“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.
In the first installment of our Visionaries Project, we interview brilliant writer, activist, and horror buff Sherronda J. Brown.
The Visionaries Project is a new subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of writers and activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of powerful, 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.
As our first installment of the Visionaries Project, we're beyond honored to feature Sherronda J. Brown, an incredibly eloquent and brilliant journalist and activist currently doing vital work in the media sphere.
Where did you grow up? Was there an activism or writing background in your childhood?
I grew up in a small town called Tarboro in Eastern North Carolina. I don't have an activism background from my youth, but I have always been a writer. My mom still has a stack of little books I wrote as early as Kindergarten and first grade.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into writing and journalism?
I don't think writing was much of a choice for me. I think it's something that just lives in my bones and my fingertips. If I wasn't writing about systemic oppression and its multiple arms, I'd almost certainly be writing in some other capacity, probably in entertainment media or true crime. Definitely true crime. Hell, I might still do that one day.
My foray into journalism was more like being pulled into it. I have always shared my views on social media, specifically Facebook, and eventually people started to follow me and root for me. To my surprise, my words touched people. I wrote briefly for a now-shuttered, indie feminist website (for free!) while in college many years ago, but my presence in this world really became solidified when current Managing Editor at Black Youth Project (BYP), Hari Ziyad, gave my writing a home at RaceBaitR and later encouraged me to write for BYP as well. Then, the Deputy Editor position came along, and Hari encouraged me to take another step. The next step was Wear Your Voice (WYV), where I was promoted to Managing Editor by founder Ravneet Vohra before I even knew what hit me. And here I am. Other people recognized my talents and potential before I did. They knew I could do this before I even knew it was an option. Shout out to imposter syndrome, and shout out to the people who helped me get here.
How did you get involved with Wear Your Voice? What work do you do for it, and what's the publication about?
Lara Witt, the current EIC, posted a call for pitches on social media and I submitted a piece about an indie film I had been really impressed by, The Keeping Room. This was just after the release of Sofia Coppola's remake of The Beguiled, and I argued that The Keeping Room—while an imperfect film—succeeds where Coppola's film fails, specifically in her erasure of an enslaved Black woman character from the Civil War era South in order to ensure that the Confederate white women are seen as indisputable victims within the story, rather than cruel enslavers. The essay did very well, so much so that the writer and producer, Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz, reached out to thank me. That was a surprise and, of course, hugely flattering. From that point, I continued to write for WYV as a freelancer, until I got the courage to ask Lara if she needed any editorial support. She advocated for me and helped me become a part of the team, beginning as a part-time Social Media Manager. I will always, always be so grateful to her for that, especially because WYV is such an amazing publication to work for. I now get to say that I serve as the Managing Editor of a bold magazine that wholly embraces me and gives QTBIPOC space to talk about our experiences without tone policing or censorship. It's incredibly rewarding and therapeutic work for me.
The bio for Wear Your Voice cites Kimberlé Crenshaw's definition of "intersectionality." How would you define intersectionality? Has your understanding of it changed over time?
A lot of people misunderstand or wrongly define intersectionality, and I suppose I used to do the same. Once upon a time, I thought of it as a literal intersection, with multiple roads meeting and touching at a particular point, with each road being a different aspect of a marginalized identity. So, one road would be Black, one would be woman, one would be queer, and so on, and they would intersect with each other. In this visual representation, the points where they intersect would be the nucleus, where all the layered oppressions one experiences are most concentrated, for lack of a better phrase.
Now, I understand how wrong I was. Because, for a queer Black woman, Blackness is never separate from woman, is never separate from queer, and so on. More specifically, Kimberlé Crenshaw developed this theory and coined this term thirty years ago for Black women to think and talk about how we experience misogynoir. Intersectionality is specifically for Black women's benefit, and Crenshaw herself has told us not to use it as a blanket term for thinking about oppressions.
What do you mean by "digital activist," as you say in your bio? What potential do you see in digital activism going forward?
It's funny, I didn't realize that I was a digital activist until someone told me I was. I guess, I didn't really understand the true impact that my words were making. One of my favorite anecdotes—or maybe it's a testimony—is from a woman who said that my writing helped her get her teenage daughter to stop bleaching her skin. That made my heart sink and sing at the same time. People reach out to me periodically to share how I've helped them to think about things from a new perspective and better understand how oppressive systems work and even how they have participated in and benefited from them. That's the best reward for me. A lot of people don't consider digital activism to be valid. People like me often get called "armchair activists" as an indictment of our supposed laziness, which is quite an ableist sentiment. There is tremendous value in digital activism, whether or not people are physically or mentally healthy and able enough to contribute to "boots on the ground" work, and I don't just say this because I consider myself one. Think about how much information gets shared across social media by marginalized people that might not otherwise be reported on by the mainstream media. Digital activism can and does enact change in its own way, and there are plenty of examples.
