“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.
The 16-year-old will take to Foley Square to spearhead a global strike on September 20.
Teen activist Greta Thunberg touched down on the shores of New York today after a two-week journey at sea, but her real journey has just begun.
The Swedish teenager rose to prominence last year with her "School Strikes for Climate," which have since sparked a worldwide movement. She's since become one of the leading faces in climate activism, representing young people's refusal to tolerate the ignorance of their elders.
Sixteen-year-old Thunberg has spent the past two weeks traveling to New York City via solar-powered yacht, which was chosen in order to avoid a carbon-heavy airplane flight. The journey—which was obsessively followed by activists and European media and much-maligned by critics—culminated with a landing on the shores of Coney Island, Brooklyn, and her final destination was a port off Lower Manhattan. She was welcomed by excited crowds of activists and fans.
Day 12. We are getting closer to the North American mainland. Rough conditions, but downwind sailing. https://t.co/n9huwHUSGI— Greta Thunberg (@Greta Thunberg) 1566746954.0
We have anchored off Coney Island - clearing customs and immigration. We will come ashore at North Cove Marina earl… https://t.co/SItklEhQeK— Greta Thunberg (@Greta Thunberg) 1566997753.0
Thunberg has a packed itinerary, which includes high-profile meetings with some of the world's most powerful officials. On Friday, September 20, she'll be leading a worldwide Climate Strike, and millions of people will be taking to the streets to call for aggressive global action on climate change. Find your local strike (or start your own) using this website.
Thunberg will be attending New York City's strike, which begins with a march in Foley Square and ends with a rally in Battery Park, where speakers, performers, and Thunberg herself will take the stage. If you want to be more involved in this event, NYC is having an art build on August 30 and 31, and the group Fridays for Future will be organizing other logistical actions in preparation for the strike. Also for NYC folks: Ethical Culture is hosting strike planning meetings every Wednesday from 6-8pm, and Greta herself will be striking each Friday, starting with a strike on Friday, 8/30 at Ralph Bunche Park outside of the United Nations from 11-2pm.
Participants hope that mass action will influence several important upcoming climate meetings, which will be attended by Thunberg. The first will be the Youth Climate Summit at the United Nations in Manhattan on September 23rd. The next is the COP25 summit in Santiago, Chile, which takes place in December.
The young activist recently announced that she's taking a year-long sabbatical from school to focus on her activism. Her actions manifest the emotions and thoughts of many students who are asking, "What's the point in going to school and working towards our future if there is no future?"
As Thunberg put it in 2018, "We cannot solve the crisis without treating it as a crisis. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you're stealing their future in front of their very eyes."
Yet she's also resolutely hopeful. "It is still not too late to act," she reminded the European Parliament in a recent speech. "It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking. I ask you to please wake up and make changes required possible."
Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her work. She has mobilized millions of strikers around the world, and she's given hope and a sense of urgency to countless others. She also has been heavily criticized, mostly by conservative outlets and European nationalists. One British businessman even went as far as to Tweet, "Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…" She was also described as a "teenage puppet" by a member of Trump's transition team and a "prophetess in shorts" by a conservative French politician.
Freak yachting accidents do happen in August ... https://t.co/6CPePHYLtu— Arron Banks (@Arron Banks) 1565817064.0
Many of these criticisms have taken on a misogynistic undertone, resembling those lobbed at another young, powerful female activist—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This may not be incidental, since the kind of global structural overhaul that human survival requires necessitates a revamp of many patriarchal and conservative ideas based in traditional ways of doing things. "For climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity," proposed one study that linked misogynistic comments about Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez to toxic masculinity.
Thunberg, however, is not advocating for any particular shift in gender dynamics, nor any politician's agenda. Instead, she's all about ensuring human survival by adjusting our actions based on scientific fact.
As the Malitzia II sailed towards the New York City skyline, a banner reading "Unite Behind the Science" waved proudly above it. Unfortunately, the scientific consensus about the dire consequences of climate change hasn't been enough to mobilize humanity into acting. That has required one particularly outspoken teen activist, and New York City is lucky to have her here.