“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.
Chinese "Internment Camps" Detain One Million Muslims
China has forced at least 1,000,000 Uighur Muslims to undergo "re-education" training.
Remote buildings fenced in by barbed wire, governmental slogans urging citizens to declare their loyalty, and armed guards preventing entry and exit: history has highlighted these as familiar omens of totalitarian oppression. Now the international community is condemning the Chinese government's "re-education camps," in which approximately one million Uighur Muslims have been detained, as the latest government machination violating human rights.
Under claims of combating religious radicalism," Chinese authorities have revised a law to condone the use of detention centers "to carry out the educational transformation of those affected by extremism." However, witness testimony and government documents have exposed a litany of human rights violations taking place in the camps under the guise of "vocational training" for the Uighur and other Muslim minority populations.
Chinese security in XinjiangThe New York Times
Within the camps, "re-education" programs not only restrict Muslims from practicing their religion, but impose a militant regimen of psychological indoctrination, including studying communist propaganda, reciting hymns to praise the Chinese Communist Party, writing "self-criticism" essays, and ritually giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. In what The New York Times calls "the country's most sweeping internment program since the Mao era," detainees are disciplined by thousands of guards armed with police batons, electric cattle prods, and pepper spray.
Camps are located in Xinjiang, an autonomous, arid region in the northwest. It's the largest region of China and noted as the residence of about 10 million Uighur Muslims among China's 1.4 billion population. Gay McDougall of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination condemned the Chinese authorities' treatment of Muslims "as enemies of the state solely on the basis of their ethno-religious identity." Despite the Chinese government's initial claims that the camps' "students" were treated to amenities from ping-pong and TV to air conditioning and free dining, McDougall makes clear that Xinjiang has become "something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone."
Most concerning are the reports of torture methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and beatings for those who deviate from the program. A former detainee named Omir told the BBC in September, "They have a chair called the 'tiger.' My ankles were shackled, my hands locked to the chair. I couldn't move. They wouldn't let me sleep. They also hung me up for hours, and they beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out your nails."
Abdusalam Muhemet and his 3 children in their Istanbul home.The New York Times
Abdusalam Muhemet, a 41-year-old former restaurant owner, recited a verse from the Quran at a funeral in 2015 and was subsequently detained in a prison cell for seven months before being relocated to a Xinjiang camp. "That was not a place for getting rid of extremism," he recalled to The New York Times. "That was a place that will breed vengeful feelings and erase Uighur identity." Muhemet was released after two months of detainment; he was never charged with a crime.
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