“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.
The Nobel Prize committee has the chance to signal a better future for a prize with a fraught past.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice — Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. "Letter From Birmingham Jail" 1963
Nominations have been announced for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Among notable nominees are Ivanka Trump's husband Jared Kushner, politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Depending on your political biases, you likely find at least one of those nominations offensive, though it should be noted that the list of nominees is long, and anyone can be nominated.
In this case, Black Lives Matter was nominated by Petter Eide, a member of Norway's parliament. As for Jared Kushner, he was nominated along with former Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz — the famed Harvard law professor, Trump sycophant, and defense attorney for O.J. Simpson and Jeffrey Epstein. Kushner and Berkowitz played central roles in brokering the Abraham Accords declaring, "Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations" between the US, Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE.
The Abraham Accords: The PR of the 'peace deals' | The Listening Postwww.youtube.com
At face value many Americans would no doubt see the negotiation of a peace deal as more legitimate grounds for nomination than a protest movement that sparked violent confrontation with police and counter protesters around the country in 2020. And, if we look at the history of the Peace Prize, there is a sense in which they would be right — the prize has often been awarded for superficial diplomatic theater rather than the real and often messy work of addressing injustice.
The Fraught History of the Nobel Peace Prize
In 1928, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg received the prize for getting all the world's major powers to officially, meaninglessly renounce war...shortly before Hitler took power in Germany. Another Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was selected by the Nobel Committee for negotiating a cease fire with Vietnam in 1973 — the same year it was revealed that he had masterminded a secret carpet bombing campaign in Cambodia, which is credited with giving rise to the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
More recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was given the Peace Prize just for being elected president — in a move Obama acknowledged as premature. And in 2020, Donald Trump's son-in-law and his buddy Avi were nominated for the award for arranging "peace" between nations that were never at war — with a substantial arms deal thrown in for good measure.
To put it bluntly, it would make nearly as much sense for Jared Kushner to win the Nobel Peace Prize as it did for a number of other recipients with dubious claims to peace work. By contrast, in 1948 the Nobel committee chose not to award anyone — rather than acknowledge Mohandas Gandhi's work in pushing for Indian independence from Britain.
Historically the committee has often erred on the side of the powerful — rewarding hollow and hypocritical displays of diplomacy over the controversy that tends to arise around grassroots struggles. So while it may be unlikely that Kushner and Berkowitz will receive the peace prize, neither would it really be surprising.
But with Black History Month kicking off, it's worth articulating not just why their diplomacy is underwhelming, but why the Black Lives Matter movement deserves recognition for advancing the global fight against injustice.
No Justice, No Peace
While extensive efforts have been made to paint the Black Lives Matter movement as violent, anti-White, and at the political fringes, in reality it is the largest and most racially diverse protest movement in American history. And considering the thousands of demonstrations that have taken place, involving many millions of individuals, the relative lack of violence from the protesters is much more worthy of note than a handful of dramatic scenes.
Compared to the January 6th Trump rally, where a crowd of around 30,000 spawned a violent insurrection — which was handled with kid gloves by the police and led to five deaths — the 15 million plus who participated in BLM marches in 2020 were remarkably peaceful. The same cannot be said for far too many of police who patrolled those marches and gave proof to the brutality that inspired them.
A compilation of videos that captures how police officers incite violence. How are they responding to protests ag… https://t.co/7rBOh3OHMP— Simran Jeet Singh (@Simran Jeet Singh) 1590893613
And though regrettable incidents of arson and violence have undeniably taken place in connection with BLM demonstrations, the alternative was not "peace."
What is often overlooked in discussions of peace is the reality of social and political injustice as among the most prevalent forms of violence on Earth. When millions of people, targeted through no fault of their own, are systemically dehumanized — their lives and their contributions devalued and their opportunities for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness both deliberately and incidentally truncated for centuries — that is violence that destroys lives on another scale altogether.
For Black Americans that obviously means slavery and its aftermath, as well as segregation and the continued legacies of practices like redlining. But it also means a so-called "war on drugs" that treats addiction as a crime rather than an illness and disproportionately targets and locks up Black Americans, depriving too many children of their parents.
