“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.
It's time we stop acting like the leading Democratic candidate is the only old guy who's ever had a heart attack.
Whoever your pick might be in the 2020 Presidential Election, there's an overarching issue that's been largely prominent: the age of the Democratic front-runner, Bernie Sanders.
At 78, Sanders would be the oldest elected president in the country's history (a title currently held by Trump). The topic of his health became more hotly debated after he suffered a heart attack last October, resulting in him having two stents inserted. Though he bounced back to give one of his best debates yet that very same month, critics have been quick to cite Sanders' declining health as a hindrance to his electability. The backlash is getting even louder as Sanders claims he won't divulge his comprehensive health records. "We have released a detailed medical report, and I'm comfortable on what we have done," he said this week during a CNN town hall.
Sanders' campaign has released letters from three doctors who all asserted the senator is in good health. "I do not see a reason why he would not be able to function effectively in a high stress job," said Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin, director of cardiovascular health and wellness at Mount Sinai Heart in New York. Why are Sanders' opposers so adamant that his health will fail him in office?
Yes, the senator is the oldest candidate in the race, but not by much: Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden are 78 and 77 respectively, while Sanders' fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren is 70—the same age as Trump when he was elected. The health of Bloomberg, Biden, and Warren hasn't been scrutinized nearly as much as Sanders'. Sure, he might be the only one of the bunch who's suffered a heart attack, but that alone shouldn't be a disqualifier; notable politicians including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Lyndon Johnson, and Vice President Dick Cheney all proceeded with lengthy, successful careers in office despite suffering heart attacks early on.
A heart attack should not render an otherwise healthy candidate unfit for presidency, and Sanders' campaign has offered enough proof of his well-being. Our country's entire history has been predominantly dictated by old white men—why make an exception for someone who can actually instigate radical change?