My Song: A Memoir

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Overview

Harry Belafonte is not just one of the greatest entertainers of our time; he has led one of the great American lives of the last century. Now, this extraordinary icon tells us the story of that life, giving us its full breadth, letting us share in the struggles, the tragedies, and, most of all, the inspiring triumphs.
 
Belafonte grew up, poverty-ridden, in Harlem and Jamaica. His mother was a complex woman—caring but withdrawn, eternally ...
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Overview

Harry Belafonte is not just one of the greatest entertainers of our time; he has led one of the great American lives of the last century. Now, this extraordinary icon tells us the story of that life, giving us its full breadth, letting us share in the struggles, the tragedies, and, most of all, the inspiring triumphs.
 
Belafonte grew up, poverty-ridden, in Harlem and Jamaica. His mother was a complex woman—caring but withdrawn, eternally angry and rarely satisfied. His father was distant and physically abusive. It was not an easy life, but it instilled in young Harry the hard-nosed toughness of the city and the resilient spirit of the Caribbean lifestyle. It also gave him the drive to make good and channel his anger into actions that were positive and life-affirming. His journey led to the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he encountered an onslaught of racism but also fell in love with the woman he eventually married. After the war he moved back to Harlem, where he drifted between odd jobs until he saw his first stage play—and found the life he wanted to lead. Theater opened up a whole new world, one that was artistic and political and made him realize that not only did he have a need to express himself, he had a lot to express.
 
He began as an actor—and has always thought of himself as such—but was quickly spotted in a musical, began a tentative nightclub career, and soon was on a meteoric rise to become one of the world’s most popular singers. Belafonte was never content to simply be an entertainer, however. Even at enormous personal cost, he could not shy away from activism. At first it was a question of personal dignity: breaking down racial barriers that had never been broken before, achieving an enduring popularity with both white and black audiences. Then his activism broadened to a lifelong, passionate involvement at the heart of the civil rights movement and countless other political and social causes. The sections on the rise of the civil rights movement are perhaps the most moving in the book: his close friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr.; his role as a conduit between Dr. King and the Kennedys; his up-close involvement with the demonstrations and awareness of the hatred and potential violence around him; his devastation at Dr. King’s death and his continuing fight for what he believes is right.
 
But My Song is far more than the history of a movement. It is a very personal look at the people in that movement and the world in which Belafonte has long moved. He has befriended many beloved and important figures in both entertainment and politics—Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sidney Poitier, John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Tony Bennett, Bill Clinton—and writes about them with the same exceptional candor with which he reveals himself on every page. This is a book that pulls no punches, and turns both a loving and critical eye on our country’s cultural past.
 
As both an artist and an activist, Belafonte has touched countless lives. With My Song, he has found yet another way to entertain and inspire us. It is an electrifying memoir from a remarkable man.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Harry Belafonte's breakthrough 1956 Calypso became the first album to sell a million copies, but his career as a recording star is the least interesting part of this extraordinary memoir. My Song recounts a life that began in Harlem with an alcoholic, physically abusive father and his victimized spouse. Restless and alienated, he spent part of his early life in Jamaica, and then joined the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was a lowly janitor when he received the gift that changed his life: a free ticket to the Theater of Harlem. That single performance convinced him to become an actor. He enrolled in acting school, with fellow classmates including his soon-to-be close friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando; and others including Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis. This memoir goes even further, recounting Belafonte's friendships with Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King, Jr., and his deep commitment to activism. (P.S. Sing Your Song, a documentary based on Belafonte premiered on the opening night of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.)

Publishers Weekly
Belafonte, actor and activist, whose voice is known to millions for his opening line, “Day-O!” to “The Banana Boat Song,” stepped out of a life of poverty and up to a microphone in the late 1940s, launching a brilliant career as a singer, actor, and activist. With lyrical grace, he chronicles his life from early childhood—where a violent father made life difficult for him, his brother, and his mother—and his first singing engagements, to the difficulties in his own marriages, the grueling life on the show circuit, and his later involvement in the civil rights movement and other social causes. After his hitch in the service, he enrolls in acting lessons with the American Negro Theater, where he meets his life-long friend, Sidney Poitier, and numerous other influential black actors. On a cold January night in 1949, the owner of the Royal Roost night club in New York asks Belafonte to sing a few numbers during intermission for Lester Young’s band; astonished and anxious, the young singer steps onto the stage and finds himself backed by Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Al Haig, and Tommy Potter, four of jazz’s greatest musicians, and his musical career takes off. These musicians’ generosity instill the same compassion in him, and his encounter with great concert singer, athlete, and actor Paul Robeson teaches him that he can use his music and his concerts as pulpits for important causes. Belafonte sometimes exhausts with too many details, but he mostly carries us liltingly along with his song that the best times always lie ahead as long as we take care of each other. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews

The noted entertainer and activist looks back over his tumultuous life.

