“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.
The Real Reason Millennials Get a Bad Rap
Even though some Millennials are almost forty, people are still bashing them.
Last year the New York Post ran an article about Millennials making up the largest portion of the American workforce, ignoring a glaringly obvious point: of course 22-37 year olds are the largest portion of the labor market; they're adults. In an effort to make a distinctly un-newsworthy article newsworthy, the Post settled on an old trope, pick on the Millennials. For its part, this article wasn't as bad as most. The author refrained from using words like "entitled" and "coddled" and "irresponsible," but there's still a certain connotation attached to the term Millennial, particularly in the way it pertains to work ethic and maturity. Repudiating a stereotype often doesn't have the desired effect; in fact, it has a tendency of validating the stereotyper.* That said, my editor's asked me to dissect the maelstrom of insults and unfair generalizations that surround my generation, so here it goes.
In order to parse the general themes of Millennial bashing from the tsunami of bull shit that's been thrown our way, it's important to acknowledge how it all started. In many ways, a lot of the Millennial-centric ire feels natural. Baby Boomers hated Gen Xers. WWII Vets were critical of Boomers. There's always been something decidedly adversarial about the relationship between a young generation and their parents. This is fine. It's one of the many growing pains associated with being a young professional. The strange thing is how long this anti-Millennial sentiment has lasted. Complaints about young folks usually stop before those young folks are forty.
One theory about Millennial bashing's longevity is that it's a symptom of the economic anxiety created by the financial crisis of 2008. Parents had already been lambasting Millennials for being entitled and not wanting to sacrifice their twenties to careers paths they weren't interested in and didn't respect. Boomers were more concerned with being pragmatic, while Millennials wanted to find meaning in their work. Naturally, this caused friction. Still, there was nothing out of the ordinary. At this point, Millennials were college and high school students.
We're just gathering around a single computer monitor to check out some sweet graphs. You know, millennial stuff.
Following the Great Recession, however, this friction was compounded, as Boomers and Gen Xers everywhere lost pensions and 401ks, and their supposedly 'safe' jobs went up in smoke. When slapped in the face by reality, Boomers realized that sacrificing the best years of their lives to jobs they hated yielded very few tangible results. They were understandably upset. There's plenty of pop psychology out there that'll tell you people hate being wrong, but when by virtue of being wrong, their entire life is called into question, something interesting happens. Back in the 50s, a study was done on a doomsday cult in Chicago. The cult predicted that a massive flood would destroy the West Coast of the United States and that flying saucers would rescue the chosen believers before the cataclysm struck. Obviously, it never happened. Strangely, after the prophecy failed, rather than admitting they'd been duped, folks in the cult doubled down on their beliefs, assuming that their prayers had been answered by God and that he decided to spare the planet on their behalf.
Applying similar logic, Boomers, rather than admitting that the system they'd bought into wasn't really looking out for their best interest, doubled down, intensifying their rhetoric against lazy and entitled Millennials. Inasmuch as all invectives are projections of a speaker's insecurities, Boomers and Gen Xers are really saying one of two things when they blindly lash out. One: they made the wrong choices when they were young, and feel they missed The Road Not Taken. Two: they feel that they didn't work hard enough to inoculate themselves from the effects of our failing economy. The former is sad. The latter is terrifying.
Millennials don't care about dressing up for work.
Another way to look at this issue is via the lens of corporate America. As pointed out by Tucker Max**, the corporate formula is simple: sacrifice youth in exchange for status and financial security. The problem is, status is only worthwhile if people believe in the power structures it's attached to. Money certainly still commands respect, but middle managers aren't exactly rolling in it. With this in mind, it's easy to look at Boomers' Millennial fixation as an obsession with preserving the status quo (pun intended). In their world, being respected can feel like the end all be all of adult life. If Millennials don't buy into the existing systems of power, then the prestige Boomers have strived for is meaningless.
There's always a disconnect between generations, but the way in which Millennials have been used as scapegoats for economic issues is beyond the pale. Many of us own homes and have families already. Some of us are prominent business owners. If 1996 is a strict cutoff, then this coming school year will be the last college graduating class primarily comprised of Millennials. We're adults, in every sense of the word. Still, the stereotypes attached to Millennials have persisted, and while I've discussed the hows and whys, I haven't directly addressed the crimes my generation is accused of.
Here's a shortlist of refutations:
-Millennials are not as addicted to their phones as Boomers and Gen Xers.
-Millennials do not want participation trophies. Those were invented to coddle and reassure parents that their children are special. I have a box of them at home. They mean nothing to me.
-Every generation since the Boomers has been called "The Me Generation."
-Millennials aren't stupid. They're the most educated generation ever. Full stop.
-Millennials aren't lazy or entitled. We just won't work for less than what we're worth. Anyone who thinks refusing to work for free is an entitlement, has no spine.
-Our debt is not due to a lack of fiscal responsibility. Boomers destroyed the economy, and we're shouldering 1.2 trillion dollars in student debt because we were taught that higher education is a prerequisite to success in this country.
* This is because discourse is predicated on the idea that each side of an argument has merit. A potential side effect of debate, however, is the creation of a neutral center, a nebulous region in which values from either end of the discussion are combined and redefined ad infinitum. Often, the center is painted as the domain of the rational thinker, the one who can clearly see both sides of an argument. The problem is, in a debate with, say, a neo-nazi, the center must by this definition, at least partially endorse certain ethno-fascist ideals. In this way, the creation of an ideological middle ground always benefits the more radical opinion.
**Listen...I know. I didn't see the author until after I read the article, but it makes some pretty good points. Yes, his books are still bad.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Popdust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff