“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.