“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.
Oh yeah....I AM Black
An honest reflection on race, inequality, and justice in America
February 26, 2018 will mark the six year anniversary of Trayvon Martin's death. His killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of all charges on July 13, 2013. The tale of unarmed black men being killed in America is one that seems to be never-ending. Stories of unarmed African Americans being gunned down at the hands of law enforcement circulate throughout the news cycle as frequently as weather updates. Trayvon became a martyr at only 17 years old. His death was the pinch that woke America up from the dream of "racial equality" that had been conjured with the election of our first Black president four years before his murder. The Dog-whistle-politics that stemmed from this case would've made Lassie's head explode. Right wing talking heads went as far as to blame Trayvon's death on the hoodie he was wearing. Some feel that had he not been wearing said hoodie that made him look "suspicious," Martin would still be alive today.
I was 24 when Trayvon's young life was taken from him. I didn't grasp the magnitude of the situation when it happened. Not because I didn't have sympathy for a life being lost, but because I didn't understand why so much emphasis was put on race. To me, Zimmerman was just another trigger happy hick with emotional issues. Plus, I had grown weary of my people automatically dubbing something as racist when the offender wasn't a minority. I wasn't that naive that I believed racism didn't still exist. I also didn't think that it would still be so obvious in 2012. I, too, rocked gently to sleep by the lullaby "Yes, We Can!" As more and more cases like Trayvon dominated the media, I started to run out of excuses as to why these killings weren't an offshoot of racist behavior.
I could understand one or two every few years, but it was almost everyday I was hearing that a brother without any weapon was killed by a cop. I couldn't say that it was specific to one area either. These killings were happening in different parts of the country. Now at 30, I'm more aware that the scales of justice rarely tip in the favor of people who share the same skin color as myself. That coded language used to describe people of color is no longer encrypted. I find this sort of tension in my body whenever I'm in the presence of law enforcement even though I'm not doing anything illegal. I think about my contrasting mind state from the time when Trayvon was killed compared to now, and I ask myself "Why was I so disconnected from my blackness?"
At a certain age, I felt that being thought of as a Black person first and foremost was very limiting. The fact that I was black was obvious, but I did not feel it needed to be my primary identity. In my mind, I felt being connected to my blackness meant that I went around introducing myself like "Hi, I'm Dwayne! I'm Black! A pleasure to meet you!" My family is Black and we lived in a Black neighborhood. I enjoyed "Black" things like Hip-Hop music, soul food, and basketball. I had Black teachers all the way up until high school. In elementary school, they made us read poems by Langston Hughes and books by Lorraine Hansberry. During Black History Month, the students put on performances for the whole school. My "Black Card" had been validated a long time ago in mine eyes.
Fast Forward to Cardinal Spellman High School and suddenly I'm exposed to different cultures on a broader level. I'd been around black people my whole life, so I became fascinated with the idea of interacting with students from other ethnicities. I developed friendships and relationships with people from other races that I've maintained to this day. I still managed to fit in with the black students to an extent because I was the designated rapper, but not as much as I would've liked. Our common interests weren't in abundance. They were into the latest Jordans, 106 & Park, and going to the movies at Bay Plaza. I was into The Simpsons, Linkin Park, and perfecting the concept of being the Emo kid from the hood. I wasn't a jock, a troublemaker, class clown, or a Straight-A student. I was just Dwayne, an individual, not just another Black kid.
Unbeknown to me, I've experienced racism and racial profiling as an adult on various occasions. I say "unbeknown" because at the time I didn't think of it as such. I've been stopped by a police officer, frisked, and asked if I was on probation or parole. I remember visiting a friend who lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. I was stopped by a patrol car because according to them, one of the residents said there was a man in a hoodie that looked "suspicious" (There goes that word, again). I would visit my white friends and have dinner with their families. They were warm, inviting, and treated me like one of their children. Later, I would discover that they would use racial slurs towards Black people in casual conversation among each other. These slurs weren't directed towards me in particular, but the "bad ones." I was one of the "good ones."
I didn't get what made me so "different" in their eyes. Was it because I had gone to parochial school for a great portion of my upbringing? Was it because I was great at articulating myself? Was it the fact that I could speak Italian? I felt I was privileged being able to be in places that a lot of black people weren't. To me, I felt I had transcended race and I was being judged by the content of my character not the color of my skin. I was Dr. King's dream personified. I had encountered people who loved Black culture, but for some reason didn't love Black people the same way. I went from feeling like a king to a jester.
There will never be a time in this country when race and color won't be a factor. It's a sad reality that we don't want to embrace, but an honest one nonetheless. As a youth, I held firmly to this concept of being an individual first and a skin color second. I was conditioned to think that the darkness of your skin was not a restriction on your ability to succeed. Though that may not have been one hundred percent the case for me, it does not mean that it hasn't the case for others. Trayvon Martin would've turned 23 February third of this year. Racial profiling and devilish acts are reasons why he wasn't here to celebrate it. His story is another reminder of America's continuous misunderstanding and mistreatment of its people of color.
I no longer feel that being recognized as an African American man first is an attempt at marginalization. I cherish my blackness more than I've ever had before. I'm still an individual, but I am an individual that shares the plight of others who look just like me. We are far removed from slavery and Jim Crow in regards to time. However, the lingering effects are hovering over our nation like one big divisive black cloud. My experiences have led me to a sobering revelation. That revelation is that you may forget what you undoubtedly are, but there will be people and situations for better or worse that will remind you.