“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.
In the fourth installment of the Visionaries Project, we speak to activist and community organizer Ebony Ava Harper.
The Visionaries Project is a new subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Ebony Ava Harper is an activist, philanthropist, writer, creator, life and world-changer, advocate for marginalized communities, and a tremendous inspiration to many. As an openly Black and trans woman and an advocate for environmental justice, prison reform, and so much more, she has done incredible work to fight for her communities, forging a path to a better world in the process. She is currently head of California TransCends, a statewide organization that works to promote the health and wellness of transgender people in California, and she's the recipient of the 2019 Stonewall Four Freedoms Award and the among other achievements (none of which could come close to adequately recognizing all of her marvelous work). We spoke about resilience, environmental justice, community organizing, and more.
1. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where are you from, and what were and are you passionate about?
I was born in Prince Georges County, Maryland, to a family of Jamaican immigrants. I believe I'm the first American born in my family. My parents migrated from Maryland to Los Angeles, CA when I was just a baby, so all I know is growing up in Los Angeles. I spent the first 27 years of my life mostly in Los Angeles, and then I moved to Sacramento. I've been in Sacramento for some time now, and I consider this my home city.
I'm passionate about dismantling systems of oppression and dismantling my own oppressive behaviors. I'm passionate about loving the unlovable. Flipping that negative into a positive and improving not only my quality of life but the quality of life of all living beings (plants and trees included).
2. How did you first get started with activism, and what movements are you most involved in now?
I'm a Black trans woman that came out early in life, so I always say I came out fighting for survival from the gate (from the start). I was born an activist. I had to fight and speak up for myself to simply be... I'm a decedent of Jamaica, and if you listen to our music, you'll hear a lot about love, peace, "getting up, standing up, fighting for your rights." I would say I hit the ground fighting with all these intersections I embody. I also hit the ground loving and having empathy for others. My inner indignation against injustice and my tender Jamaican roots inform who I am today and my activism. My activism has transitioned along with me. I feel like we're all transitioning in some way. I have transitioned away from just relegating myself to being a trans activist, I'm a human rights activist. I fight for all oppressed peoples. Social oppression is even showing up through this current climate crisis.
I'm involved in Gender Justice, Climate Justice, Disability Justice, and Race Equity!! They all interconnect in my life.
3. A lot of your writing seems to focus on internal and community-wide restorative efforts and resilience, whether in terms of health, the environment, or the spirit. What does human resilience mean to you, and for you?
I love this question! It's a big question. I came from some harsh beginnings: All I know is resilience. I'm an introspective person, so as I have aged, I think about resilience on a much larger scale than the marginalized groups that produced me or my sole experience. I think about all the times life itself was on the brink of total catastrophe, and boom.... It rebounds. Resilience means to rebound from something that could've taken you out. It means hope for the future, it means another chance, another road, another shot. I'm a descendant of slaves and a descendant of those that have walked this trans path: All I know is resilience. I wish to share my struggle with others in hopes that they may be inspired not to give up. You know, "If that big ole queen can make it, so can I." That's the seed I want to plant when I'm sharing on any platform.
4. You wrote an amazing piece for Forbes in which you discuss feminism's failure to address "inequities of human injustices caused by colonial, capitalist, and social oppression." You also addressed this in your Sacramento News and Review piece in which you wrote, "Trans people, particularly our black women and femmes, were on the front lines of the Stonewall Rebellion, yet we're on the back lines of the gay and lesbian liberation." Feminism and many, or really most, social movements suffer from such a lack of intersectional and trans recognition. Where do you see that need for change manifesting itself?
I think social justice movements don't always think in terms of intersections, or they fight for things that will serve them in that particular moment, never really seeing how all this suffering intersects. They'll have all the language right, but their actions will be about that one topic. We need to remove the berries and realize an injustice to a Black trans woman is the same as an injustice to a cis woman. An injustice to a Black trans woman is an injustice to the Black community as a whole. There's no separation; Black trans issues are multidimensional and are relatable to any social justice issue today. You have to be radical and intentional about inclusivity to Black trans women.
