“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.
Brazil's Presidential Election Is A Warning Sign for Progressives
Jair Bolsonaro ran on a far-right, pro-torture, pro-militarization platform.
Over the last 30 years, Brazil has transitioned from dictatorship to shaky democracy, raising hopes that the country would soon be able to economically compete with other developed countries on the world stage. With the presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday, the progress of the world's 4th largest democracy seems to have stalled. Bolsonaro is a far-right, pro-gun, pro-torture politician who gained 55.1% of votes after a deeply divisive election cycle.
The new Brazilian president is a 63-year-old former military paratrooper who promised Brazilians he would crush corruption, crime, and a supposed communist threat if elected to the presidency. Bolsonaro was an extremely polarizing candidate who has spoken against women, gay people, Brazilians of color, and even democracy — the New York Times reports that he once said, "Let's go straight to the dictatorship," while serving as a congressman. Given the fascistic nature of his views, he struggled to find a running mate until early August.
But despite early obstacles, Bolsonaro convinced much of Brazil that his extremist views hold merit. After the election results came out, Bolsonaro continued to refer to the democracy of Brazil as a communist state, saying, "We cannot continue flirting with communism … We are going to change the destiny of Brazil."
Bolsonaro's leftist opponent, Fernando Haddad, who gained 44.8% of the vote, urged Brazilians not to give up hope. "We will continue with our heads held high, with determination and with courage," he said. "We have a lifelong commitment to this country and we will not allow this country to go backwards."
But Bolsonaro has international support, as well. The White House confirmed that President Trump called Bolsonaro to congratulate him, and Trump later tweeted, saying,
Had a very good conversation with the newly elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who won his race by a subs… https://t.co/zq4N2zvF65— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1540816088.0
Many fear that Bolsonaro's election is a symptom of the same world-wide swing to the political right that resulted in Trump's election in the United States, as well as other shifts towards extreme conservative values like those seen in the UK during the Brexit decision. Bolsonaro's election coincides with the former progressive president's failure to stymie an uptick in Brazilian street violence over the last couple of years.
Consequently and effectively, Bolsonaro's campaign strategy was to promise militaristic strength, something that apparently spoke to a frightened Brazil. It becomes difficult not to see the similarities between the events in Brazil and America's 2016 election, wherein voters chose contextless nostalgia and fascist rhetoric over progress. The Brazilian election serves as yet another lesson for champions of democracy and progressivism: fear is a powerful tool that allows politics to default to the mob. If people don't feel safe, all thoughts of equal rights and social justice become second priority.
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