If you see yourself as a resource for awareness or inspiration for activists and radical thinkers, what would you recommend to others looking to get into the type of work you're doing?
I know this is easier said than done, but take the leap. Shoot your shot. Send that pitch email. Read other people's work, digest it, process it, live in it. And then, find the gaps. With any given subject, there's always someone who has already written about it, of course, but there are always things left unsaid, views left unexplored. No one person can tackle every possible angle. Find the gaps that other people inevitably leave in their work and fill them. Address the unaddressed. That is how writers can set themselves apart, in my opinion. That's what I really appreciate as an editor and a reader.
Are there any projects or current topics you want to promote?
We are currently wrapping up our Summer of Sex campaign at WYV, a series that highlights perspectives of QTBIPOC [Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color] on the subject of sex and the things surrounding it. The piece I contributed to this is rather personal, maybe more personal than anything else I've ever written. In it, I do what feels for me like heavy lifting on the subjects of unhealthy sex, asexuality, celibacy, and fawning as a trauma response, as all of these relate to my personal story and life experience. These are topics I rarely see talked about openly and I would like to see others engaging with them as well.
You describe yourself as a "reformed Blackademic." What was your experience in academia and why did you choose to move towards digital media?
I had no idea I would end up here. For a long time, I thought I would be an academic, and I had plans to pursue a doctorate. The bureaucracy and high pressure of the institution turned out to be something I wasn't cut out for, and I'm perfectly fine with that. I call myself a reformed Blackademic because stepping back from academia allowed me to see how elitism and inaccessibility can sometimes be a barrier to connecting with our own communities. If my work isn't accessible to those outside of higher education, then I don't think it's actually doing as much work as we might assume. This isn't to say that there isn't value in academic thought and high theory. Of course there is, and the things I learned while pursuing my degrees absolutely continue to inform my current work. I'm just more intentional about making my work accessible, as much as I can, and I will hopefully continue to make more progress in that arena through digital media.
What are your favorite writing projects or stories you've covered over the years?
My favorite projects are the ones that allow me to blend my passion for entertainment media with my radical, leftist, Black feminist, anti-capitalist philosophies. I'd say I'm currently most fond of my analysis of Thanos and his flawed Malthusian logic system about overpopulation and my laments on the unfortunate pattern of Black horror stories and Black time travel narratives that seem to only contemplate white violence as a constant fixture in our lives.
You've written a lot about your interest in horror and haunting narratives. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I became interested in hauntings in grad school, in terms of how the ghosts of history continue to haunt our lives everyday and how we see those ghosts manifesting in oppressive systems, and these things often show up as literal ghosts in cinematic haunting narratives, like literally any film that uses a "Native American burial ground" as a way to convey danger and terror for white protagonists only to ultimately subdue the ghosts rather than truly acknowledge and hold accountable the violent white colonialism that created them.
Candyman (1992) is also a prime example with the vengeful ghost created from a lynching, and it is one of my personal favorites, despite it ultimately being yet another story of a frightened white woman being lusted after by a Black man. Choosing favorites is always difficult, because it changes every few years, and I love so many. Train to Busan (2016), Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017), Hereditary (2018), and The Babadook (2014) are some of my contemporary favorites, but Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), Night of theLiving Dead (1968), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) are longevity faves.
When you say "new voices" in horror, I immediately think of Jordan Peele, of course, who has two amazing horror entries already, which are among my favorites as well, and is sure to bring us more. He's tapped Nia DaCosta to direct his Candyman "spiritual sequel" expected in 2020, and I am ecstatic about a Black woman directing such a huge mainstream horror film. It would be a dream to see more Black women, more queer folks, more trans folks, more disabled folks at the helm of these stories. I want to see people who have historically been largely relegated to monstrosities in horror giving us innovative tales that subvert the status quo and rattle us in new, challenging ways.
You write a lot of content that challenges hegemonic, white supremacist narratives and ways of reporting and understanding current events; for example, the idea that climate change is new/just beginning to show effect, or that BIPOC women's bodies haven't always been byproducts of white supremacist violence. What writers, sources, or strategies have helped you challenge these hegemonic narratives? What kind of anti-oppression work do you see coming to the fore and/or still needing to be done in terms of this?
