you can cage the singer, but not the song – Harry Belafonte (1927 – 2023)

When I began my great escape from the familiar including what I felt at the time was the root of the war between good and evil that was constantly being waged within myself, a battle royale in which I never emerged the winner, the odyssey that began in Houston, Texas with the ultimate destination being the farthest place I could find on a map of the United States, I was twenty-two years old. The destination I chose was 3,000 miles across the country to the city of Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest. The year was 1968.

The circuitous route took two weeks and included two nights in Sin City, Las Vegas, Nevada. I had high hopes for evil to prevail in my inner warfare. When I arrived there late one night, my first thought was I had entered the land of the midnight sun – the lights were the brightest I had ever seen…the people hustling from casino to casino on the Strip, the hotel marquees, the energy exploding everywhere. This young lesbian from rural southeast Texas was overwhelmed but excited to be there.

The next day I learned I could afford two shows that night in the hotels if I didn’t lose all my money at the blackjack tables in their casinos. It was a close call, but I managed to save just enough for one early show and one midnight show. The twenty-two year old lesbian opted for the midnight show at the Tropicana Hotel, the Folies Bergere, because someone had told her the women danced around with nothing but feathers on. That story turned out to be true. Mesmerizing.

The early dinner show I saw was at Caesar’s Palace headlined by one of my favorite singers. His name was Harry Belafonte. I can’t remember the calypso songs or the other ballads he sang that night in my maiden Las Vegas show experience, but I remember to this day fifty-five years later his presence on the stage that belonged to him – the way he made me feel his music with him, that he sang especially for me. His smile was beautiful, contagious, somehow uplifting. The man moved with a power that would rival Moses parting the Red Sea; he was magnificent. He exuded a sexual confidence that made me think I might be straight. I loved him when he was young before I loved him more for who he became.

This morning on the Today show Al Roker told a great story about Belafonte who at one point in his life wanted to rent an apartment in New York City. The landlord refused the lease because he was Black. Belafonte responded by buying the entire building and giving the penthouse to his friend Lena Horne.

Mindful to the end that he grew up in poverty, Belafonte did not think of himself as an artist who became an activist, but an activist who happened to be an artist.

“When you grow up, son,″ Belafonte remembered his mother telling him, “never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.″

Former Associated Press writer Mike Stewart contributed to this report dated October 25, 2023.

Harry Belafonte was a living legend for his good deeds and blows struck against injustice, yet I will remember the most handsome man I ever saw in person in a time long ago and far away whose show was much more entertaining than the women wearing nothing but feathers.


Pretty and I will remember your passing on April 25th. Pretty’s mother died on that day in 1998. My mother died on that same day in 2012.

Rest in peace, Harry Belafonte. As you once said, “You can cage the singer, but not the song.”

About Sheila Morris

Sheila Morris is a personal historian, essayist with humorist tendencies, lesbian activist, truth seeker and speaker in the tradition of other female Texas storytellers including her paternal grandmother. In December, 2017, the University of South Carolina Press published her collection of first-person accounts of a few of the people primarily responsible for the development of LGBTQ organizations in South Carolina. Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home will resonate with everyone interested in LGBTQ history in the South during the tumultuous times from the AIDS pandemic to marriage equality. She has published five nonfiction books including two memoirs, an essay compilation and two collections of her favorite blogs from I'll Call It Like I See It. Her first book, Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing received a Golden Crown Literary Society Award in 2008. Her writings have been included in various anthologies - most recently the 2017 Saints and Sinners Literary Magazine. Her latest book, Four Ticket Ride, was released in January, 2019. She is a displaced Texan living in South Carolina with her wife Teresa Williams and their dogs Spike, Charly and Carl. She is also Naynay to her two granddaughters Ella and Molly James who light up her life for real. Born in rural Grimes County, Texas in 1946 her Texas roots still run wide and deep.
This entry was posted in Life, Personal, racism, Reflections, Slice of Life, The Way Life Is, The Way Life Should Be and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to you can cage the singer, but not the song – Harry Belafonte (1927 – 2023)

  1. Wayside Artist says:

    What a memorable experience for you, Sheila. He was a remarkable man who left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry and equally on the civil rights movement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He really was, Ann. Hard to believe he was 96.
      Strange how we put people in little boxes and think they will escape the passage of time.
      Alas, we honor their memories by continuing their good works. Hopefully.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a way to mark your escape. Very lucky timing that you could see that great man.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Luanne says:

    Such a loss to our world! Thank you for this tribute to a wonderful man. I did not know that about you both losing your mothers on the same date (not year). That is pretty remarkable.

    Liked by 1 person

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