“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 attempted coup that took place at the Capitol building on Wednesday was equal parts terrifying and hilarious.
In times of crisis and chaos, it's important to keep a clear head and stay on top of the facts.
It's important to acknowledge that this was an unprecedented breach of security that could easily have been avoided and that it resulted in the deaths of at least four people.
But once you've processed the horror that entails, it's equally important to allow yourself a break from the tension and anxiety. Now and then it's essential to look at things from a different angle and just laugh at the absurdity.
Wednesday's attack on Capitol Hill was a great reminder of that lesson. Amid images of fascists and white supremacists taking over the Capitol building to disrupt the functioning of the federal government, chase legislators into hiding, and delay the confirmation of Joe Biden's clear victory over Donald Trump — waving the confederate flag, smashing things, stealing things, and generally getting away with it — there was also an abundance of clownish, hilarious behavior.
Some of the absurdity involved people being intentionally funny, while some of it displayed a raw, natural talent for being obliviously laughable. But all of it provided potent relief from the sense of American democracy falling to a movement of delusional bigots led by a petty conman (though that's still a disturbing possibility).
So as we move forward and focus on action to ameliorate the risk of further violence — anti-coup protests, impeachment, the 25th amendment — it's worth looking back at some of the highlights of absurdity that sprouted from Wednesday's waking nightmare.
At any rate, with all this absurdity, you have to laugh...or cry...or both, simultaneously while huddled in your closet.