It means racist police procedures like Stop and Frisk, as well as the implicit (and often explicit) racial biases of the officers themselves. It means making it nearly impossible for people convicted of felonies within this unjust, racist system to live within the bounds of the law, depriving them — as well as millions of Black Americans who haven't been convicted of anything — of the right to participate in democracy and change the system that treats them so cruelly.
And none of this even covers the immense wealth inequality that makes life harder for almost all Americans — though, again, the harm is leveled disproportionately against Black Americans. All of these ordinary and unacceptable aspects of American life are violence — "the negative peace which is the absence of tension."
They destabilize communities, families, and individual lives. And that violence came to a head in June, following the horrific killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill.
While far from the only evidence of systemic racism in America, the murder of unarmed Black men, women, and children by police and by racist vigilantes who — more often than not — are allowed to walk free, is perhaps its most blatant and disgusting expression.
And the names of the slain — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, too many more to mention — have become rallying cries.
With all the domestic resistance the protests met from people who insist on spitting "all lives matter!" (as if fighting for the value of Black lives implied otherwise) and "blue lives matter!" (as if the safety of police officers depends on their ability to shoot unarmed Black men, women, and children without consequence), it would be easy to lose sight of how much support the movement has received overseas. While the movement was started in America, the impact has been global.
"Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere"
The reality of living as a dehumanized minority in a bigoted society is sadly all too common in the world. And while not everywhere is as bad in this respect as America, the recognition sparked protests of solidarity and of common cause around the world.
Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has continued the fight for America to live up to its promise. Because right now "the land of the free" is home to a carceral state where more people are imprisoned than anywhere else on Earth, and citizens are killed by police at a higher rate than in any comparable nation.
Because the systems that were deliberately set up to keep newly freed Black citizens oppressed following the Civil War were never truly purged — have been covertly bolstered and supplemented ever since.
That is not peace. Only a stable form of violence.
A cartoon from the 1960s My father wasn’t beloved by America. In ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ he responded to 8… https://t.co/ygwaqnWoO9— Be A King (@Be A King) 1611017549
In 1964 the Nobel committee opted not to side with power. It was the same year the FBI sent a harassing letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to commit suicide.
He was considered by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover — and many others in positions of power within the American government — to be an enemy of the state. There is even reason to believe that these forces were directly involved in his 1968 assassination.
His protest movement was disruptive to the normal order of American life that most white Americans were content to maintain. Many balked at the idea that it could be called peaceful. But the Nobel committee selected him for the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a serious signal that the world was watching how America handled peaceful dissent.
Did that make a difference in passing the voting rights act of 1965? Who can say? But the Nobel committee has a similar opportunity this year.
What Black Lives Matter has been fighting for in recent months is the "positive peace" King spoke of as "the presence of justice." With that in mind — and with some uncertainty remaining as to how a decentralized, leaderless movement of millions can receive an award — the Nobel committee should take seriously the option of selecting Black Lives Matter.
Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speechwww.youtube.com
There are no doubt many nominees whom the committee could select for the Peace Prize — including Jared Kushner. And some who would even be worthy — including Stacey Abrams.
But the significance of acknowledging a grassroots fight for justice that was centuries in the making (in a nation which — for all its flaws — continues to shape culture around the world) is too powerful to deny.
It's time for real allyship.
The protests being held in many American cities over the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks have drawn a lot of support and solidarity not just in the U.S., but across the world in general.
There has never been a better time to use one's voice–no matter how small–to speak up against racial injustice than now.
Online protests have also flooded social media, and they have proven more than ever to be an important part of the cause. In the last few days, we've seen several brands and companies get called out on Twitter for failing to embrace diversity in business, as well as for their unfair treatment of Black employees.
A few editors from some of the biggest publications have been called to step down after receiving backlash for their prejudicial treatment of Black people and other people of color in the past. Many corporations have put out statements admitting to their complicity in acts of racial bias and discrimination, rounding off these statements with a promise to "do better in the future."
But we have to ask: If these individuals, brands and companies claim to be allies, then why are they still failing to hire qualified Black people, or treat them just as equally as their white colleagues? Does there have to be constant backlash before Black people are given equal opportunities as their white counterparts? The cyclical pattern of showing support for Black people only when it's a trend, or when it's profitable to do so, is a dark side of allyship that has to end already.