Being the first singer to sell 1 million copies of an album (Calypsoin 1956) and writing his own ticket at the otherwise segregated Riviera in Las Vegas did little to assuage Belafonte's fury at the discrimination he had experienced before he made it big. Nor had the emotional scars healed from a poverty-stricken childhood with a severely depressed, impossible-to-please mother, he acknowledges in this forthright memoir, ably co-authored by veteran reporter Shnayerson (Coal River,2008, etc.).Not until he met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 did Belafonte find a way to channel his rage into the larger struggle for racial justice. He would become as well known for his unswerving commitment to civil rights as for his records and concerts. He planned strategy with King; funded the young rebels at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council; acted as a liaison to the hesitant Kennedy administration; and recruited the celebrity-studded lineup for the March on Washington. Though never as big a movie star as his friend Sidney Poitier, about whom he writes with equal parts affection and competitiveness, Belafonte also had some successes in film, most notably opposite Dorothy Dandridge inCarmen Jones(1954) and in Robert Altman'sKansas City(1996). He recounts these highlights, as well as three marriages, four kids, a half-century in Freudian analysis, and lots more, with frankness and bite. He has mellowed not at all in old age, calling George Bush a terrorist in 2006 and judging President Obama to be insufficiently compassionate and committed to the poor. Yet Belafonte's bluntness and vast ego aren't too hard to take, since they are so often applied to the service of others, not just in the '50s and '60s but into the '80s with the "We Are the World" video for African famine relief and currently in his Gathering for Justice project to train minority youths in nonviolent activism.

Bracingly opinionated autobiography from an American original, still provocative in his ninth decade.

Garrison Keillor
Here is a gorgeous account of the large life of a Harlem boy, son of a Jamaican cleaning lady…and a ship's cook…who endured the grind of poverty under the watchful eye of his proud mother and waited for his chances, prepared to be lucky, and made himself into the international calypso star and popular folk singer…Scenes of extravagant waste, scenes of righteous anger—rich contradictions abound—with little attempt to explain them away, a mark of the honest autobiographer.
—The New York Times Book Review
Wil Haygood
In My Song, a brave and spellbinding memoir…Belafonte tells a sweeping story: what it has meant to know politicians, janitors, jazzmen and presidents; how he fell heart-first into the civil rights movement, and the costs—blacklists, McCarthyism, FBI agents—that came with it; his long and mercurial friendship with Sidney Poitier; the pain of broken marriages; and the ghost of poverty.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“An honest, in many ways important and genuinely revelatory autobiography. . . . My Song reveals, Belafonte was more than celebrity eye candy, burnishing his image with a little politically correct politicking. He not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. . . . My Song is more than fitting denouement for a life well lived.” —Curt Schleier, Seattle Times

“In My Song, a brave and spellbinding memoir written with Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte tells a sweeping story . . . riveting . . . In these days of national and global uncertainty, with the numbers of poor steadily rising, there are lessons aplenty in the life of Harry Belafonte, as told in this surprising and revelatory book.” —Wil Haygood, Washington Post

“ . . . engrossing autobiographical account of a life devoted in equal parts to entertainment and social causes. My Song is rich with vivid scenes of Belafonte working as an adviser, mediator, fundraiser and implementer with such players as John and Robert Kennedy and King.” —Tom Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Here is a gorgeous account of the large life of a Harlem boy . . . Scenes of extravagant waste, scenes of righteous anger—rich contradictions abound—with little attempt to explain them away, a mark of the honest autobiographer.” —Garrison Keillor, New York Times Book Review
 
“Absorbing . . .” —Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, New York
 
“To read Harry Belafonte's new memoir, My Song, is to discover a man who has packed enough life for 10 people into 84 years.” —“Morning Edition,” NPR
 
