“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
America Is the Fire Nation from “Avatar: The Last Airbender”
And Zuko's arc represents transformation from complicity to active allyship.
Addicted to an illusion of its own greatness. Motivated to violence by the belief that the rest of the world would benefit from colonization. Willing to go to war to achieve its goals.
These words could describe America. They could also describe the Fire Nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a kids' show that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. It tells the story of a world of four nations, each with sovereignty over a specific element: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Throughout the show, we get to see the many ravages of the Fire Nation's 100-year war, which has devastated the environment, enraged the spirit world, and created thousands upon thousands of refugees.
The show begins in a world in which the Fire Nation has launched a massive war in an attempt to colonize the world. Most of the Earth and Water kingdoms have been overtaken, and the entire race of Air Nomads has been wiped out—all except one.
Aang, an Air Nomad, is the resident Avatar, who has the power to control all four elements and thus is the only living person who has the power to restore balance to the world.
But Aang has been trapped in a block of ice for a hundred years. At the beginning of the show, the ice is de-thawed by two Water Nation teenagers, Sokka and Katara, and so begins a three-season quest to defeat the militant Fire Nation.
When Avatar re-emerged on Netflix this May, it captivated whole new legions of fans—and not in a small part because of its political relevance. While the Fire Nation certainly represents elements of Japanese culture, many fans saw parallels between European colonization and the Fire Nation's belief in its own greatness.
Ali A Olomi, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern, and the global south's history, also sees parallels. "One of the things we see with the Fire nation is the ideological justification for what they're doing," he said in an interview. "We are a glorious civilisation. We have abundance, we have wealth, we have technological advancement; we need to share it with the rest of the world. That's almost word for word European colonisation."
The United States' Colonial Empirewww.youtube.com
Parallels Between America and the Fire Nation
Many Americans watching the show in 2020 also saw strange connections between current events and the show's central conflict. In June, co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino shared a quote from a Salon article that read, "The sobering difference between watching Avatar in its time versus seeing it now is that life in America looks and feels a lot like life in the Fire Nation as Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and eventually Zuko experience it. It is a place addicted to its increasingly hollow sense of greatness and even superiority, steered by a leader more concerned with his own glory than caring for his people."
To begin with, the Fire Nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender and America share a love of prisons—America has the highest prison population in the world, and the Fire Nation's prisons are overflowing with traitors and benders from other nations. "[Avatar] really highlights the corrupt policing system that we're experiencing in our own climate," argues one YouTuber named Channeling Chinez, describing the Fire Nation's prisons as an "accurate portrayal of what our prison system looks like."
AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER | Is America the Fire Nation? | 10 Wokest Avatar Eps | Channeling Chinezwww.youtube.com
The two nations also share a love of war. America, like its forefather Europe, has long been starting wars and relentlessly colonizing other nations, buoyed by a firm belief in its own right to sovereignty and greatness—just like the Fire Nation.
It's no surprise, then, that the parallels between America and the Fire Nation's violent colonial efforts have long been discussed by the Internet's ranks of cultural critics. In one video by a YouTuber named Zotaku, the Fire Nation is compared to the United States through the lens of its occupation of Haiti.
America Is the Fire Nation 🔥 (US Occupation of Haiti)www.youtube.com
Like the Fire Nation, America has a lot to be proud of—but the idea that everyone else should be forced to follow America's lead is fundamentally flawed.
"Since the 1970s, China has not once gone to war; the U.S. has not spent a day at peace. President Jimmy Carter recently noted that in its 242-year history, America has enjoyed only 16 years of peace, making it, as he wrote, 'the most warlike nation in the history of the world,'" writes Wade Davis for Rolling Stone. "As America policed the world, the violence came home… As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country."
Origins of the Fire Nation's Senseless Wars
In Avatar's third season, we learn the backstory of Sozin, the Fire Nation general who started the entire war, and Roku, the Avatar who was Sozin's best friend. Through this flashback, we discover that there is no real logic behind Sozin's colonial efforts; there's only greed.
