“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.
Rahsaan Thomas knows about endurance. While serving a 55-years-to-life sentence in San Quentin State Prison for a second-degree murder conviction, Thomas figured, “I can’t pay my debt sitting in a cell.” So, he honed his journalism skills writing for the San Quentin News and earned an Asociate Degree. For the past four years, Thomas has been a co-producer and co-host of the podcast “Ear Hustle" (prison slang for eavesdropping).
And he began running, completing his first marathon – 26.2 miles – by running 105 laps around a prison yard. After 23 years in San Quentin, Rahsann’s sentence was commuted. He was subsequently released and re-joined the world in February 2023. Currently, he’s training for the New York City Marathon, which kicks off on November 5th. This Sunday at 8am he will step off with 50,000 runners from all over the world and take his first strides over the Verazzano Bridge and on into Brooklyn. This willl be Thomas’s first marathon as a free man.
Born and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, his nickname – in and out of San Quentin – is “New York.” Writing for the PEN America website, he says that, as young man, he “experienced trauma and witnessed gun violence committed against my little brother. Through my fears, shame, and insecurities, I chose to let the evil deeds of my enemies make my evil deeds seem fair and became a menace to society.”
Thomas is living proof that rehabilitation is possible when a prisoner is dedicated and receives systemic and individual support. He wants to help other formerly justice-involved persons succeed in finding and maintaining life beyond prison. He’s created a non-profit organization for that very purpose: Empowerment Avenue. Its goal – according to Outside magazine – is “to use art and writing to break cycles of intergenerational incarceration and poverty and achieve public safety without violence.”
Thomas was featured in 26.2 to Life: San Quentin Marathon, a documentary, which received 2023 Santa Barbara International Film Festival Audience Choice Award. He’s a contributing writer to The Marshall Project, a non-profit source of journalism about Criminal Justice.
Want to learn more? Check out his website here.