“Somewhere amid the accounts of when he became the first artist to sell a million copies of an album, the first black leading actor to romance a white leading actress in a major Hollywood film, and the man who was asked to help pick out the clothes that Martin Luther King Jr. would be buried in, you realize just how extraordinary Harry Belafonte’s life has been. If Belafonte had simply pursued one strand of that life - the immensely popular singer, the Tony Award-winning actor, the powerful political and social activist - it would have made fascinating material for a book. That he managed to cram all three into his 84 years makes My Song, his captivating memoir written with Michael Shnayerson, not only a sometimes exhausting chronicle of Belafonte’s own story but an intriguing look at US history from the late ’40s to the present. . . . One of the book’s triumphs involves the way Belafonte and Shnayerson manage to capture Belafonte’s distinctive voice . . . You can almost hear him narrate the story in his stately rasp.” —Sarah Rodman, The Boston Globe
 
“Bracingly opinionated autobiography from an American original, still provocative in his ninth decade.” —Kirkus (starred)

From the Hardcover edition.

The Barnes & Noble Review

Celebrity memoirs, of which there are a surfeit these days, tend to follow a predictable pattern: open on a moment of crisis, preferably a near-death experience (the Brush with Death); stumble upon a star turn (the Big Break); and fill the balance of the book with a succession of successes, leavened by a few instructive failures (the Happily Ever After). What brings us back to these books in spite of their predictability is the voyeuristic sensation of glimpsing the private lives of public people.

Harry Belafonte's My Song is in many ways just this sort of conventional celebrity memoir. What distinguishes it—and elevates it to excellence—is the quality of experience that the book chronicles. Belafonte's Brush with Death isn't an overdose in a suite at the Chateau Marmont, it's a high-speed escape with Sidney Poitier from the Ku Klux Klan to deliver a suitcase filled with tens of thousands of dollars to support civil rights activists in Mississippi. His Big Break isn't a record label intern discovering his demo at the bottom of a box of unsolicited tapes, it's walking onstage for his first gig to find that his backup band consists of jazz immortals Max Roach, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, and Charlie Parker. His Happily Ever After isn't a series of Billboard and box office hits, famous paramours, and big paychecks (though he enjoys all of these in abundance), it's a lifelong commitment to the cause of civil rights, both at home and abroad.

Far from a celebrity tell-all, My Song is a serious account of a life of service—to race, to country, to the cause of equality. The big revelation of this book, perhaps even for those who remember Belafonte at the height of his matinee idol stardom, is just how integral he was to the nation's political life. "I wasn't an artist who'd become an activist," Belafonte observes midway through the memoir, "I was an activist who'd become an artist." This activism stretches from the 1940s labor movement to the civil rights revolution; from anti-apartheid demonstrations to African famine relief; from outspoken opposition of the Bush administration to more measured but still strident critiques of the Obama administration.

As a memoir of activism, My Song can be read beside the masterful Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by the civil rights icon John Lewis (with Michael D'Orso). Like Lewis, Belafonte was present at some of the pivotal moments of the era and can therefore render them on a human scale. Belafonte reveals, for instance, that for a time he acted as the primary intermediary between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the newly elected Kennedy administration—while maintaining a public profile as one of two or three most famous black people alive.

Throughout his life, Belafonte leveraged his celebrity in the name of great causes. In one particularly striking example, he recalls rallying his famous friends—Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, and many more—to attend the 1963 March on Washington. "As a group," he asserts, "we played more of a role in most Americans' daily lives than their priests or pastors, their politicians, or even their teachers?. To see us all together, moving as one, saying by our presence that segregation would not stand—that was powerful."

For all its striking revelations, My Song is perhaps least revealing about the inner workings of Belafonte himself. In the book's opening chapter, he posits that both his art and his activism were motivated not by love or passion so much as by a "deep wellspring of anger." This is intriguing, even troubling, but in fact the book is marked by a curious deficit of darkness. Belafonte only gestures at the possible roots of his rage: poverty, racial discrimination, his fractured family life.

As for the credit Belafonte gives throughout the book to a lifetime spent in psychoanalysis, little self-analysis seems to be at work on the most sensitive matters within: his hints at gambling addiction, the dissolution of multiple marriages, the failures in fatherhood, the undoubted personal struggles that must have accompanied going from being one of the most famous people on the planet to being, in his own words, a regular on the Lifetime Achievement circuit who has quite literally lost his voice.

