“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.
We're all getting something wrong when we view political correctness as fundamentally opposed to free speech.
Few issues have divided the nation further than the free speech vs. political correctness debate.
In addition to deepening the gap between conservatives and liberals, the debate tends to fracture the left, leading to dissent from the inside. This stems in part from the fact that many older liberals simply can't wrap their minds around the idea of political correctness.
Political Correctness: Censorship or Part of the Fight for Equality?
Critics of political correctness equate it to censorship, which they see as a threat to the all-American ideal of unbridled freedom. For most liberal millennials and Gen-Z kids, however, political correctness is about freedom, just of a different sort. It's really about shutting down hate speech and supporting marginalized communities.
Nowhere did this divide become clearer than in one of my lectures in college, a postmodernism class with a professor who I'd always seen as uniquely brilliant (and who also happened to teach a lesbian erotica class). She lost a lot of my respect when—as a white woman—she insisted that there was nothing really wrong with a white person saying the "n" word in solitude, prompting one of the few people of color in the class to raise her hand and ask: "Why are white people so desperate to say that one word?" The professor responded with a lecture about free speech and the insubstantiality of language, a response that felt misguided and totally out of touch.
This generational divide appeared again when prominent feminist and author Margaret Atwood published an op-ed critiquing the #MeToo movement. "My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones," she wrote. "They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing." In short, Atwood was critiquing the #MeToo movement for the same reason that many people critique political correctness. They feel that restricting one's language, or giving the benefit of the doubt to and prioritizing the voices of certain demographics, is infantilizing or threatening to other demographics' freedoms.
On the other hand, many young liberals understand that political correctness is an important part of the process of giving respect to groups that have been and are still systematically oppressed. This political correctness can take the form of prioritizing people of color's voices, or calling out offensive speech—even, or especially, when it's the product of ignorance, or when it's conducted out of earshot of the people it might hurt.
What Toni Morrison Knew: Political Correctness and Free Speech Can Be the Same Thing
What we all need to understand is that, among other things, the left's internal war over political correctness and free speech actually presents a chance for generations to learn from each other. Defenders of political correctness might realize that sometimes, accidentally offensive language can present a valuable educational opportunity—though this is definitely not always the case, and no one should be required to educate others about why they deserve basic respect.
Older proponents of free speech, for their part, can realize that political correctness, safe spaces, and the like ultimately come from places of compassion. At their core, they are efforts to achieve a more equitable world.
Perhaps it's too starry-eyed to imagine that older allies could learn from younger people who refuse to accept middle-of-the-road policies or veiled racism, but some older people have certainly embraced progressive worldviews. "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge," said Toni Morrison in a 1993 address about political correctness. Morrison, whose wisdom stretched far beyond the blind spots of her generation, was a supporter of what political correctness stands for, though not of the implications of that specific term. In a later interview, she added, "I believe that powerful, sharp, incisive, critical, bloody, dramatic, theatrical language is not dependent on injurious language, on curses. Or hierarchy."
In short, freedom of speech is not contingent on the ability to use offensive language. We can be free—in fact, we can only be free—when all of us are free, which will only happen when language that demonizes or injures certain groups is purged from acceptable discourse.
Ironically, the book we were discussing that day in my postmodernism class was Morrison's Beloved.
Image via the Washington Post