“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.
It's time for real allyship.
The protests being held in many American cities over the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks have drawn a lot of support and solidarity not just in the U.S., but across the world in general.
There has never been a better time to use one's voice–no matter how small–to speak up against racial injustice than now.
Online protests have also flooded social media, and they have proven more than ever to be an important part of the cause. In the last few days, we've seen several brands and companies get called out on Twitter for failing to embrace diversity in business, as well as for their unfair treatment of Black employees.
A few editors from some of the biggest publications have been called to step down after receiving backlash for their prejudicial treatment of Black people and other people of color in the past. Many corporations have put out statements admitting to their complicity in acts of racial bias and discrimination, rounding off these statements with a promise to "do better in the future."
But we have to ask: If these individuals, brands and companies claim to be allies, then why are they still failing to hire qualified Black people, or treat them just as equally as their white colleagues? Does there have to be constant backlash before Black people are given equal opportunities as their white counterparts? The cyclical pattern of showing support for Black people only when it's a trend, or when it's profitable to do so, is a dark side of allyship that has to end already.
Apart from the numerous instances of faux solidarity from self-proclaimed allies, there are certain aspects of online celebrity activism that have also been deemed counterproductive to the fight against racial injustice and inequality. From the blank dark squares of #BlackoutTuesday to the two-minute video of celebrities making firm vows to show their support against racism for the "I Take Responsibility" campaign, celebrities and public figures have been under fire for the obvious tone-deafness of their brand of activism.
We can agree that the criticism is rightfully deserved, considering the fact that a lot of celebrities have established their careers and made a fortune from incorporating Black culture into their work and selling their work to Black people. Yet, quite often, celebrities also fail to use their platform to speak up against racial injustice until it's socially beneficial to do so.
These are only a few out of the countless instances where the Black Lives Matter movement has been trivialized and reduced to a stream of hashtags that slowly fade away from our phone screens when the collective outrage subsides, along with the promises to encourage and promote racial equality that never materializes.
The first wave of Black Lives Matter protests that came up in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, led to a similar show of allyship, where legislators in almost every state proposed far-reaching changes in the way the police interact with the public, and many corporations jumped in with commitments to help rebuild communities that face racial and economic inequality. It's been six years since, and we're still having the same conversations about these issues. What happened to all the support that was promised?
Several social media users are currently taking advantage of the attempts to keep the momentum of online protests going and have begun to use activism as a means of gaining engagement and followers.
One Twitter user with the handle @jhaunay made a thread about the new, abhorrent trend of people who claim to be allies sharing memes about justice for the murder of Breonna Taylor. These memes, which are made under the guise of raising awareness for the arrest of the cops who killed her, attract thousands of retweets from users who are under the assumption that they're showing support.
The practice of performative allyship comes from a place of privilege, and it's counterproductive because it trivializes the Black Lives Matter movement, giving it a false appearance as a quest for pity. Public sympathy for Black pain is of no use when there's no accompanying desire to end racial injustice and discrimination.
White people who have failed to recognize and check their privilege cannot begin to fathom that the Black Lives Matter movement was born for the sake of the Black lives that have been lost, the friends and families of victims that directly face the trauma of losing a loved one, and the collective pain felt by Black people for having to exist in a system of oppression, injustice, and marginalization. It's an unchecked privilege that makes a white man even consider the outrageous idea of applying to trademark the terms 'Black Lives Matter' and 'I Can't Breathe.'
As an ally, always remember that Black Lives do matter, even when voicing and living it out puts you in an uncomfortable position.