Even in his eighties, when many would be looking back upon a life well lived, in a memoir that is designed to do just that, Belafonte faces forward. "About my life," he writes near book's end, "I have no complaints. But I do have grave concerns about race and poverty in this country, about what the movement has left undone and how little of a movement remains to do it." Rather than ending on a note of pessimism, though, the song Belafonte sings—the one he has always sung—is one of challenge, one of hope.

Adam Bradley is the author of Ralph Ellison in Progress and the co-editor of Three Days Before the Shooting?, the posthumous edition of Ellison's unfinished second novel. He is also co-author of One Day It'll All Make Sense, the memoir of the rapper and actor Common.

Reviewer: Adam Bradley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307272263
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/11/2011
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 258,511
  • Product dimensions: 9.48 (w) x 6.58 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte’s 1956 album Calypso made him the first artist in history to sell more than one million LPs. He has won both a Tony Award and an Emmy, and he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton. He has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and is the recipient of Kennedy Center Honors for excellence in the performing arts. He currently resides in New York City with his wife, Pamela.
 
Michael Shnayerson, a longtime contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is the author of Irwin Shaw; The Car That Could; The Killers Within, coauthored with Mark J. Plotkin, and Coal River, which recounted the efforts of Appalachian lawyers and grassroots groups to stop the devastating practice of mountaintop coal removal in southern West Virginia. Shnayerson’s passion for those environmental activists was one reason Harry Belafonte chose him to collaborate on his autobiography. Shnayerson lives in Bridgehampton, New York, with his daughter, Jenna.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

My Song

A Memoir
By Harry Belafonte Michael Shnayerson

Knopf

Copyright © 2011 Harry Belafonte, with Michael Shnayerson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-307-27226-3


Chapter One

The phone rang late in the evening in my New York apartment. It was the night of August 4, 1964. A night of grief and anger for all of us in the civil rights movement, but especially those in Mississippi. "We've got a crisis on our hands down here," the young man on the line said. "We need help."

At the start of that fateful summer, hundreds of volunteers, most of them students, many of them white, all of them knowing how dangerous the work would be, had come down from northern universities to register black voters and support rural blacks in pursuit of their civil rights. They were fanning out along the front lines of a civil rights war, unarmed in a state of seething segregationists.

Mississippi's police stood ready at the slightest pretext to beat them bloody and throw them in jail. The Ku Klux Klan might well do worse. That day, we all learned just how much worse. The bodies of three volunteers, missing since June 21, had been found in a shallow grave near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—two of them white, one black—had been arrested on an alleged traffic violation, briefly jailed, then allowed to drive off, after dark, into a KKK ambush. All three had been beaten, then shot. Chaney, the black volunteer, had been tortured and mutilated.

I'd helped raise a lot of the money to launch Mississippi Freedom Summer. I'd called all the top entertainers I knew—Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Dick Gregory, and more—to ask that they give money directly or participate in benefit concerts. That money bought a lot of gas and cars, housing and food. But now more was needed. A lot more.

The original plan had called for students to do two-week shifts, then go home and be replaced by others. With the ominous disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, every shift had insisted on staying.

Now that the bodies had been found, all those volunteers voted to stay not just through summer, but into the fall as well. "It's good they're staying," explained Jim Forman, the young man who called me that night. Jim was the de facto head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of several civil rights groups down there. "Because if they leave now, or even at the end of August, the Klan will say it intimidated them into going, and the press will play it that way. And if they all stay, we can get thousands of more voters registered. The problem is we don't have the resources to keep them all here."

"What do you need?" I asked.

"At least fifty thousand dollars."

I told him I'd get it, one way or the other. "How soon do you need it?"

"We're going to burn through the rest of our budget in seventy-two hours."

Before he rang off, Forman told me one other thing. "This could get really ugly," he said quietly. "I'm hearing a lot of people say enough is enough, the hell with nonviolence. They're taking up guns. I'm worried they're going to take matters into their own hands."

