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My Song: A Memoir Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 11, 2011
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“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)
About the Author
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.
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Following the advice of his mentor Paul Robeson Jr., “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are,” Harry Belafonte became the first artist in history to sell more than one million LPs with his album of island songs: Calypso. Many of his songs describe the struggle of ‘people of color.’ His lifelong work as an artist and, more importantly, as an activist, sought to bridge the deep divides between races, cultures, and musical traditions.
Following Robeson’s conviction that artists are “the gatekeepers of truth,” Belafonte became a true believer of the notion that artists can make a difference. As an “engine of inspiration,” Belafonte the actor/singer/storyteller eloquently recounts his struggles, failures, setbacks, and triumphs while following his calling. He also laments that the world is still “overrun by cruelty and destruction, and as our earth disintegrates and our spirits numb, we lose moral purpose and creative vision.”
But he still believes that our best times lie ahead (as do I), and that “in the final analysis, along the way we shall be comforted by one another.”
As described in Lua's Song: Islandy Wisdom for Mainlanders:
“Though we may never fully understand the mysterious power of music, we do know that it has a crucial role in creating well-being by transcending culture, politics, race, and gender. The arts have a special way of communicating across cultural boundaries better than words. The vital and necessary ‘play’ that it encourages is essential for bringing and maintaining social balance and cultural harmony in a world of mounting stresses from ecological and financial abuses and exploitations.”
It is wrong to categorize this autobiography among the self-indulgent "books" written by too many persons in the world of entertainment (I'm still scarred by the experience of trying to trudge through Quincy Jones' narcissistic love letter to himself and have avoided these types of books like the plague). Harry Belafonte is so much more than an entertainer. Indeed, as he makes clear throughout, his celebrity gave him the means to focus his anger about racism, Jim Crow, and injustice throughout the world in constructive ways that have changed our world for the better.
Belofonte was born at the right time. He engaged in the fundamental issues dear to him and was able to exploit his talents unlike anyone before, and inspired the activism of celebrities in later generations. And we should never forget his talent and devotion to making the music of struggle and hope available and relevant to us all. This autobiography elevates our knowledge about the stories behind so many of the fundamental struggles of our age. I've listened to my Belafonte records with a depth of appreciation I never understood fully until I read My Song.