“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.
Is DEET Safe?
DEET has a bad reputation, but is it warranted?
It's summertime and mosquitoes are out in full force, invading barbecues and pool parties like Napoleon through continental Europe. In primitive times, mosquitos' reign of terror went unabated. They'd bite everyone, spreading disease and discomfort all over the globe. But eventually, humanity got fed up and in 1944 a man by the name of Samuel Gertler invented N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide or DEET, a chemical compound designed to protect against mosquitoes, and other insects. At first, DEET was used exclusively by the military for jungle warfare, but it eventually made its way to our civilian population in the popular spray canisters we all know today. That said, people used to coat their houses with lead-based paint back when DEET was invented. Over the years, the bug repellant has caught a lot of flack for its potential toxicity. But is it really as dangerous as some people claim?
One thing's for sure, if you ingest something that's comprised of ethanol and a chemical compound designed to repel winged-insects, you're going to get sick. But while drinking DEET will almost certainly cause stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting, as it turns out most claims that it's dangerous are bogus. There have been cases of allergic reactions which have resulted in rashes and in very rare cases seizures, but the fear of DEET is largely unfounded. According to the CDC, as long as consumers use DEET sprays as directed, these bug repellants are perfectly safe. That said, according to Consumer Reports, up to one third of the American public does not believe that DEET is safe for adults. Despite the fact that the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs doesn't label DEET as a carcinogen and estimates the chances of seizures from DEET at about one in 100 hundred million, there are large swathes of people who refuse to use it. Maybe this is due to an association with reports from the 1980s about DEET causing seizures or maybe people just don't like the smell. It's impossible to know for sure.
But just because DEET isn't necessarily dangerous doesn't mean we can't improve upon the incredibly effective formula. According to a report from five years ago, scientists have managed to synthesize several compounds that are similar to DEET but perfectly safe to ingest. Researchers have had a hard time coming up with alternatives because they were unsure how the chemical actually reacted with insects, but they were able to use genetically modified fruit flies to pinpoint exactly which nerve cells react are triggered by DEET. Many of the new compounds are cheap to produce and because they are derived from various fruits, they supposedly smell nice as well.
These breakthroughs couldn't have come at a better time, as recent reports have shown that some mosquitoes have developed an immunity to DEET. The study took place in a lab and therefore it's unknown whether or not mosquitoes in the wild have evolved to be DEET-resistant, many of the scientists involved concluded that mosquitoes are remarkably quick adapters. Picaridin is one potential replacement for DEET in the mainstream, and it provides close to the same level of protection without the DEET's smell, propensity to melt plastic, or low public approval ratings. That said, perhaps because of convenience of manufacturing, DEET remains the more popular option among companies who create and sell bug spray.
As of right now, the idea of DEET-resistant super mosquitoes is a matter of speculation and DEET is still the gold standard to which all other bug repellants are measured. While new options–particularly the ones that smell pleasant–are certainly something to get excited about, there's really not much danger with using the tried and true method. As long as you follow the instructions on the label, there's no evidence that DEET is unsafe. Just keep it out of your mouth and eyes.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff
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