5. Are there any trans leaders, writers, or figures you're particularly inspired by at the moment?
Too many to name here, but I'll name just a few. Valerie Spencer inspired me as a young trans kid. We have Black trans philosophers, and I would say she's one of our great philosophers. Aria Sa'id is a young Black trans woman that has contributed so much to our movement at such a young age. She's Executive Director of the first Trans Cultural District in the nation, and she's smart as hell... Daroneshia Duncan-Boyd, from Alabam leading the charge for trans health equity throughout the South. Elle Hearns, one of the founding members of Black Lives Matter that just so happens to be a Black trans woman. Omega West, a Black trans man who, like me, came from some rough stuff and is out here fighting for our rights daily. Last but not least, my translatina sister, Bamby Salcedo, who's a national treasure in our community fighting for our freedoms every day.
6. You're vocal online about a lot of environmental issues. Do you see the environment as intertwined with queer, trans, and Black and Brown community issues? What does environmental justice mean to you?
It's absolutely intertwined! The factories in impoverished neighborhoods, access to clean food, clean water, information around health all are linked to poverty. Extreme poverty is linked to these marginalized groups that live on the fringe of the fringes of society. No resources, so capitalism exploits them. We have to look at what's affecting those at the bottom and work from there, while fighting these big corporations that are siphoning the life out of the planet.
7. What changes (spiritual or societal or both) would you like to see most in the near future? What does your vision of a better future look like?
Green renewable energy. No more wars. The end of capitalism! Love abounding on the earth like never before. Total freedom to just be without judgment.
8. Are there any organizations or initiatives you'd like to promote?
I'm the leader of the new statewide initiative, California TransCends, in partnership with the California Endowment and California Public Health Advocates. California TransCends promotes the health and wellness of transgender people throughout the state of California. I'll be doing a statewide assessment of the needs of trans people living in rural communities, trans people of color, and our trans elders. We'll be working with local policymakers to see what we can do to make trans lives a bit more bearable. We're engaging other trans organizations that are leading statewide work to form a statewide and national coalition that will work in one accord on issues that need our rapid response. Lastly, we'll have micro-grants available for coalition-building conferences for trans people of color. I'm also one of the directors for the newly formed Employment Equality.
9. You're doing so much amazing work—how do you balance it all? What do you do for self-care and for fun?
I take a couple of days a week off and recharge. I have a small circle but good friends I can call when I'm going through a tough time. I have a spiritual community, The Center for Spiritual Awareness, that loves and supports me. This is my combination for staying afloat.
10. Do you have any advice for activists, or any lessons or mantras that you follow?
Don't become the same evil you're fighting! It's easy to fall into the trap of anger and vengeance. When fighting injustice, you have to make sure your approaches are balanced, or you'll perpetuate the same injustices you're fighting.
The sordid history of Trump's NatSec advisor.
Picture the most gung-ho Warhawk in modern history, a man who's made a career out of calling for military invasions of foreign countries, forced regime changes, ends to peace treaties.
Do you imagine a hardened war veteran with military accolades who's seen the cost of war and knows its price? Or a nationalist who's fine throwing human life away from the safety of his armchair, despite doing everything in his power to avoid going off to war himself as a youth? If you picture the latter, you've got Trump's former national security advisor John Bolton.
John Bolton did serve in the National Guard and Army Reserve. But he did so in order to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War, essentially biding his time stateside out of fear of real battle. "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost," wrote John Bolton in his 25th college reunion book.
Speaking from a position of privilege might be Bolton's greatest asset, though. Those who have seen war generally speak about it in more tempered measures, while Bolton reached his position through pushing extremes.
Throughout his long career, Bolton has worked under multiple right-wing administrations, from Reagan to W. Bush to Trump. During this time, he's advocated again and again for war, pushing for a U.S. invasion of Iraq dating back to shortly after the first Gulf War, calling for the "end of North Korea," and advocating to terminate the Iran Nuclear Deal. He has also expressed strong nationalistic views against the concept of the United Nations, stating, "There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that's the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along."
