To understand the complexities of Harry Belafonte, it helps to think in terms of his obsessions: movies, music and outspoken activism.
Belafonte's 1956 release "Calypso" was the first LP ever to sell a million copies. He's starred in such films as "Island in the Sun," "Uptown Saturday Night" and Otto Preminger's "Carmen Jones." He's long been an outspoken champion of civil rights and has served as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1987.
President John F. Kennedy appointed him cultural advisor to the Peace Corps, and he was the first member of the entertainment industry to be so named; he served for five years. He was chairman of New York state's Martin Luther King Jr. Commission for seven years and helped create the commission's Institute for Non-Violence.
A tireless worker for the causes in which he believes, Belafonte has received the Albert Einstein Award from Yeshiva University, the Martin Luther King Peace Prize, Kennedy Center Honors for excellence in the performing arts and the Nelson Mandela Courage Award (its first recipient); in 1994, President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts.
In the entertainment world, Belafonte was the King of Calypso, popularizing such West Indian songs as "Banana Boat Song," a top-five hit on both sides of the Atlantic. "Calypso" was the first LP to sell more than 1 million copies. "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall" spent the most time in the top 10 of Billboard's albums chart until Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
"When Sidney Poitier and I started turning out films back in the '50s, we came in at a time when Hollywood was showing blacks in very caricatured ways," Belafonte said. "We were either servants or we were buffoons. We were always doing the most minimal things in service of white society. The process had just begun to open up; there was protest in the air.
"When I joined the civil rights movement, I knew there was a selfish aspect to that journey on my part. If we could only change America, it would necessarily force Hollywood to change its perception of black people. And it did that for a significant length of time.
"But that vigilance eventually subsided, and little by little this thing has creeped back in so that today we have another type of caricature, another kind of debased, negative presentation. And an entire young black generation has embraced it somehow as the model of what life is about."
When he reflects on the roots of his activism, Belafonte finds a number of influences.
"My background has an awful lot to do with it," he said. "I grew up in Harlem, born in poverty. My parents had a tumultuous life that was filled with deprivation, absence of opportunity. Much of [my activism] comes from my mother's strength and her own feisty resistance to oppression.
"But much of it has to do with my own personality. A lot of people come out of oppression and never want to deal with it again. And there are others who come out prepared to do battle for the rest of their lives against the pain and inequity."