“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.
Game of Thrones remains a guilty pleasure, despite the show's pathetic death with a whimper in Season 8. The great moments still serve as vignettes about human nature and the forces that drive people towards good, ill will, or mere survival. Some of those great moments share a particular phrase: "I wish you good fortune in the wars to come." There's an otherworldly aspect to that phrase. A character about to explode into violence or face his own doom wishing his enemy "good fortune" strikes me as honorable. It's a clear-eyed assessment of what destruction lay in store.
I fear that we now face our own game of thrones in America. What has been an awful year only looks worse as we descend into a foul mood in advance of the 2020 election. We stand on the brink of dangerous things and very dark times. I think of Spain in the 1930s. That civil war had antecedents comparable to our own situation: social divides along rigid dichotomies, including the rural versus urban, religion versus secularism, capitalism versus socialism, and law versus anarchy. At the end of the day, there were no "good guys," as mass killings of political enemies occurred on both sides. Prosperity and freedom were casualties, alongside hundreds of thousands of lives.
I actually doubt that such a quick devolution lies in store for us. Rather, I suspect we face a less dramatic and more prolonged devolution, unless we can resolve the philosophical–rather than political–gaps in our own society.
Were our differences only "political," we could understand each other. But we now find that the "political" has become the "philosophical."
In 2020 America we live in basic disagreement about the country itself. On the one hand, those subscribing to the philosophy of the 1619 Project and the BLM movement strongly believe that our country lives a racist lie. On the other hand, those subscribing to the philosophy of American exceptionalism strongly believe that our nation remains a city on the hill and a beacon of freedom for people everywhere. Objectively, we are a house divided, with little ability to compromise.
And now comes the election with high stakes of one basic philosophy crushing the other. Is it even possible to find peace?
At the very least,we can ratchet down the rhetoric. We can agree to refrain from language that demonizes the other side. Simple disagreement, particularly on a philosophical matter, does not require personal animus. But we talk in the most suspicious terms about the intentions of others. We talk about "voting as if our lives depend upon it," which wouldn't be the case if we all refrained from threats, lack of incivility, and actual violence. Demonizing "the other side" with demeaning language and threats only begs for retaliation. It's no wonder that people fear destruction.
We do not hold our politicians accountable for this situation, because those politicians encourage us to continue the cycle so they can ingratiate themselves with supporters
When confronted about civil unrest, politicians blame each other for irresponsible statements and dangerous escalations. They jockey for position as to "who started it" like children in the playground. But, in the end, they do not step back, and they do not de-escalate. Rather, they seem hellbent on inflaming things further in the pursuit of political power.
It's time we stop gamifying politics. Right now, each side sees a zero-sum game, such that one side has the chance to win at the others' total expense, based on how well democracy can be gamed by any means. We no longer trust each other, we no longer extend goodwill, and we no longer want to play by rules, unless those rules are certain to benefit us in the outcome. No one can even agree on the process of voting itself, with grave concerns over the mail-in voting process for 2020.
As de Maistre said, "Every nation gets the government it deserves." The chaos and dysfunction in our politics reflects the chaos and dysfunction in our own polity. We have to decide whether winning at all costs is really the goal. I urge us all to take it down a notch.
I urge us all to focus on processes that unite, as opposed to trying to set up rules that allow us to win. I urge us all to stop with the threats and to extend some good will to the other side. I urge more grace in victory and less malice in defeat.
Otherwise, I wish us good fortune in the wars to come.Margaret Caliente is a professional athlete turned internet entrepreneur and Manhattan-based journalist.
Today in NOLA, Easter Sunday was the strangest in memory.
COVID-19 isolation, New Orleans. It sounds like wind in old live oak trees and gunshots down the street. Tonight a storm is on its way. The sky has been gray all day and it's wicked hot. I have been alone for two months now.
I took my dog, who is battling some war of his own with his gut, out back of my apartment building. I heard a party from the third story. A man I know a little, somebody who used to likely be a pro athlete, leaned into his wide-open window, his ass on the sill. He was naked from waist up. I couldn't see below that from my vantage point. He had people over. I couldn't tell how many but could see at least three others.
He's nice enough as a neighbor. There are over forty of us now in the building. Every time I let the dog out, I touch door after door. I try to follow wise cultures who've not had easy access to running water for centuries. I have a dirty hand and a clean hand for the task of getting my dog outside to smell the small patches of grass amongst the parking spaces.
Some of my best friends live only a few blocks away, but I can't visit them on Easter Sunday. I'm making a pot of soup to feed a dozen people for my own dinner. I'll freeze the rest of it, save it for later till I move out of this place at the end of June when my lease is up. I wonder if I will have to wear a mask then. Still. I exchange food preservation small talk on the phone with my father, states and states away, and fill my apartment up with the scent of barley and thyme.
Note from the editor:
NOLA has faced impossible odds in the past, and it's always the community pulling together that gets us through. Even at a time like this, when we are all sheltering at home, physically removed from our community, it's important to remember, "Storms Never Last."