“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.
Whether he knows it or not, that is the effect of his rhetoric
In recent days protestors have gathered in Michigan, Ohio, and North Carolina to call on state officials to end social distancing and shelter-at-home requirements.
It's understandable. The economy is suffering under the strain of the COVID-19 quarantine. It has decimated the stock market and resulted in an unprecedented spike in unemployment, and people want to get back to their lives. They want to reopen the country, and so does President Trump—whose ardent supporters have been among the most vocal and visible protestors. He's worried that if this situation continues on his watch, the economic damage may hurt his chances at re-election, as businesses small and large suffer losses that threaten their very survival. Leaving aside the fact that reopening too early will result in worse economic damage, there is another group that doesn't seem to concern him as much and whose survival actually depends on continuing the quarantine: People. Hundreds of thousands of people.
So when Donald Trump was suggesting that "large sections of the country" could re-open for Easter, it was cause for concern. But with the impact of the pandemic still far from its terrifying peak in hotspots like New York city, it seemed likely that Donald Trump would back off his overly-optimistic stance—and he did.
That's often how things work with Donald Trump. He will make a show of how tough and no-nonsense he is with some dramatic posturing that seems to fly in the face of the experts and will then be cowed by behind-the-scenes efforts to make him see reason. Unfortunately for the country, most of his followers are not similarly attended to by an entourage of people trying desperately to steer them away from catastrophic idiocy. So now that Easter has come and gone and Donald Trump is continuing to hint that he may soon reopen the country—maybe even against the wishes of governors in individual states—chaos was bound to ensue.
While some of the protesters have remained in their cars—honking their horns and blocking the passage of at least one ambulance—others crowded together to scream their rejection of science in one proud voice and one shared cloud of breath.
Chants of â��recall Whitmer,â�� â��USAâ�� and â��lock her upâ�� outside Michigan Capitol. #OperationGridlock https://t.co/7Q7niiNFUF— Malachi Barrett (@Malachi Barrett) 1586967874.0
For Donald Trump, the political effect of his latest hints and ambiguous comments about wanting to reopen the country and authorizing governors "to implement ... a very powerful reopening plan" while telling them, "You're going to call your own shots," is that he can have his cake and eat it too. While taking no direct measures to reopen the country amid continued medical advice to extend restrictions, he can still communicate to stir-crazy and cash-strapped supporters that he's doing everything he can for them and that maybe they should talk to their governors.
And that's just what they've been doing. In Michigan—where Operation Gridlock was so effective that even emergency vehicles couldn't get through—protestors directed their frustration at Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, with chants of "Recall Whitmer" and "Lock her up." In North Carolina, at the ReopenNC protest, more than 100 angry citizens assembled to protest Governor Roy Cooper's stay-at-home order and to spread conspiracy theories that the COVID-19 death toll is being inflated—though the opposite is true.
This looks like a still from a horror movie. It's not. It's yesterday outside the Ohio Statehouse. Incredible shotâ�¦ https://t.co/eaQ3n6c8fI— Shawn Mitchell (@Shawn Mitchell) 1586883247.0
In Ohio the scene was particularly disturbing, with dozens of protestors gathering at the statehouse in Columbus with Guy Fawkes masks, Trump hats, and signs reading "This is tyranny," and "Quarantine the sick not the Contitution [sic]." Eventually a group pressed close together against the locked glass doors to shout their feelings with no concern for social distancing.
What these people need is financial assistance that isn't delayed by politics or targeted at millionaires and massive corporations, as well as reassurance that the current approach is necessary and effective—that our leaders are unified in following the guidance of health experts. What they get instead, from Trump and top Conservative voices, is constant waffling and hedging about the cost to the economy and tacit endorsement of these dangerous protests.
Important to remember that #Covid-19 epidemic control measures may only delay cases, not prevent. However, this helâ�¦ https://t.co/vhIVsvMt3Q— Drew A. Harris, DPM, MPH (@Drew A. Harris, DPM, MPH) 1582868853.0
Just as he has had every opportunity to decry violence done in his name, Donald Trump could end these protests. If he were open and honest about the fragility of our hospital system and our country's best hope of getting through this crisis intact, then he could quell much of this unrest and dispel false narratives equating this virus to the flu or car accidents. Instead he feigns careful consideration while effectively encouraging defiance that will inevitably result in more infections and more death.
Stay home and stay safe.