Apart from the numerous instances of faux solidarity from self-proclaimed allies, there are certain aspects of online celebrity activism that have also been deemed counterproductive to the fight against racial injustice and inequality. From the blank dark squares of #BlackoutTuesday to the two-minute video of celebrities making firm vows to show their support against racism for the "I Take Responsibility" campaign, celebrities and public figures have been under fire for the obvious tone-deafness of their brand of activism.
We can agree that the criticism is rightfully deserved, considering the fact that a lot of celebrities have established their careers and made a fortune from incorporating Black culture into their work and selling their work to Black people. Yet, quite often, celebrities also fail to use their platform to speak up against racial injustice until it's socially beneficial to do so.
These are only a few out of the countless instances where the Black Lives Matter movement has been trivialized and reduced to a stream of hashtags that slowly fade away from our phone screens when the collective outrage subsides, along with the promises to encourage and promote racial equality that never materializes.
The first wave of Black Lives Matter protests that came up in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, led to a similar show of allyship, where legislators in almost every state proposed far-reaching changes in the way the police interact with the public, and many corporations jumped in with commitments to help rebuild communities that face racial and economic inequality. It's been six years since, and we're still having the same conversations about these issues. What happened to all the support that was promised?
Several social media users are currently taking advantage of the attempts to keep the momentum of online protests going and have begun to use activism as a means of gaining engagement and followers.
One Twitter user with the handle @jhaunay made a thread about the new, abhorrent trend of people who claim to be allies sharing memes about justice for the murder of Breonna Taylor. These memes, which are made under the guise of raising awareness for the arrest of the cops who killed her, attract thousands of retweets from users who are under the assumption that they're showing support.
The practice of performative allyship comes from a place of privilege, and it's counterproductive because it trivializes the Black Lives Matter movement, giving it a false appearance as a quest for pity. Public sympathy for Black pain is of no use when there's no accompanying desire to end racial injustice and discrimination.
White people who have failed to recognize and check their privilege cannot begin to fathom that the Black Lives Matter movement was born for the sake of the Black lives that have been lost, the friends and families of victims that directly face the trauma of losing a loved one, and the collective pain felt by Black people for having to exist in a system of oppression, injustice, and marginalization. It's an unchecked privilege that makes a white man even consider the outrageous idea of applying to trademark the terms 'Black Lives Matter' and 'I Can't Breathe.'
As an ally, always remember that Black Lives do matter, even when voicing and living it out puts you in an uncomfortable position.
Three months later with no justice in sight, Beyoncé calls out the Kentucky authorities for their lack of action.
One of 2020's defining features as an alternate reality is that celebrities are leading the fight for social justice, from Kim Kardashian lobbying for prison reform to Britney Spears being a socialist hero.
On Sunday, Beyoncé posted an open letter to Kentucky's Attorney General Daniel Cameron imploring him to press criminal charges against three police officers involved in the fatal shooting of 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
In the three months since Taylor's death, no actions have been taken. "LMPD's investigations have created more questions than answers," the singer writes. She demands that Cameron create more transparency in the investigation of the incident and prosecute the officers' misconduct, as well as the police force's "pervasive practices that result in the repeated deaths of unarmed Black citizens."
"Don't let this case fall into the pattern of no action after a terrible tragedy," she writes. "With every death of a Black person at the hands of the police there are two real tragedies: the death itself and the inaction and delays that follow it. This is your chance to end that pattern. Take swift and decisive action in charging the officers. The next months can not look like the last three."
Breonna Taylor was sleeping in her bed on March 13 when three armed police officers used a battering ram to enter her apartment to execute a "no-knock" warrant as part of a drug investigation. Taylor was shot at least eight times. The details of the event are hotly disputed, with claims that the officers did not identify themselves and executed the raid despite already having the main suspect of their investigation in custody. Taylor's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit but continues to await justice.
The family publicly thanked Beyoncé in a statement issued by their attorney. "It has been more than three months since Breonna was murdered. Her killers are still in uniform. Meanwhile, Atlanta's mayor yesterday called for immediate termination of the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks, and criminal charges have been filed against police in Minnesota and Georgia. Here, we cannot even see an investigative file," they wrote.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Attorney General's office has merely acknowledged the letter and refused to comment. In a Sunday night statement, they told CNN, "We are aware of the letter. As the letter makes requests related to the ongoing investigation involving the death of Ms. Breonna Taylor, we have no further comment."