said was ‘the most beautiful man she ever laid eyes on,’ became one of the few African American leading men film stars of the decade.
In 1957, Belafonte played a West Indian revolutionary in the film classic “Island in the Sun.” Two years later, he portrayed a petty criminal in “Odds Against Tomorrow.” Upon completing the 1959 film, Belafonte hung up his acting shoes for a solid eleven years until 1971, when he played a wily backwoods preacher in the western “Buck and the Preacher” directed by close friend and co-star in the movie, Sidney Poitier.
The man with the handsome looks and husky voice had also long been a defender of civil rights. Inspired by the communist political beliefs of the great African American baritone Paul Robeson, Belafonte felt he could no longer stand on the sidelines as racial intolerance and social injustices for Blacks came to a boiling point in the turbulent sixties. He became very vocal in the fight for racial equality in America.
Belafonte used his craft as a platform for the protest of the racist Jim Crow laws in the south refusing to perform there from 1954 until 1961. A formidable force in the civil rights movement of the ’60s, he formed a very close bond with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is not widely known but Belafonte was responsible for raising $50,000 to bail out the Rev. King after the pastor was arrested for spearheading the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. He personally financed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Freedom Rides and was implemental in organizing the famed 1963 March on Washington. After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Belafonte served as an executor of King’s estate and chaired the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Fund.
Today at age 90, the former UNICEF good-will ambassador is still fighting the good fight for civil rights. Belafonte, who refers to his life as a “call and response,” continues to support national and international humanitarian issues. In this emboldened era of renewed hate and bigotry fanned by the Trump regime, we salute and honor icon Harry Belafonte Jr. for his tenacity and courage, as he continues to champion the cause of civil equality for our people.