“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.
Climate change activism has a whiteness problem and a class problem.
Climate change is inextricably linked to other systems of oppression, like neoliberal capitalism and colonization. But mainstream environmental movements have historically failed to recognize the roots of the climate crisis; and partly because of this, climate change activism has a whiteness problem and a class problem.
The movement's hypocrisy has grown harder to ignore as the climate crisis has intensified. Environmental racism has left poorer communities on the frontlines of unclean air and dangerous pipelines, while largely shutting their voices out of the decision and policy-making aspects of change.
The problem is rooted in the way environmental activism has traditionally been defined. Early environmental efforts (at least the ones that received the most funding) often focused on preservation and conservation of untouched land. These efforts existed in silos, painting the Earth as a childlike entity—as if the planet was separate and somehow lower than humans. This Earth was treated like an entity that required saving, and the saving was to be done by corporate firms and guilty consumers.
Even during these early times, many groups were actively fighting systemic oppression in conjunction with environmental activism, from Latino farmworkers protesting pesticides to Black students in Harlem fighting to oppose city garbage dumps in their communities. Still, over the next several decades, the mainstream environmental movement failed to realize that the climate crisis was not merely a matter of spoiled rivers and suffering polar bears. The climate crisis was seen as something separate from human life and separate from other social issues. Large "big green" corporations focused on promoting small changes that people could make on individual scales, as if "going green" could save us. We could all take shorter showers, take the bus instead of driving, purchase expensive organic products, and shut up—nevermind that the super wealthy have always used up far more resources and energy than their fair share.
A Crisis of Understanding
"Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war," writes Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate. "Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity's use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it's not the laws of nature."
The climate movement will absolutely fail if it does not recognize the importance of its relationships with other social movements. The climate movement must stand in solidarity with organizations fighting for racial and class equity, for an end to the prison industrial complex and for reparations. It must stand in solidarity with people of color and particularly with Indigenous people, who have always been leading in the fight, and all climate movements must defer to leaders who are living on the front lines of the crisis.
If the climate movement continues to prioritize "an end to the climate crisis" over an end to capitalism, if the movement continues to languish in apocalyptic fears rather than paying attention to how climate actually affects people's lives, if the movement remains disconnected from actual life and the way that the climate crisis is already here for so many people around the globe, it will fail.
Just as we humans cannot survive if we view ourselves as separate from the earth, we can't view the climate crisis as unrelated to other issues of inequality and systemic violence. We need to understand that, just as everything in nature relies on everything else—rivers flow into oceans, tree roots create an underlying network of communication that stretches through an entire forest—the movement to stop climate change is the movement to end relentless capitalism, which is also the movement to actually address the monetary inequalities that still exist because of America's legacy of colonization, slavery, and other violences.
The Future of Environmental Justice
Activist groups are waking up to this, at least theoretically. Groups like the youth organization Sunrise Movement have rallied around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal, a movement that aims to combine a massive reduction in carbon emissions with reforms that will make safe housing, affordable food, and health care available to everyone.
In some ways, Sunrise still suffers from the problems that have always plagued environmental groups: a pervasive level of whiteness and classism. But the movement has been discussing how to change this, initiating a hub restructure program and encouraging the development of smaller, more local groups that will facilitate local outreach. The next step is to put the voices of people who are already fighting for justice into power, people like the Indigenous climate activists who have been protecting the earth for centuries, often at great personal risk.
These are complex tasks that require deep thought and challenging conversations, but they are of the utmost importance. The environmental movement will fail unless it embraces its interconnectedness with all things–Embracing interconnectedness will only ever make us all stronger.
Climate change will inevitably result in tremendous change. If we somehow succeed in pulling the world back from the brink of climate disaster but fail to address other systems of oppression—if we merely keep the world as it is, favoring only the super-rich, allowing suffering on a massive scale despite the fact that we have the resources to address it—would the movement be a victory for anyone except those who were already winning?