My first piece of writing that went viral viral was "White Women In Robes" on my personal blog, werdbrew. It was a critique of The Handmaid's Tale's use of harms committed against BIPOC in a story that centers white women and white feminism's historical connections with white supremacy, among other things. Dorothy E. Roberts' "Killing the Black Body" greatly informed that piece of writing, and anything else I've written about the reproductive control of and expectations for Black people. I also carry Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis with me daily, and the spirits of Harriet Tubman and Zora Neale Hurston. The voices of Patricia Hill Collins, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison are always with me when I write about Black womanhood. Some more recent entries that have inspired me include Tressie McMillan Cottom's "Thick" and Sabrina Strings' "Fearing the Black Body," both amazing and important works. I just think Black women are so brilliant and so uniquely able to Illuminate ugly but necessary truths about our world. Black women are already doing crucial anti-oppression work, and always have been. People just need to listen.
"White supremacy is the ugliest thing I have ever seen—producing literal monstrosities—and its hideousness cannot b… https://t.co/wiLkhJBOYc— 𝚂𝚑𝚎𝚛𝚛𝚘𝚗𝚍𝚊 𝙹. 𝙱𝚛𝚘𝚠𝚗 (@𝚂𝚑𝚎𝚛𝚛𝚘𝚗𝚍𝚊 𝙹. 𝙱𝚛𝚘𝚠𝚗) 1568832755.0
You write that white dystopian narratives align with the "destruction of the dominant white society, the disruption of the white heteropatriarchal family unit, and the downfall of post-colonial civilization as a whole" in one of your reviews. What kind of disruption would you like to see, and are there any images of the future that you imagine seeing through and beyond this disruption?
That is the kind of disruption I like to see. In a perfect world, we would finally get to see all the remnants of white colonialism gone, but unfortunately that is not our reality. I don't mind at all that dystopian narratives involve this kind of destruction in the fantasy world, especially because the destruction of a society where white supremacists hold political, economic, and social power only creates possibilities for the rest of us. My issue is that these narratives—with the exception of The Girl With All The Gifts (2017)—never explore those new opportunities or acknowledge the fact that QTBIPOC already live in a dystopia in the real world.
Still from "The Girl With All the Gifts"pressinfo.com
Are there any particular voices or groups you'd like to see highlighted in our current cultural moment?
I absolutely want more QTBIPOC voices. More fat, disabled, neurodivergent folks being heard and respected and humanized. More sex workers, more undocumented immigrants. I want to hear more from the younger generation, too. The people who get silenced the most are the ones who need to be elevated the most.
What's your everyday routine like? Where do you like to do your work or write?
I'm actually working to embrace my nocturnal nature these days, and I'm fortunate enough to have a career that allows me to do so. What are considered "normal" sleeping hours often serve as my writing time. Some of the best things I've written have come pouring out of me between the hours of 3 and 6 am. I'm either writing in bed or on the couch, and I always write on my phone. I sleep as best as I can, if I can, for a few hours and then I'm up and working again by noon. For BYP, I might be publishing in WordPress and/or desperately searching for good stock images of Black people. For WYV, I might be taking care of daily social media management duties, doing secondary edits or final checks on a piece before Lara publishes, creating graphics, and/or designing and sending out our weekly newsletter(s). For both publications, I might be hopping on a staff video or phone call, brainstorming new content, reading and catching up on the day's news so far, answering emails, evaluating pitches, responding to Slack messages, drafting calls for pitches, organizing my editorial calendar, conducting interviews, checking in with writers, and addressing anything else that requires my attention. The late afternoon and evening is when I rest, recharge, meditate, exercise, and eat. Sometimes, I will do some in-depth editing work on writers' drafts during this time, but mostly I don't start doing that kind of work until around midnight. Then, I plan for the next day/night. I admit, sometimes it's hard to keep track of what day it is.
You do a lot of challenging work. What do you do for fun, and to take care of yourself?
I'm proud to say that I'm much better about taking care of myself now than I used to be. For self-care, I watch horror game play on YouTube because I think it's more fun to watch other people do it—plus it's cheaper and less time-consuming. I spend quality time with friends virtually—ironically, all of my closest friends live far away. I SnapChat with my little sister. I take myself to 4 pm matinees in the middle of the week. I laugh with my co-workers. I support and mentor Black kids. I lift weights. I hit my heavy bag. I eat peanut butter fudge sorbet at 3 AM. I write happy things. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks about true crime, folklore, and history. I laugh at nonsensical memes. I block white people with dreadlocks. I drink plenty of water. I take selfies. I spend entire weekends naked, and I don't let myself work on Saturdays anymore.