“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.
I have come to believe that atheism is a kind of cultural cancer, a nihilism: in essence, a cultural depression.
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue." - Air Traffic Controller Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) in Airplane
Why would anyone become a Roman Catholic at a time like this? Fresh new reports of victimization (nearly all of it preceding 2002, for those who care about such details) are still in the headlines and many more embarrassing news stories are on their way. Church leaders are openly quarreling over the cause of the recent abuse crisis and even the future of the Catholic Church. There are even rumors of a schism by the American Catholic Church. Joining this group would be like being adopted into a family going through a custody battle. Why would anyone do that?
Well, look around. We increasingly live in a world where up is down, right is wrong, compassion is ridiculed, and forgiveness is nonexistent. "Truth" is defined by the websites you repeatedly check and the Twitter personalities you follow. On the right, you are regularly admired for how much you can humiliate the other side. On the left, you are admired for your status as a victim or your level of self-condemning "wokeness."
Social and cultural norms are collapsing all around us. What it means to be a good person is being warped by navel-gazing notions of "social justice" or "happiness"—two seemingly zero-sum endeavors for folks on the left. It is now worse to utter an offensive thought than to get someone fired from his job for uttering or, more likely, tweeting an offensive thought. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of a colorblind society is a laughably quaint notion in a culture that created and eagerly wants to believe Jussie Smollett.
What does all this have to do with Catholicism? It is what happens when a society once rooted in Christian values loses its way. As America has increasingly eradicated Christian references from the public sphere and as folks on the left openly ridicule Christianity, our culture and national identity have given way to the anodyne multiculturalism (Easter egg hunts are now "spring egg hunts" at my local library) and moral relativism that defines modern life.
But in my own experience, I found an even darker side of atheism. At times, my atheism led me to believe that life was pointless, that it would be a terrible thing to bring kids into this cruel world. My son reminds me continually how foolish that kind of thinking was. It is through that experience that I have come to believe that atheism is a kind of cultural cancer, a nihilism: in essence, a cultural depression. It is choosing to be an orphan in a cruel world. It was out of this realization that I found myself looking for answers in the Catholicism of my grandparents.
I wasn't merely rejecting the incoherence and short-sightedness of the secular world, though. I've always been drawn to the many beautiful aspects of Catholicism. For one, it's a better way to look at the world and has an answer to every difficult question. Viewing all those around you as God's children is a great remedy for racism, sexism, and many of the other "-isms" and "phobias" that the left obsesses over. Loving your neighbors and enemies makes the many rude motorists out there somewhat easier to tolerate.
The Catholic Church, more than any other institution, upholds the centrality of family in a culture determined to chop it up and redefine it. Indeed, the reason the Church struggles so mightily with how to handle the issue of homosexuality is a testament to this. The Church does not want to do anything to undermine the traditional nuclear family while loving everyone. It's complicated.
I'm also drawn by the discipline of daily practice and Catholicism's many beautiful traditions. Daily prayer, daily expressions of gratitude, weekly mass, seasonal spiritual renewal: These are the keys to a life in which you have your priorities straight. And in this time of spectacularly high rates of loneliness, when so many of us live across the country from our families, it offers connection to others. This cannot be understated as a social problem. The growing disconnection from family and community that modern humans experience is a cultural catastrophe. If we allow it to continue, rates of suicide, addiction, and other measures of cultural despair will only grow.
Finally, there is the notion of God. Like many, I struggle with this one somewhat. But for the first time in my life I've opened my heart and mind to a higher power. As I read the gospels and study the words of Jesus, I am at times blown away by the moral perfection of His statements. Maybe this is wishful thinking or maybe my heart is changing the way God wants it to. Either way, it is clear to me that Christians are not the "crazy" people in our society; rather, it's the people who think they know enough to navigate the world alone who are lost.
@dogma_vat is an editor and writer based in Washington, DC.