One of my left-wing father's heroes was Harry Belafonte, the Jamaican Calypso singer/actor and fearless and tireless civil rights activist, who was a baby boomer icon, and whose breakthrough album "Calypso" did heavy rotation on the record player in the living room of our cramped Bronx apartment.
My tone-deaf father walked around singing at the top of his lungs the words to "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)." Equally tone deaf, I sang along just as loudly: "Daylight come and me wan' go home … Day, me say day, me say day," although the lives of those Jamaican dock workers working long night shifts, loading heavy bunches of bananas onto boats, their bodies bone-tired, longing to go home when the sun rose and daylight arrived, were so different from my own circumscribed Bronx life of school, homework, hanging out with friends, and then dinner, TV and bed. And yet when Harry sang in his powerful voice about their weariness and yearning to be free, the words resonated deeply for me.
My father was not only tone-deaf, but also explosive-tempered. He turned violent, sometimes on a daily basis, at the drop of a hat. He and I had a tumultuous relationship about many things: my half of the room I shared with my older sister was always a mess; I was terrible at math; I sometimes answered him back in a way he deemed "snotty and insubordinate." But Harry was sacred; we never fought about Harry.
I swooned over Harry's romantic songs about love and heartache, like "Jamaica Farewell," in which the lover of a beautiful Island woman sings sadly about having to leave her behind. And "Brown Skin Girl," about those U.S. "sailor boys" who leave behind the Island girls they've impregnated to "mind babies" without fathers to help raise the children. And, his feminist anthem, "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)": "The women of today/Smarter than the man in every way!"
It didn't hurt that Harry's accent was sexy, and that he was gorgeous, with creamy skin and sensitive, long-lashed dark eyes. His body was lean and athletic, and I'd seen photos of him in tight trousers and open shirts that revealed lots of delicious-looking caramel-colored skin. Sure, he was too old for me, by a lot, but one day I would catch up, wouldn't I?
My sister, like my father, was physically violent and verbally abusive towards me. She was not a Harry Belafonte fan, but there was one song by Harry that she loved. It was "Scarlet Ribbons," about a father who hears his little girl praying before bed for "scarlet ribbons for her hair." Unfortunately, at night in their town, there is nowhere for the father to buy those ribbons, and his heart aches on his daughter's behalf. At dawn, however, he peeks into her room and sees "scarlet ribbons" in "gay profusion lying there."
About faith and prayer, it was a surprising song for my sister and me to love, as ours was a proudly secular household. Yet when she and I softly sang along with Harry, marveling at the miraculous appearance of those scarlet ribbons, his words and music brought us close. Years later, after her death from an extremely rare, brutal and almost decade-long cancer, I listened to Harry sing "Scarlet Ribbons," and I wept, missing those rare moments of childhood closeness, which were never to be repeated in our adulthood.
Like my sister, my father is gone. Despite his temper, when he was happy, he forgave me everything, and at those times, he found my retorts not insubordinate but clever and cute. He was creative and energetic, "the fun parent," who, at bedtime, told me fantastical tales that he invented about a heroic girl named Janice (just like me!), and who always sang and danced (both badly) along with Harry, to my never-ending delight. All I have to do is hear the opening strains of "Day-O," and Harry brings my "fun father" right back to me.
At 88, Harry Belafonte is still a brave champion of civil rights, still the great social activist who fought beside Dr. Martin Luther King and from whose vision was born the "We Are the World" benefit fundraiser for African famine relief, and who coordinated Nelson Mandela's first visit to the U.S. I turn to Harry, still, to feel both uplifted and soothed, to renew my faith in my fellow human beings.