I imagine the time Harry Belafonte sat in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show was as anticipated as the latest episode of the webcast series Verzuz showcasing Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight.
The two Black culture events converged for me last weekend when I watched the documentary about the historic Woke Week, The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show, and the so-called battle of the R&B divas on the same day.
The first took place in 1968, the year of heightened radicalism in which cities burned, raised fists pummeled scorched air and militant activism ricocheted through our consciousness. Verzuz, the brainchild of music producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, was born at the start of the Covid-19 quarantine.
Upwards of half a million of us gathered on Instagram Live to watch the two legends gab about coronavirus, cooking and careers in between trilling it out. “AppleTV is clearer but you miss out on all the fun comments,” my brother explained.
I vigorously scanned the feed and perked up whenever the likes of Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Lena Waithe, Octavia Spencer, Queen Latifah, Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, Questlove, Angela Rye, Alicia Keys and DJ Khaled popped in.
“Thank you, Black Jesus, for this moment,” an unfamiliar name posted. It was Sunday and we were going to church.
This particular episode wasn’t actually a competition. There were no side-eyes or rehashing of old hurts (I’m looking at you, Brandy and Monica, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott). Instead, we witnessed a celebration of two fun-loving, down-to-earth icons in full sistah-love bloom. Gladys once dropped me off at the airport on the way to her Vegas casino gig after I spent the day hanging out at her home for an interview. Patti confessed on Verzuz that she uses a 12-year old flip phone. That’s about as real as it gets.
Black culture solidarity is also real. In anticipation of The Sit-In (get the political double entendre?), my siblings and I texted watch alerts to one another. A filmmaker friend sent word she was familiar with the work of its director, Yoruba Richen, and that she, too, would be watching.
We had every reason to be excited. While growing up in the 1970s, I cheered loudly with my family whenever we saw Black people competing on game shows. A friend wasn’t allowed to watch programs on which there wasn’t representation, which at one point in time would’ve left her with Star Trek, The Mod Squad, I Spy and Julia. I was in awe of her parents’ hardline Black Images Matter views—so proud, so black, so definitive.
Still, I felt a little sorry for her because this meant she missed out on one of my favorite series. The night The Mary Tyler Moore Show first aired in 1970, I squinted hard at the beautiful woman freely tossing her beret into the air.
“Is she black?” I wondered. The straight black hair, the vibrant smile, the dark eyes that angled upwards at the corners ever so slightly... the actress resembled my father’s cousin Ann! That’s how starved I was for reflections of my blackness on the screen.
The parade of stars on The Sit-In alternately took my breath away and caused me to tear up. Fifteen of the twenty-five guests were Black. Lena and Dionne and Diahann and Aretha and Sidney and Freda. And Petula and Paul (Newman, not Robeson).
And then there’s Bobby and Martin. Not the somber Martin but a jovial Martin relaying a joke and noting that recently he had celebrated his birthday: January 15, a date we have all come to know. He is warmly entertaining and funny and relaxed.
Watching the old TV footage, I do the math in my head. “In two months he will be dead,” I say aloud. And Bobby, a short while later.
Harry as host is a revelation. He engages the guests with ease. He laughs, he expounds, and of course, he sings. I am delighted when he appears in a belted white turtleneck, his beautiful voice and visage shining through in one number.
I once had lunch with Harry Belafonte. There is a part of me that regrets I don’t have a selfie to memorialize the occasion. But this was the early ‘90s, the era before iPhones, and I was not the kind of journalist who would have asked a celebrity to take a photograph with me anyway.
As I remember it, Harry’s rep reached out to Elle where I was an editor because he was going on tour for the first time in a long while. The plan was for me to first observe him in rehearsal at the studio, which happened to be a few blocks away from my office, on Ninth Avenue.
After the rehearsal, Harry and I casually sauntered off together to a Thai restaurant nearby. When I was about to step off the curb at a light, he gallantly reached out with his arm to protect me from being hit by a car that was making a left turn. How it is that I didn’t swoon right then and there is a miracle.
I have long adored the entertainer and activist. This may explain why I don’t have a recording of our lunch, though I remember placing a tape recorder on the table before I took a bite of my Pad thai. I neglected to hit the record button.
At the start of our meal, I shared the following with my lunch date.
“I’ve never interviewed you before, but I have written about you,” I said.
Harry looked at me, puzzled.
“Is that so?”
“I once wrote a story for Elle in which I extolled the virtues of older men,” I confessed.
“Wait, was that you?
My eyes widened. Had he really heard about my article? Surely, he was just being his naturally charming self.
“Who was it that told me about it? Hmmm...” he said, his voice trailing off into the recesses of a foggy memory. “Oprah, that's who it was!"
And then Harry Belafonte, the Harry Belafonte, leaned in.
"So, Karen. Will you marry me?"
For Elle’s November 1992 issue, a colleague and I went head-to-head in “Men: The Age-Old Debate.”
The deck reads: This month, we lighten up. What kind of man does it for you: older and experienced, or younger and energetic?" Did I mention it was the early ‘90s? A woman's magazine. What can I say? (Insert shrug emoji here.)
I write: “I own only two albums by Harry Belafonte. One, a collection of his 15 greatest hits, depicts the West Indian crooner as a young man. Immersed in water below the shoulders, the smooth-faced Belafonte rests his chin and his muscular arms on the edge of a boat, conjuring up the lilting tune of the banana boat song, “Day-O.” Small beads of water resembling sweat—that tired testament to virility—cover his perfectly sculpted visage. It is as if this golden god has emerged transfigured from the depths of the ocean to bless us with his presence. And, indeed, he has.
I continue to fawn: “The other album, Belafonte ’89, presents a considerably older man. The singer’s black hair is speckled with gray, and he wears a richly patterned sweater à la Bill Cosby, [then] TV’s consummate dad. He appears to squint, as in the younger picture—but not because he is blinded by the rays of the Caribbean sun. Tiny lines have begun to crowd his eyes and make indentations in his once flawless skin. And where before he gazed at some indeterminate point off to the side in the photo on the greatest hits collection, he now looks straight ahead—at me.”
I then deliver the coup de calypso. The article continues: "I'd marry him," I tell a co-worker without hesitation as we ogle the album cover." The proof was in the proposal. Harry had to have known exactly what I'd written about him in order to make that proposal.
In the piece, when my colleague argues that Harry is too old for me, I dash off to the library to calculate his age (again, it was the pre-Google era)! He was 65. I write that "I am unfazed by this numerical finding...Granted, Harry Belafonte at any age is a worthy object of lascivious admiration. Still, I prefer the more mature, more sophisticated, more expressive, and yes, older, incarnation.”
Interspersed throughout The Sit-In are interviews with an even older Harry, as he is today at 93 years of age. Harry Belafonte is as vital, as vibrant, and yes, as handsome, as ever. He's also as political and relevant.
In Spike Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, Harry plays himself to a large degree: He is griot, elder statesman, and has seen it all. And when Donald Trump recently tweeted a video doctored to make it seem that Joe Biden had fallen asleep during a television interview, he doesn’t hold back: “I beg every sane American—please vote them out,” he told The New York Times. He knew the clip was from a nine-year-old interview with Harry himself. It was he who had fallen asleep.
Clearly, I haven’t fallen asleep on Harry. I admire his raspy voice, the clarity of his vision, the breadth of his career. By the time the documentary concludes, I am emotional, exhilarated even. “How wonderful that he is here, alive, still!” I marvel.
Yes, I'm still wild about Harry.
I like to make stuff...and think about stuff.