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One On 1 Profile: Celebrity-Activist Harry Belafonte Enters A Period Of Reflection

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Performer and activist Harry Belafonte has used his instantly recognizable voice to entertain, enlighten and advocate through a career that has spanned seven decades. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On One profile.

Activist and performer Harry Belafonte said in 1966, "There are many positive aspects to the idea of black power."

Now, Belafonte stars a sentence, "When you live in a society that is as duplicitous as America is, where you have a place that has lost its moral compass."

He has always spoken his mind, but perhaps the actor and singer is now a bit more reflective about the remarkable chapters of his life.

"It became Dr. [Martin Luther] King, it became [South African President] Nelson Mandela, it became [First Lady] Eleanor Roosevelt. It had become a number of icons that had so profoundly impacted on my life," says Belafonte.

The result is an autobiography, "My Song," and a corresponding documentary that first aired on HBO, "Sing Your Song."

Belafonte became an international superstar in the 1950s, a rarity at the time for a black entertainer. There were movies, television shows and sold-out concerts around the world.

He was the first African-American to win an Emmy Award. There were Grammy Awards, a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center honor. But Belafonte says he is suspicious of celebrity.

"It's a naughty affair, with ego and narcissism and adulation," says Belafonte. "And a lot of us believe we deserve it."

Belafonte's experiences confronting bigotry led him into a lifetime of activism.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a close friend and often stayed at Belafonte's apartment when visiting New York. Belafonte saw the pressures on the civil rights leader up close.

"He had this tick that just appeared, at any moment," says Belafonte. "One day I discovered I had not seen it lately and I asked him, 'What happened? How did you overcome it?' And he said because he made his peace with death."

In 1964, Belafonte flew to Mississippi with $60,000 cash to give to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was trying to register blacks to vote that summer. He enlisted the help of his close friend, actor Sidney Poitier, hoping the presence of two entertainment superstars might reduce the danger they faced at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

"He then said, 'Belafonte, let me tell you something. I'm going to go with you, but I want you to know something. If we come back, never, ever call me again,'" says Belafonte.

Belafonte's direct approach is not always well-received.

"'The warden's coming, the conscience is walking in.' All these rather distasteful titles come my way, and I don't want to be anybody's conscience," says Belafonte.

This "warden" has had his fair share of controversy. In 2002, Belafonte likened then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to a house slave in President George W. Bush administration, but the performer claims the comments refers to policy, rather than the person.

In 2006, during a visit with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, Belafonte called Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world." To defend himself, Belafonte paraphrased a quote by President Teddy Roosevelt.

"If we see any leader or administration rooted in villainy, doing those things to harm the state and citizens of the state, it is incumbent on every citizen to speak out," says Belafonte. "Such an act is patriotic treason."

Not all of Belafonte's memories are of historic places and people. He grew up poor in Harlem and on the island of Jamaica, and it has never left him, despite his long, successful career.

"I've never left poverty. I don't dwell on it but I'm in it every day. The people I reach out to," says Belafonte.

As a young man, Belafonte caught the acting bug, attending drama school in New York. But when he had a hard time finding work as an actor, a club promoter offered Belafonte a shot as a singer.

"'What do you got?' I said, 'What do you mean, what I got?' 'What songs you sing?' 'I don't have any,'" remembers Belafonte.

At his first gig, Belafonte was backed up by some friends who happened to be great jazz players. And then "Bird" — saxophonist Charlie Parker himself — took the stage and Belafonte hung on for the ride.

"What I heard was [Bird's solo] and Bird's virtuosity in those first few bars of music threw me completely. I just sat there looking for the rescue team," says Belafonte.

The nightclub gigs led to Vegas shows, television specials and concerts and a song that became a calling card for decades to come, "Day-O."

Stardom did not enable Belafonte to escape the racial mores of the day, but it did give him a forum to speak out. In 1957, he took to the cover of Ebony magazine to explain his second marriage, which was interracial.

"When we married, America was still legally segregated. Interracial marriages were punishable by imprisonment or fines and other humiliations," says Belafonte.

Belafonte, who is currently married to third wife Pamela Frank, has four grown children from two previous marriages.

Perhaps the most compelling part of Belafonte's autobiography is his complicated relationship with his mother.

Belafonte says she was proud of his success, but left the house he built for her in California to return to a poor neighborhood in Harlem. She drifted until she eventually died alone.

"Buried in a pauper's grave in Staten Island, and she had to be identified, it was crushing," says Belafonte. "There was a time when I went through rage and anger at the fact that she had so frustrated me. And it had not been psychoanalysis leading me to a much deeper place of clarity, I might never have come to love her the way I did, or do."

There is still plenty in this society that makes Belafonte angry, but he credits his mother for showing him how to channel his anger into something positive.

"Don't waste your time being angry. Use that fuel and create a cunning, a smarts, a way to walk through that labyrinth and make it pay off for you," says Belafonte.

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