I had to think hard about where that money might come from, and how I might get it to Greenwood, Mississippi. I could tap my own savings for the whole $50,000—I'd written a check to SNCC for an amount not much smaller than that in its early days to help establish it, and others since then. For me it was "anything goes," but I owed it to my family to keep us financially safe. Paul Robeson, the extraordinary actor, singer, and activist whose path I'd tried to follow my whole adult life, had given so much money to social causes that he'd left himself vulnerable to his enemies, chief among them the federal government, a formidable force led by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, when he was blacklisted as a communist in the late 1940s. With Senator Joseph McCarthy riding shotgun, the federal government had cowed Carnegie Hall and other American venues into not hiring him, then seized his passport so that he couldn't earn a living performing abroad. Eventually Paul ran through his savings and slid into a deep place of sadness. I never forgot that. Somehow, I'd have to raise most of this money from others. In two days, maybe three. Then there was the matter of how that money would get to Mississippi. I couldn't just wire it and have a black civil rights activist go to the local Western Union office to ask for his $50,000, please. He'd be dead before he drove a mile away. So would a white college volunteer. As for banks, those fine institutions owned and operated by Mississippi's white power elite? No way.

The money would have to be brought down in cash. And unless I could come up with some brighter idea, I'd have to take it down myself.

My wife, Julie, started pulling together a New York fundraiser at our West End Avenue apartment. I flew to Chicago. Irv Kupcinet, as powerful a columnist in his city as Walter Winchell was in New York, gathered dozens of guests at his home on a day or two's notice. White guests, bearing checkbooks. Why did I, as a black performer, have such sway with Irv and his friends? Our friendship traced back to my clubcircuit days as a young troubadour in the early fifties, but our personal history was just one part of it. Without quite knowing how I did it, I had some power to reach a hand across the racial divide. That, I knew, had as much to do with the moment as with me. Galvanized by the shocking news of the volunteers' murders, Irv's guests thrust cash and checks at me—$35,000 worth—as if I was the personal emissary of the civil rights movement. Which in a way, in that place and on that evening, I was. After making a trip to Montreal, I had another $20,000.

When I got back to New York, Julie and I took in $15,000 more from our own apartment fundraiser. Time was running out: I'd hoped to raise $100,000, but $70,000 would have to do. I felt pretty good about that sum of money. I felt even better now that I had a sidekick for the trip: my pal from our days together as struggling actors in Harlem, Sidney Poitier.

Sidney and I were like brothers. Born within eight days of each other, we shared the same West Indian heritage, and the same burning desire to break out of grinding poverty. Incredibly, both of us had achieved our dreams as entertainers. Sidney was the top black actor in Hollywood. I'd found my first successes as a singer, but had gone on to my own share of Broadway and Hollywood triumphs. We were, to put it simply, the two top black male entertainers in the world. Like brothers, we were also fiercely competitive, and had our differences, both political and personal. For starters, Sidney was a lot more cautious than I was. "What kind of protection are you going to have?" he asked warily when I asked him to come.

"I talked to Bobby about it," I said. Robert F. Kennedy was still serving, after his brother's assassination, as U.S. Attorney General under President Johnson. He'd directed me to Burke Marshall, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division. Both understood the risk I was taking. In Mississippi's vicious climate, the chances of a Klansman taking a potshot at me were actually pretty high. Knocking off that rich Negro singer from New York who thought he knew what was best for the South? Ten points! Marshall heard me out on the phone, and took down my itinerary. I conveyed all this to Sidney, maybe presuming a bit more from my conversation with Marshall than I should have. "Marshall's on it," I told him. "That means federal security every step of the way."

"Every step of the way," Sidney echoed.

"Right," I said. "Besides, it'll be harder for them to knock off two black stars than one. Strength in numbers, man."

"Okay," Sidney said grimly. "But after this, Harry?"

"Yeah?"

"Never call me again."

I knew Sidney well enough to know he meant it—at least at that moment. Of course I chose to view his fury as a joke and laughed it off, but I laughed alone. Unaccompanied, and not making much conversation, the two of us boarded a plane in Newark, New Jersey, bound for Jackson, Mississippi. I'd deposited the fundraiser checks and replaced them with cash, so we had $70,000 in small bills stuffed into a black doctor's bag. In that long- ago time, no one asked us what we were carrying. A flight attendant just waved us aboard.

Our flight to Jackson was the evening's last one into the main airport. We found Jim Forman and two other SNCC volunteers waiting for us, but otherwise the terminal sat virtually deserted. The only sign of local authority we saw was a black maintenance man pushing a broom. Sidney shot me an angry glance. "That's our federal security?" "Probably an FBI agent in disguise," I told him. Sidney didn't so much as chuckle.

