“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.
Poems can help us muck our way through this COVIDIUM twilight zone
Full disclosure: As a general rule I hate poetry for reasons I tell myself are valid.
Why? Most of it seems solipsistic and fortune cookie filler. Haiku goofballs. Impossible to discern the good from the bad. Poets are no longer widely read, even the 'greats' (Yeats, Plath, Whitman, Angelou.)
There's no market for their words, and those words typically don't have a narrative that clicks with the literal-minded sockets of my imagination. That said, once in a long whiie, I come across a seamróg, a work by a poet that feels like light in a tunnel, a portal of reckoning. Then I realize that this craft of poetry should never die, never drown under the rising tide of our gnatish attention spans and cultural decay.
Well, I recently found one such shamrock:In Their Time, by Bill Buege. This isn't the first book by this poet but I consider it his best. Although Buege hasn't made his living as a poet - is that even possible anymore? - he is a modern-day Renaissance man, a scholar, a poet, an artist, an inventor, and an accomplished businessman.
During a stint in his career when he worked at Edward Jones Investments, he fused his art and science and invented, out of whole cloth, an algorithmic model that is, to this day, the underpinning of wealth management firms worldwide.
Buege, who turns 80 in November, is a shamrock himself. His life is one fully lived, but he's not done yet. He creates an innovative framework in this book: 52 speakers, half male, half female, looking back on pre-industrial Europe, season by season. His wayback machine on these characters creates narrative force and truth that shows that we still need poets to tell us what actually counts.
Bill Buege's poetry collection - In Their Time
In Their Time contains characters who could be you or me, mucking our way through this COVIDIUM twilight zone. In poem 45, Norman keeps a sloth bear in a pit. In another, Paulette loses her husband but gains a tavern and a horse.
In poem 21, Hildy survives the pox:
"The doctor diagnosed I'd got the pox / and then the brilliant man administered / his tincture of mercury / gave me some patches and white powder / advised I make love in the dark."
There's humanity in these pages, sex and greed, suffering and beauty, and survival.
In Their Time is a book we need right now.
You can buy the collection here.
W.M. Jones is a professional musician and a social commentator who loves words that shed light on the zeitgeist.