“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.
Over the past month, both Haiti and Afghanistan have been pummeled by tragic disasters that left devastation in their wake.
In Haiti, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake erupted, leading over to 2,189 deaths and counting. A few hours later, in Afghanistan, Kabul fell to the Taliban just after U.S. troops had pulled out after 20 years of war.
In many ways, these disasters are both chillingly connected to US interference. The United States invaded Haiti in 1915, ostensibly promising to restore order after a presidential assassination but really intending to preserve the route to the Panama Canal and to defend US creditors, among other reasons.
But the US forces soon realized that they were not able to control the country alone, and so formed an army of Haitian enlistees, powered by US air power and intended to quell Haitian insurrection against US controls. Then, in 1934, the US pulled out on its own, disappointed with how slow progress was going. Haiti's institutions were never really able to rebuild themselves, leaving them immensely vulnerable to natural disasters.
Something similar happened in Afghanistan, where the US sent troops and supported an insurgent Afghan army – only to pull out, abandoning the country they left in ruins, with many Afghans supporting the Taliban.
In both cases, defense contractors benefited by far the most from the conflict, making billions in profits while civilians faced fallout and devastation. While the conflicts and circumstances are extremely different and while the US is obviously not solely to blame for either crisis, it's hard not to see the US-based roots of these disasters.
Today, in Haiti and Afghanistan, civilians are facing unimaginable tragedy.
Here are charities offering support in Afghanistan:
1. The International Rescue Committeeis looking to raise $10 million to deliver aid directly to Afghanistan
2.CAREis matching donations for an Afghanistan relief fund. They are providing food, shelter, and water to families in need; a donation of $89.50 covers 1 family's emergency needs for a month.
3. Women for WomenInternational is matching donations up to 500,000 for Afghan women, who will be facing unimaginable horrors under Taliban control.
4. AfghanAid offers support for people living in remote regions of Afghanistan.
5.VitalVoicessupports female leaders and changemakers and survivors of gender-based violence around the world.
Here are charities offering support in Haiti:
1. Partners in Healthhas been working with Haiti for a long time, and they work with the Department of Health rather than around them, which is extremely important in a charity.
2. Health Equity Internationalhelps run Saint Boniface Hospital, a hospital in Haiti close to the earthquake's epicenter.
3. SOILis an organization based Haiti, "a local organization with a track record of supporting after natural disasters." They are distributing hygiene kits and provisions on the ground to hospitals and to victims of the earthquake.
4. Hope for Haitihas been working in emergency response in Haiti for three decades, and their team is comprised of people who live and work in Haiti. They focus on supporting children and people in need across Haiti.
With Afghanistan in chaos and government and military resources strained to the limit, small, decentralized groups have been making a difference in the evacuation of American citizens and Afghans in danger.
One of the most effective has been The World Is My Country Foundation, a Texas non-profit agency that provides relevant, necessary, and efficient aid to those in need around the world regardless of race, religion, or gender. Founded by a 13-year veteran of the US Special Forces, the organization is working on a clearly defined mission.
With air evacuations being handled by other agencies, The World Is My Country Foundation is focusing on ground transportation. A GoFundMe Page titled GROUND OPTION: Emergency Ground Movements has raised close to $125,000 in less than two weeks. The team consists of a decentralized network of former Special Forces soldiers, intelligence officers, trusted Afghan allies, and volunteers working together to rescue the endangered.
It is said that the scale of these evacuation efforts is comparable to that of Dunkirk - the Allied Forces' evacuation in which more than 330,000 British, French, and Polish soldiers were cut off and surrounded by the Nazis in the spring of 1940. The Foundation has been extraordinarily successful in getting American citizens, Afghan interpreters, and other friendlies out of harm's way.
But more help – and funds – are required. And here's why:
The situation continues to deteriorate
"It's really bad," an anonymous source close to the effort says. "Kabul airport has been difficult to reach in good circumstances due to checkpoints and chokepoints, but the bombings yesterday have greatly hindered evacuation efforts. In addition, there's imperfect information about who needs to be rescued, where they are, and their current status."
Time is running out
"This is a chaotic environment, but the team is trusted and proven in working under extreme circumstances and duress," says the source, "and there's a small window between now and the August 31 pullout to make things happen."
A matter of life and death
Afghans who worked with American soldiers and citizens face severe – and fatal – reprisals from the Taliban. Interpreters, translators, Journalists, English language teachers, and government workers – to name only a few – fear the worst. As the BBC reports, the Taliban "is said to be carrying out door-to-door searches while violent scenes have also been reported at some Taliban-controlled checkpoints."
The facts are clear - the time to help is now. For the world truly is our country.