At one point, Sozin looks out over the Fire Nation and admiringly comments on how "successful" it is. Heasks Roku to help him create a "brighter future" for the world—by colonizing it and spreading Fire Nation ideology. Roku adamantly refuses, but the seed of the idea had already been planted in Sozin's head, and he goes ahead to expand the Fire Nation's army and navy. Eventually, he establishes colonies, burns down Roku's home, and starts the destructive war that would wreak havoc on the world for the next 100 years.
Since World War II, America has positioned itself as the world's policeman—ostensibly in an effort to shield the world from communism. A deeper look reveals that many of America's war efforts were not based in any real need—more often than not, they are based in a desire for profit.
Every day, America seems to veer closer to authoritarianism. In some ways, we are all Roku, observing the collapse of our nation. In other ways, we are all Zuko, born into a world we had no part in creating and forced to decide where our loyalties lie.
Zuko's Journey as a Blueprint for Growth and Revolution
One of Avatar's greatest strengths is the way it refuses to take black-and-white views of issues. In Avatar, the Fire Nation is not a monolith—and neither, of course, is America. American citizens are not evil, and neither are the Fire Nation's inhabitants. Instead, the efforts of a few corrupt leaders and a corrupt system have guided us and them down this path.
The Fire Nation may be the show's main antagonist, but the series also demonizes anti-Fire Nation rebels who resort to violence. Jet, whose parents were killed by the Fire Nation, attempts to flood an entire town in order to defeat a fleet of troops, but he's condemned by Avatar's protagonists.
The character arc of Hama, a Water Tribe firebender, functions as a moral lesson about the problems with violent rebellions. While imprisoned by the Fire Nation, Hama discovers bloodbending, a technique that allows the bender to control others' bodies. As an od woman, she attempts to teach it to Katara, who immediately recoils—and we soon discover that Hama has been abducting and imprisoning Fire Nation civilians as revenge.
The Life Of Hama (Avatar)www.youtube.com
The show's message is clear: While the Fire Nation's leaders might have done unfathomable damage, violence against innocent civilians is never justified. Arguably, Jet and Hama's actions exemplify the dangers of what happens when revolutionaries start using the tactics of the aggressor, fighting fire with fire.
Real revolutionary change, the show advises, has to occur within the mind and the spirit, not simply through aggressive military maneuvers. Nobody better exemplifies this lesson than Zuko, the beloved (and swoon-worthy) anti-hero whose redemption arc is arguably the lifeblood of the show.
For the first two seasons, Zuko maintains allegiance to his native Fire Nation—despite having been banished and burned by his own sadistic father. Like many Fire Nation children, who have to recite daily odes to the Fire Nation's greatness, Zuko has grown up believing his nation is the greatest in the world (sound familiar?)
Aang Infiltrates a Fire Nation School 🔥🏫 | Avatarwww.youtube.com
Determined to recapture the Avatar and regain his honor, Zuko betrays the resistance countless times. Eventually, though, the wise platitudes of his Uncle Iboh begin to alter his perspective, and he begins to realize that he does not have to blindly follow the Fire Nation. The last straw comes when he realizes that the Fire Nation intends to burn down large swaths of the Earth Kingdom in order to solidify its rule.
Zuko then confronts his father, Firelord Ozai, and says: "Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history. And somehow, the War was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was."
In an America where all children say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, and where an ideal of American exceptionalism continues to legitimize our racism, xenophobia, and aggressive conquest of the Middle East, those words ring true with stunning relevance.
As children, we are taught that America is the land of the free, but yet it is a nation built by slavery and tormented by deep-rooted racist violence. For those of us who grew up within the system, realizing this can be jarring.
A YouTuber named Evelyn from the Internet argues that not only is America the Fire Nation, but Zuko's arc represents a journey from complicit leader to active accomplice within a corrupt system.
America Is The Fire Nationwww.youtube.com
"It interested me how Prince Zuko, next in line to the throne of the Fire Nation, the person who was actively hunting Aang, the Avatar, decided that not only is it not good enough to verbally renounce the Fire Nation or verbally renounce the actions of his nation and his people—saying 'I'm not one of the bad ones'...he had to actively assist Aang and the crew in defeating the Fire Lord," she says.
