“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.
Miners Invade Indigenous Land and Murder Community Leader In Brazil
This was an act of terror, and should be widely condemned.
Emyra Wajãpi was a leader of the Wajãpi indigenous community, a group located in the north of Brazil—until he was murdered this week by a group of armed miners, who stabbed him to death and threw his body into a river.
On Saturday, Wajãpi community leaders issued a cry for help to the Brazilian government, stating that they were being invaded by troops bearing rifles and weapons and requesting the assistance of the army. Though a police force was en route, they did not arrive in time, and the community was forced to flee.
The invasion comes as a shock but not a surprise. In recent months, Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has explicitly encouraged loggers, miners, and farmers to invade protected areas and land occupied by indigenous communities, arguing that the Brazilian government has the right to develop and profit off of any and all of its national territories. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon has skyrocketed, though he has repeatedly denied the validity of studies that reveal just how much land has been lost during his reign.
"The president is responsible for this death," said Brazilian lawmaker Rodolfe Rodrigues to the The New York Times. Bolsonaro has a history of making racist comments about indigenous people and is currently telling the public that the murder did not happen.
The Wajãpi people united in protest against invadersImage via survivalinternational.org
In March 2019, Bolsonaro met with U.S. President Donald Trump, and they signed a letter of intent promising the "sustainable development of the Amazon" (read: the ravaging of indigenous lands). Bolsonaro has also drafted plans that would legalize artisanal mining in protected lands, and that—to add insult to injury—would encourage indigenous communities to mine their own lands.
His priorities are crystal clear. "Brazil lives from commodities," Bolsonaro said in a recent speech. "What do we have here in addition to commodities? Do people not remember this? If the [commodities] business fails, it will be a disaster." These comments come at a time when mining and pollution present unparalleled threats to the planet's well-being and when indigenous ways of life present one of the best models of combating climate change and developing sustainable infrastructure.
The killing of Emyra Wajãpi should be viewed as a serious act of domestic terror among international communities. The U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has decried the death, calling it "a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land – especially forests – by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil." World leaders should follow suit in denouncing these actions and reaffirming their commitment to conserving protected lands.
Wajãpi Indigenous TribeImage via Victor Moriyama
If they do not, a genocide could ensue. "This government is massacring our rights and our indigenous peoples," said a Wajãpi leader to NBC News. "They are already starting, killing the indigenous peoples."
Indigenous communities of the Americas have endured relentless persecution since the arrival of Europeans in the 1400s. The Wajãpi did not receive protected land until 1996, after a 21-year period of brutal military rule. In the 1970s, their community was almost completely wiped out by disease—brought by invading gold miners.
#Brazil: Effective measures should be taken to save lives & physical integrity of the #Waiãpi people. I urge Gov to… https://t.co/7VvPSCAxVg— UN Human Rights (@UN Human Rights) 1564428776.0