“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.
Great Thinkers Who Died Before Their Success
Most people have the same basic plans for life: birth, work, success, death.
But it doesn't always play out in that order. Unfortunately, throughout history, there have been many great thinkers who died before their success could be realized.
Herman Melville (1819–1891)
The New York writer now known across the world for his 1851 magnum opus Moby-Dick had some early success in literature, but he lost the public's attention after the publication of his second book in 1847. He still continued to write, but by 1876, his books were entirely out of print, and Melville had to consider another line of work. Ironically, he earned more money as a customs inspector than he ever did as an author. In the 1920s, renewed interest in Melville, who had been dead for about 30 years, brought closer attention to Moby-Dick, which is now considered one of the best books ever written.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
The brilliant Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh is the poster child of great thinkers who died before their success. He was a member of the artistic community during his life, but his works were rarely recognized outside his circle. He found little success while alive, partially because he battled mental illness and endured several stays in mental hospitals.
When he was 37, van Gogh died from suicide. His brother Theo wanted to elevate his brother's status after his death, but he unfortunately died a few months later as well. Vincent van Gogh's posthumous success is owed to his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who carried on her husband Theo's wishes by publishing Vincent's letters and selling his works. His reputation grew throughout the 20th century, and he is now recognized as a master painter.
Rudolf Diesel (1858–1913)
German inventor and engineer Rudolph Diesel initially sought to make a 100 percent efficient engine. His diesel engine actually never surpassed 25 percent efficiency, which was still more than double what had been achieved at any time before. He applied for patents in 1892 and 1893, but he would not see much of his success. Early diesel engines frequently broke down, requiring Diesel to take on debt to keep his business afloat. He would never live to see the diesel engine's widespread automobile adoption several decades later: in September 1913, Diesel was traveling to Belgium across the English Channel when he fell overboard and drowned. Though his death was likely a suicide, some historians still wonder if he was murdered.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
One of the greatest American poets, Emily Dickinson only had 10 poems published while she was alive. However, she was extremely prolific and often shared her work with friends and family. Upon her death in 1886 of heart failure, her sister Lavinia discovered 40 hand-bound volumes of poetry, totaling up to 1,800 poems. The first volume was published in 1890, and the last was published in 1955. Dickinson is now one of the most highly regarded American poets.