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Harry Belafonte the activist

Harry Belafonte received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award honoring his fight for social justice.
Harry Belafonte received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award honoring his fight for social justice.

Belafonte the activist

To legions of Americans, Harry Belafonte is best known for singing “Day-O,” popularly known as the “Banana Boat Song.” Yet his most enduring role has been as a political activist, speaking out against racism and pushing back against racial stereotyping in the arts.

The depth of his passion — and his mellowing — was apparent during his remarks Nov. 8 when he accepted an Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award honoring his fight for social justice.

Belafonte’s commitment to the fight for civil rights lies at the heart of a new book, “Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical” (University of Texas) by Judith E. Smith, an American studies professor at University of Massachusetts Boston. In an e-mail, she called the Oscar recognition “very striking,” She noted the importance of Belafonte’s pioneering efforts, beginning in the 1950s, to push for roles beyond that of maid or butler, roles that speak to the full humanity of blacks.

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“Not surprisingly, Belafonte used his speech to give a history lesson about the cost of mainstream racist representations of black people by noting the costs of ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Tarzan,’ ” Smith wrote. Belafonte also highlighted the power of film to challenge social injustice, mentioning not just “12 Years a Slave” but “Schindler’s List” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

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Smith’s book offers a colorful back story to Belafonte’s award. When the sponsor of a 1968 NBC television special in which British singer Petula Clark touched Belafonte’s arm wanted to cut the segment out of fear that the sight of a white woman touching a black man might hurt their car sales in the South, Clark and a network representative objected. Although the sponsor backed down and the show was broadcast uncut, Belafonte blasted the apology as coming “one hundred years too late.”

Dance and radio combo

Dance and radio are joined on-stage in an upcoming show featuring “This American Life” host Ira Glass. “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host” will be presented at Citi Shubert Theatre Jan. 24-25. The show, with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, premiered in New York in September. It features live talking, dancing, and radio snippets and is directed and choreographed by Barnes. Glass’s solo shows regularly sell out in Boston, and fans undoubtably will be intrigued by the prospect of watching him hoof. Tickets are $25 and up.

R.I. author honored

Providence author Caitlín R. Kiernan was twice honored at the 2014 World Fantasy Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., last month. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats,” published in the spring 2013 issue of Subterranean, was recognized as the best short fiction of the year, and her “The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories” (Subterranean) won the best collection award.

Small Beer Press, the Northampton-based publisher of “A Stranger in Olondria,” honored as the year’s best novel, was given a shout-out by the author, Sofia Samatar. The debut novelist praised co-publishers Gavin Grant and Kelly Link for taking chances on new authors.

Coming out

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 “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Chronicles: Art & Design”by Weta (Harper Design)

 “Tony Gwynn: He Left His Heart in San Diego”by Rich Wolfe (Lone Wolfe)

 “A Conspiracy of Ravens: A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Birds”edited by the Bodleian Library (Bodleian Library)

Pick of the Week

Liberty Hardy of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., recommends “Alphabet” by Kathy Page (Biblioasis): “This brutal novel of a young murderer’s imprisonment, his attempt at rehabilitation, and his struggles to remain feeling like a human while caged like an animal is jarring. Page’s unflinching look at what makes us human and what we deserve in life will be relevant for ages.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.