“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.
Why We're Trying to Have Kids While the World Falls Apart
The decision to have children carries huge moral, financial, and ecological implications, but they aren't enough to dissuade us
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote of a discussion with friend and fellow author William Styron, in which they tried to determine what portion of the people on Earth have lives worth living.
The figure they arrived at was 17%—about one in six people.
On a good day I can tell myself that number must have gone up since then—that we've made progress in battling poverty and disease on a global scale. Maybe it's up to 20% or even 25% by now. On a bad day I'm certain that they were being far too optimistic and that things are bound to get worse.
In the coming decades humanity is guaranteed to face mounting ecological crises as a result of the pollutants we've already pumped into the atmosphere. This is likely to feed into current political trends toward nationalism, as tens and hundreds of millions of climate refugees are forced to seek safe haven around the world.
Countries will seal up their borders and churn out propaganda about the inhuman hordes pounding at the gates—the crime, the diseases, the vermin. If we aren't careful, full-blown eco-fascism will take hold. The climate crisis will become a powerful excuse for state-sanctioned violence, oppression, and racism, and the coming generations will relive horrors that were supposed to be behind us. Those are the threats we face even if we defy current political trends and pass sweeping climate legislation—finally beginning the hard work of avoiding total ecological collapse.
Given the scale of the problem, the choices we can make at the individual level are inadequate, but still valuable. I cut out red meat, I avoid driving as much as possible, and I try not to buy a lot of stuff that I don't need. If millions of people made the same changes…it would probably be better than nothing. Of course the reality is that I still produce far more ecological damage than the average person on Earth. Some of that is unavoidable—a product of living in the US —but I can't deny that a lot of it is because of the way I live. There are certain things I don't want to give up. I travel. I eat dairy. And my wife and I are planning to have kids.
Whatever other decisions you make with your life, none are likely to have as much impact as deciding to create another life—another human to eat and travel and make imperfect decisions. Another human to wrestle with difficult questions and fear for the future. How can we justify the decision to force life on another person in a dark world? Another person whose life we can only try our best to make worth living. Another person who will, in many ways, add to the collective problems of humanity. I'm not going to claim that it's an easy decision to justify, and I don't fully expect to convince anyone who disagrees with our decision. As much as anything, this is an attempt to articulate a hazy justification for myself—and possibly to bolster my rationalization.
The aspect of being a parent that most excites me is the opportunity to reinvest in the future. After multiple decades of passionate concern for the planet—all while people with the power to effect positive change have done nothing—it's hard not to become a little jaded and complacent. Now that prominent political figures are finally pushing for the kind of societal transformation we need, I want to have a stake in fighting for a world that can sustain life beyond my death.
If I'm going to invest in that hope, I have to believe that—despite the ecological impact—it's still possible for a person to make the world a better place. And I want to believe that the people raised with care and love and positive intention are exactly what the future needs. Having a child—and caring for them, teaching them about our complicated and frightening and beautiful world—is a manifestation of that belief. I want the surprises and challenges that will come with parenting, and I want the pressure to contribute to something greater than myself—both in my personal life and my engagement with political change. I want a connection to the future of humanity that this fight is all about.
Of course, I can get all of that through adoption, and get it without forcing existence and the challenges of life on a brand new human. My wife and I do intend to adopt—or at least to be foster parents—down the line. But right now the window to have children of our own is closing. The financial burden of raising a child is so daunting that we would probably put it off for another decade if we could, but we can't. There are biological pressures that can't be ignored. Our bodies are getting older. The safest time to have kids will soon be behind us. If we could satisfy ourselves to raise adopted children, then we could wait until we reach some hypothetical state of readiness—prepared for the endless crises of raising a child. That state probably doesn't exist, but why is adoption not enough for us?
To suggest that the answer is anything but selfishness would be a lie; but, love is in some ways a selfish emotion. Being selfish for each other and selfish as a unit is part of what makes love worth all the pain and the effort we put into chasing it. We love what we are together, and we want good things for that union. We love us.
The bond and belonging between us is a strong comfort in a world that's dominated by so much loneliness. And as much as we believe that we could extend that bond to any child who needed to belong, there is something beautiful and exciting (and selfish) in the thought of using that bond to bring a new life into the world—a new person, autonomous and unique, but a person who embodies aspects of us both and of what we love about each other.
It's the idea of transforming what we are to welcome that new person into our bond. Life at its best is transformative and a little bit frightening. What could be more transformative and frightening than the process of pregnancy, birth, and parenthood? I can only be supporting staff in much of that process, but I'm still excited by the prospect.
Maybe this is all just a muddled translation of my evolutionary function. That excitement might be a purely biological impulse. But there are limits to denying biology. At the base, biology drives everything we do. Regardless, at this point we are committed to having children of our own—or committed at least to trying. If it weren't such a common choice—if friends weren't choosing the same; if our families weren't also excited for us to pursue that selfish impulse—we would probably be shamed out of it. Instead, we just worry about being good parents while people with experience try to reassure us that the worry gets us halfway there.