In an era when passive allyship and performativity have become the norm, Zuko's progression reveals the true meaning of resisting corruption and actively supporting revolutionary efforts. Zuko's change of heart also proves that it's possible to change and do what's right, even within the belly of the beast.
His betrayal is clearly for the best. When a governing body grows as corrupt as the Fire Nation's, even its strongest leaders are destined for collapse. At the end of Season 3, we witness the unraveling of one of the Fire Nation's most vicious leaders—Azula, Zuko's sister. A cruel, relentless military genius, Azula completely loses her composure when her two best friends abandon her to support Zuko.
As we watch America flounder around during the COVID-19 response, as we see our nation unravel, cracks that have always existed in America are growing more visible. Like Azula in the last fight scene, America's government is growing weaker and increasingly fragile, less capable of unifying the nation, more erratic and alienating even towards its closest supporters.
That means that, like Azula's Fire Nation—which barely even exists at the end of the show because she fired her entire staff—America is vulnerable, but also ripe for real, radical change. There may have been no saving Azula and Ozai at the end of the show, but her decline and Zuko's change of heart opened a space for Zuko to take the throne and for balance to be restored to the world.
Climate Change: A Consequence of the Fire Nation and America's Destructive Efforts
To be fair, the Fire Nation isn't an exact stand-in for America. Its customs differ greatly from American traditions (it's hard to imagine any Fire Nation civilian daring to not wear a mask during a pandemic).
Technically, the Fire Nation could represent any authoritarian government, any civilization willing to lay siege to another for the simple purpose of domination.
It also has clear parallels to another existential threat: climate change. There are, of course, obvious metaphors about rising atmospheric temperatures and the devastating effects of fire on the Earth.
Just as environmental destruction is connected to the Fire Nation's attempt to take too much power in Avatar, climate change is connected to American exceptionalism and Western capitalism. Climate change comes not from the wastefulness of billions but largely from the greed of a few select oil companies (never forget that there are 100 companies responsible for 70% of the world's fossil fuel release) and the politicians and infrastructures who continue to support them.
In both Avatar and our present world, the Earth and its inhabitants visibly suffer from the Fire Nation's disruption of balance and its greed and cruelty. We see infected swamps that sicken whole towns, swaths of displaced refugees, and huge landscapes that have been damaged enough to enrage the spirit world.
While there's no visible spirit world in America today (that I know of for certain), it's easy to see that there's a spiritual sickness plaguing our world (as well as the very physical illness that is COVID-19). As wildfires ravage California and hurricanes destroy coastlines–and as millions of us tune into Avatar,–it's not hard to draw parallels between the greed that motivates the Fire Nation and the greed that motivates American exceptionalism, as well as the hunger that motivates fossil fuel companies and the governments that prop them up.
Perhaps there are lessons we can draw from Avatar that might help us through these difficult times. In the show, many of its calamities stem from lack of connection and a lack of respect for the interdependent balance of the world. But what saves the world in Avatar is not Aang's power or Zuko's betrayal alone, but rather the connections between Aang, his friends, and all the people they meet along the way. Only by connecting deeply with his inner world and listening to the ancient lessons of the world around him is Aang able to finally mobilize to defeat the Fire Nation.
And of course, Aang's youthful idealism doesn't hurt. From the youth-led climate movement to the youth-led Black Lives Matter movement, we're seeing young people standing up to corrupt powers helmed by power-saturated older generations. Perhaps it makes sense that a kids' show contains one of the most revolutionary stories of our time; kids and young people are at the forefront of any real change we might hope to see, in this world and in Avatar's.
None of these are exact parallels, and each one of these issues (and their solutions) is far more complex than can be summarized here. Importantly, no Avatar or single brave hero is coming to save America, and in fact there will probably be no "saving" the world at all.
Legend of Korra, the contested sequel to Avatar, perhaps does a better job of addressing the complexity and backwardness of politics—there are no real saviors, and those who claim to fight for peace often wind up committing the worst betrayals. But Avatar advises us, perhaps optimistically, that there can be healing—and maybe we can pull America and the planet back from the brink of its own destruction.