John Bolton's greatest supporters tend to be similarly-minded radicals like Dick Cheney and Donald Trump, while his detractors tend to be anyone more moderate. Even fellow Republicans denounce Bolton. Condoleezza Rice resisted Cheney's efforts to make Bolton her deputy when she was secretary of state, instead passing him off as a UN ambassador. During the nomination hearing for that job, conservative Republican intelligence official Carl Ford described him as a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy" who "abuses his authority with little people." Even George W. Bush would later say he regretted Bolton's appointment, allegedly saying he didn't "consider Bolton credible."
And yet Bolton was named the national security advisor to Donald Trump, a fellow draft dodger with a known disregard for human life. To Trump, it didn't matter that Bolton was reviled by the international community. It didn't matter that Bolton was considered radical, largely disrespected even within his own party. For Trump, Bolton was the right man for the job. It remains to be seen whether he will do a better job as a witness.
From bonfires to bicentennials, the history of America's birthday tells the story of a changing nation
The 4th of July is one of those rare days where everyone knows what to expect –– a hot summer's day off spent with family, friends, fireworks, food, and patriotically-branded cans of beer. Yet, all the common rituals of our national day are the product of almost two-hundred and fifty years of chaotic, challenging, and occasionally calamitous celebration; the lesser-known parts of which offer us an interesting view of a constantly changing America. So, here are some things you may not know about Independence Day.
Independence Day Isn't the Day the U.S. Became Independent
"Let's just go with the big date at the top..." –– Americans, 1776, probably...
That's right; although we celebrate the 4th of July in commemoration of the anniversary of America gaining its independence in 1776, the reality is a little more complex. Legally, the original thirteen colonies separated from the British crown two days earlier on the 2nd, as this is when the Second Continental Congress passed the resolution that declared the United States to be independent from the rule of Great Britain. Yet, from the very beginning, Americans celebrated the anniversary of their independence on the 4th; simply because it was the date written at the top of the incredibly popular Declaration of Independence. If you want to go further, it could be argued that the US didn't truly become an independent nation on any date in 1776, because it was still largely occupied by hostile British forces. The Revolutionary War would would not end, and Britain would not renounce its claim to the colonies until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3rd, 1783. So, if you want to rebel against the red-white and blue holiday, or just love it so much you want to celebrate it twice, consider September 3rd as a candidate for 'alternate Independence Day'.
The Way the 4th Was Originally Celebrated Might Shock You
History teaches us that nothing goes wrong when you combine liquor and pyrotechnics.
(Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
In many ways, the early celebrations of the 4th of July were not that different from our own. Fireworks were present at the very first anniversary, in an elaborate display sanctioned by Congress itself, in which, according to an account of the time: "rockets...ascended to an amazing height in the air, burst, and displayed thirteen stars". Other traditions were not so familiar. In 1779, July 4th fell on a Sunday for the first time. As most Americans at the time strictly observed the christian Sabbath, the celebrations were held the next day instead. That's not to say that their staunch Protestantism prevented them from indulging in the same feasting and drinking that we enjoy today; in fact, it allowed them to justify adding a whole extra night to the festivities of the "Glorious Fourth". In a tradition that somehow survived well into the 20th century in many parts of America, the night of the 3rd would see ginormous pyramids of barrels and crates set alight in a call-back to the rituals of the anti-Catholic 'Pope-Day', a celebration that originated in England and often included the burning of the Pope in effigy. While this is one practice (thankfully) relegated to our past, the institution survives elsewhere in the form of "the Glorious Twelfth". Take a trip to certain parts of the North of Ireland on the night of 12 July and you can still see huge wooden pyramids with anti-Catholic imagery being set alight to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. History is just the past happening over and over, etc.
Independence Day was the Subject of One of the Greatest Abolitionist Speeches
"Right is of no sex, Truth is of no color, God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."
