“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.
In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.
Author Isaac Asimov once said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been.
The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.
Here are 10 books every (informed) American should read:
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
If you don't read the Steinbeck classics, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, you're doing yourself a disservice. But, if there's only one Steinbeck book you do make time for, make sure it's his autobiographical travel memoir of taking his lumbering RV and charismatic dog across America. He makes due with whatever conversation and company he finds, not driven by any great American ambition other than finding moments of connection in a diverse landscape.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
One of America's most loved authors, Heller's humor and biting observations capture the precarity of individualism in the face of war. The foundations of American cynicism and anti-war sentiment are encapsulated in the eponymous bureaucratic rule of Catch-22: "a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved."
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
As much as the movie adaptations of Frankenstein's monster are icons in America cinema, the philosophical depths of the novel are sadly lost. Individuality and personal responsibility are two major burdens that neither creator nor creation are capable of managing well. There's also something to be said about the element of spectatorship that Shelley frames the novel with, as the story unfolds through a series of letters and switches narration like a mind-bending Black Mirror episode.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates manages to capture both the history and enduring tension of race relations in modern America in what Toni Morrison calls "required reading." Written as a letter to his son, Coates' writing is an alchemy of memoir, oral history, and calls to action. He aims to explore how "Americans have built an empire on the idea of 'Rae,' a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men...What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live in it?"
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This classic fantasy adventure isn't a political science essay or a philosophical treatise, but the payoff is just as strong–if not stronger. Alienation, otherness, nihilism, and, above all, personal resilience take Arthur Dent through the galaxy after his home (along with the rest of earth) is destroyed one casual morning.
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
In the same vein, this sci-fi novel is like Machiavelli's The Prince retold as a dystopian space saga. The value of individual innocence in the face of the greater good is challenged. The series explores the moral boundaries of powerful men using innocents as weapons in a war they can't understand.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Gray's book of essays explores the contradictions inherent in what we understand modern "feminism" to mean. Mixing humor with sharp observation, Gay targets issues as banal as choosing pink as her favorite color as well as timelessly complex matters such as domestic abuse and abortion.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This one also gets named on every list of "books you need to read" because of its plain and eerie predictions of how dependent society will become on media for its opinions and worldview, as well as entertainment.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
If you can't read the entire canons of solipsism, emotional psychology, and the art of satire, you can absorb the whimsical explorations of The Little Prince. Put simply, a boy prince journeys from planet to planet, each populated by a single adult. His conversations with each one create "a heartfelt exposition of sadness and solitude." Originally written in French, it's universally poetic.
1984 by George Orwell
Knowing the references isn't enough with this classic; again, you have to read it for yourself in order to see dystopian America in your mind's eye. From the cognitive dissonance of war crimes to the contradictions of government propaganda, you need to come to your own conclusions about what an Orwellian future looks like.