The volunteers led us out into the heavy, humid Mississippi night and over to a private strip beside the airport where a little Cessna was waiting. The pilot, who was white, greeted us most soberly, with a deep southern accent. As we piled in, I stole another look at him. Was he a Klansman, leading us into a trap? He sure seemed to fit the role.

My fears deepened as the tiny plane flew toward Greenwood. It was a bumpy ride. The pilot seemed unconcerned. We took every pitch of the plane as the beginning of the end.

Finally we landed on a dirt runway beside a shack that constituted Greenwood's airport. The pilot taxied past it, and then back, let us out, and took off immediately. What did he know that we didn't? I looked around, struck as much by the darkness as by the heat. I'd never seen a night as black as this. A poem called "The Creation," by James Weldon Johnson, came back to me.

    ... far as the eye of God could see
    Darkness covered everything,
    Blacker than a hundred midnights
    Down in a cypress swamp.

Two more SNCC volunteers were waiting for us, with two cars, to take us into town. Sidney and I slid into the back of one, with Jim Forman in the passenger seat and a young SNCCer named Willie Blue in the driver's seat; the rest got into the second car. Both cars had been sanded to a dull finish so they wouldn't shine at night. A good precaution, but not good enough: As Willie and the other driver started their engines, a long row of headlights flashed on at the far end of the dark airfield. "That must be the federal agents," I said to Sidney. But we could see that the pairs of headlights were at different heights, and they blazed with differing degrees of brightness. Willie Blue dashed my hopes. "Agents, my ass," he muttered. "That's the Klan."

Instead of driving away from the row of headlights, in the direction of the main road to town, Willie and the other driver started moving at full speed toward them. We got close enough to see the dim outlines of three or four old pickup trucks. Then, as if at some prearranged signal, Willie and the other driver veered off to the side, taking a rough, alternative route to the road that led to town. The pickups fell in line behind us.

"Why aren't you driving faster?" I shouted. Willie was keeping right to the forty-mile-an-hour speed limit. "Faster, man!"

"No," Willie shouted back. "That's exactly what they want us to do.

They got a state trooper up there waiting in his car with the headlights off, ready to arrest us for speeding. He takes us to the station, lets us out in an hour, and even more of the Klan be waiting for us. That's how they work. That's how those boys got killed."

From behind us, the first pickup truck sped up and started to pass us. Through the rear window, we could see it had a two-by-four across its grille—a makeshift battering ram—and no license plate. Willie swerved into the middle of the two-lane road to keep the pickup from pulling alongside. Now the pickup started ramming the back of our car. "We can't let him pull up beside us," Willie shouted. "They'll shoot."

Willie switched on his walkie-talkie and radioed the SNCC office in Greenwood. From the other walkie- talkie I heard a crackling voice: "We're on our way."

The pickup truck kept ramming our car, but Willie stayed doggedly to the center of the road, edging left every time the truck tried to pull up. Finally, after two or three terrifying minutes that seemed like forever, I looked down the road to see a convoy of cars coming toward us from Greenwood. "That's them," Willie said. The SNCC brigade to the rescue. My heart was still pounding, but I started to breathe again.

As the convoy approached, the pickup trucks slowed, and their headlights retreated. That was when we heard the shots, a dozen or more. Whether the Klansmen were fi ring at us or shooting up in the air, we couldn't tell. No one was hit, and no bullets pierced our cars. When we turned off the main road, secure now among the SNCC fleet, we looked back to see the pickups rolling off down the main road, with more gunfire as they went.

The convoy led us into Greenwood, and beyond, to an Elks hall, where hundreds of volunteers were gathered. They had spent the day in heated debate, tense and tired, over what their next moves should be. Most of their options depended on us. When Sidney and I walked in, screams of joy went up from the crowd. Sidney and I had heard a lot of applause in our day, but never anything like those cheers. After weeks of lonely, scary fieldwork, these volunteers were wrung out and in despair. To have two of the biggest black stars in the world walk in to show solidarity with them—that meant a lot to them, and to us.