(Photo: George Warren/Wikimedia Commons)
Another ritual of the 4th that has waned in popularity is the practice of prominent figures in public life delivering speeches celebrating the nation and the struggle for independence. However, perhaps the most notable of these speeches was far from an ode to America. Delivered by the famous abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass on July 5th, 1852, the speech known as, "What to a slave is the 4th of July?" was one of the most powerful and moving arguments against America's original sin of slavery. In the speech, Douglass, speaking to an audience of white abolitionists, examines the hypocrisy of a celebration of freedom in a nation that still permitted the ownership of human beings, and frames the struggle for emancipation in parallel to the fight for independence:
"They [the Founding Fathers] were statesmen, patriots, and heroes… with them justice, liberty, and humanity were final; not slavery and oppression."
The checkered history of America can often be obscured by a fog of red, white, and blue on the 4th; and, while there's nothing wrong with throwing on your favorite starred-and-striped bandana and enjoying a deserved holiday, Douglass remind us that, even today, the dream of a nation where everyone is born free remains far from fulfilled. So, perhaps we should revive an old tradition of the 4th and read some of Douglass' historic speech; or, even better, hear them brought to life by the legendary James Earl Jones.
The 4th Was a Pivotal Date in Deciding the Outcome of the Civil War
Confederates and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day
As with the question of America's independence, the question of slavery was not one that would be answered peacefully. Nine years after Douglass' speech, the nation was plunged into a bloody civil war that, during its first months, appeared to be headed toward a stalemate. However, on the 4th of July 1863, two events made it clear that the tide of war was turning in favor of the Union and emancipation. Firstly, after three days of the bloodiest battle ever raged on American soil, General Robert E. Lee was forced to retreat from Gettysburg back to Virginia, suffering his first major defeat. Gettysburg would mark the furthest advance of the Confederacy, and they would not mount a single significant assault into Union territory for the remainder of the war. As Lee's army began their flight south, the Confederacy suffered another devastating loss. The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi; which had been besieged by the forces of Ulysses S Grant for nearly two months, surrendered on the 4th of July, splitting the Confederacy in two and denying them access to the critical supply line of the Mississippi River. Within two years, Lee had surrendered to Grant and the war was over, yet the town of Vicksburg would prohibit the celebration of Independence Day until 1907.
Some Independence Days Are More Important Than Others
Philly, partying like it's 1876
(James McCabe/Wikimedia Commons)
The 4th of July is often called 'America's birthday', and, like your sweet sixteen and twenty-first, some of those birthdays have been celebrated in extra special ways. To celebrate the nation's 100th birthday (which fell little over a decade after the end of the Civil War), the nation threw a massive party in Philadelphia to celebrate. Over ten million people visited the 'Centennial Exhibition', the first World's Fair to be held in the United States, which featured exhibits from thirty-seven countries. Attendees at this seven month long festival got to see (and taste) some rather spectacular things, including the first public unveilings of the telephone, typewriter, Heinz ketchup, and root beer. Also on display were the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty, itself a gift from France to celebrate the centennial. On America's two-hundredth birthday, which fell a year after the withdrawal from Vietnam, the whole nation was swept up in a celebration that leant heavily on themes of revival through a kind of patriotic nostalgia. The iconic bicentennial logo could be seen everywhere; from NFL uniforms to NASA launch vehicles. In fact, NASA had planned for an even more ostentatious celebration –– the televised landing of the first spacecraft on Mars. However, the proposed landing site ended up being too risky, so the landing had to be delayed. If you weren't around for America's 100th or 200th birthdays, you don't have to worry about missing out. Legislation has already been passed to begin plans for big celebrations of the nation's 250th birthday in 2026, with events taking place in Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and New York City. Time to start learning how to spell 'semiquincentennial'...
This Fireworks Display on the 4th is Mind-Blowingly Large
*U-S-A! U-S-A! chanting intensifies*
(Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Is there anything more American than the appreciation of ginormous explosions? How about the appreciation of three-thousand ginormous explosions every minute? That's exactly what the centerpiece of New York City's 4th of July celebrations, Macy's 'Fireworks on the East River', has been about ever since its inaugural show in 1958. This display of patriotic combustion is so elaborate that it takes one whole year of man hours to plan, load, and ignite each twenty-five minute show. Some of the pyrotechnics used are so powerful that they can fly one-thousand feet in the air –– that's three times the height of America's most famous birthday present, the Statue of Liberty. Perhaps the French should just have sent a really big rocket instead.