“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.
How Phone Apps Have Changed the World
Mobile apps are so entrenched in our daily lives it's easy to forget their impact. But apps have truly changed the world.
Throughout time, technology has changed how we interact with the world, each other, and ourselves. In centuries past, the compass enhanced our ability to explore, the steam engine revolutionized our ability to perform difficult tasks, and the printing press radically changed the way we circulate information.
In this century, we've seen artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and autonomous cars. But the technology that has most drastically changed our daily lives is the one in our pockets. We often look at smartphones and the apps they contain as mere entertainment, but it's hard to ignore how phone apps have changed the world.
It's interesting to consider life before the phone or telegraph. In those days, most people didn't travel much further than their hometowns. Because of that, one's social circle was kept relatively small, further necessitating social acceptance. Even if you did have social connections beyond your hometown, communication was kept by letters, making it challenging—though not impossible—to maintain a relationship.
Because of social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram, messenger apps like Facetime and Zoom, and even dating apps like Tinder or Bumble, our social circle has expanded beyond those in close proximity. Those of us who feel outcasted by their immediate society don't have to become recluses the way they might have in previous centuries. You simply need to open an app to find their own tribe.
There's a reason for the expression "knowledge is power." Throughout history, knowledge has been entrusted to the educated few—those with access to literacy, books, and the ability to do research. Even as public libraries arrived on the scene, people were bound to whatever books were available in their section of the world.
Smartphones themselves already put an astonishing amount of information into the hands of the everyday person. But mobile apps change the world of information even further by organizing the mountains of information, making them accessible and digestible. Apps like Duolingo teach new languages, streaming services connect us to online classrooms, and teachers create new apps to augment instruction.
Employment has followed a similar model throughout time: you choose a career and remain in that profession for the majority of your life. We see this with the apprentice and the squire of yesteryear and the office worker of the 20th century. Work provides a sense of stability for workers and employers, but for some it contributes to a sense of monotony.
In recent years, we've seen a rise in the "gig economy." This model emphasizes independent workers hired for short-term employment. Rideshare services like Uber began this model, and apps like Doordash continued it. Even streaming apps like Spotify and YouTube allow creators to make a living based on their own ideas and not based on their employers' wants.
Mobile apps are now part of our society's landscape, for better or worse. Recognizing their impact will allow us to decide what kind of impact they will have in the future.