The crowd took up a freedom song, and then another—the spirituals that had given these brave volunteers comfort and encouragement day after day. Finally Sidney spoke. "I am thirty-seven years old," he told the crowd. "I have been a lonely man all my life ... because I have not found love ... but this room is overflowing with it." Then Sidney turned to me. I let a pause fall over the room, then sang out, "Day-o ..." The crowd picked it up with a roar. The "Banana Boat Song" was my musical signature, but more than that, it was a cry from the heart of poor workers, a cry of weariness mingled with hope, both of which those volunteers felt profoundly that night. "Day-o, Day-o/Daylight come an' me wan' go home" had also been turned into a civil rights anthem—"Freedom, freedom, freedom come an' it won't be long." When the crowd had sung both versions, I held up the black satchel I'd brought, upturned it on the table in front of me, and let the bundles of cash cascade out, to delirious shouts.

As Sidney had said, we felt a lot of love in that barn. Outside it, though, Ku Klux Klanners sat in idling cars; we could hardly keep them out of Greenwood. That day planes had flown overhead, dropping KKK leaflets that urged Mississippians not to let the niggers steal their rights. Late that night, after a dinner of chicken and spareribs, Sidney and I were escorted to the house where we were to sleep, with armed guards patrolling outside. Our bedroom had one double bed—not too big a double bed, either—shoved up against a wall under a window. Sidney blanched.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from My Song by Harry Belafonte Michael Shnayerson Copyright © 2011 by Harry Belafonte, with Michael Shnayerson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 36 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(19)

4 Star

(7)

3 Star

(5)

2 Star

(3)

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(2)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2011

    A great American

    The book was very easy to read and unlike many other autobiographies that I've read this one was a real page turner.
    J. Morales, Bx, NY

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 27, 2011

    He's not a name dropper...he lived it...this is history

    I admit I was a fan, and his signature songs some of my favorites. But the background of an era I was too young to appreciate is so impressive and so moving, it should make this book a "must have" on everyone's shelf. Oh it's fun to read the little asides of his association with well known people, but that this octogenarian is still here to give us a lesson in social justice is precious. Please appreciate this man and his life while we still have him around. This should be a best seller for content and history. Oh and yes...he's still a heartthrob who is as comfortable with the Muppets as he is with Steven Colbert. Google it !

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 22, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    It's a BOOK REVIEW not your shopping list!

    Obviously neither of you read directions very well, it says "If you've read this book, tell the world how you liked it...! It's for book reviews, not if you are going to read the book......how does that help anyone.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 11, 2011

    One of my Heroes.

    I cannot wait to read this book. In fact, I am probably going to leave work at lunchtime today to go purchase it. It has always been a dream of mine to play Mr. Belafonte in a movie (before I get too old! LOL). This should be a fascinating read and insight into one of the most talented and courageous brothers in the field of entertainment. I admire his talent and his activism immensely.

    4 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2012

    A great read

    Had no idea Mr. Belefonte was so politically active - his contributions to our society go beyond a beautiful voice and face - he has a beautiful spirit.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2011

    What the enhanced version includes

    The enchanced book of my song has 18 minutes of video plus a song and though I have not bought the book yet,I would get the enhanced version which is only one dollar more

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 2, 2011

    Waiting

    The book sounds good.. I hope the read is even better!!!! WISH THEY HAD A FREE SAMPLE LIKE OTHER BOOKS

    2 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    highly recommended

    An excellent walk down the path that led to the Harry Belafonte everyone loves but know very little about. A very compelling and interesting read..

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2013

    Ken

    Awesome

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 20, 2012

    not what i expected.

    If you are interested in Black History and Martin Luther King, then this is the book for you.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2013

    Great book

    Thank you Mr B for sharing your story ,I k new he was down with Dr King but I didn't know how deeply he was involved,thank you for your efforts all over the world. Where are the leaders for my childrens generation ?



    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2013

    Serena's song: You had my heart

    I remember those days. When I loved you, and you loved me. I can almost recall now. When you took, myyyy heart. And when you ran, aaaawaay. For no apparent, reeeeeeaaason. ¿chorus) You had my heart, in your, iron grasp and you, always took my, breath away when you did that. You had my heart in your, stronghold and you, ran away with it. Why, why, why?¿ I still can't get why, your opinion, mattered more than anyone else's back then. I've heard stories, about other girls, who tried dating you. You brought them, down, just like, with me. ¿Repeat chorus) I can't get it. Why would you? How COULD you? Why, why, why? Why, why, why? ¿Repeat chorus) Why, why, why? Why would you? How could you? How dare you. But you had my heart.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2012

    Sure

    It is like the emperor with no clothes. Much ado over a nobody. Read "Catherine".

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2012

    U

    G

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2012

    1599

    1599

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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