“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.
At approximately 2:18 PM today, every cellphone in America received a message testing this new system.
The current chapter of American history feels like a piece of speculative fiction, something resembling a joke we collectively forgot the punchline to. In the past two months alone, we've watched our Commander-in-Chief demolish a foreign economy via Twitter, fall in love with a voluptuous beauty, and nominate a gang rapist to the Supreme Court. Donald Trump, by virtue of his absurdity, has sent the news into a state of quantum flux in which the country's more prominent newsrooms have been forced to hire full-time staffers to monitor social media, patiently waiting for the tweet that abolishes the SEC or makes it legal to kill your dog. Now, with the help of FEMA, the president has the power to send alerts directly to your cellphone, whether you want him to or not. At approximately 2:18 PM today, every cellphone in America received a message testing this system.
And no, you can't opt out of the messaging service. In 2006, Congress passed a law called the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act preventing this. There's now a satellite uplink that telegraphs Trump's dementia-addled ramblings straight to your iPhone, and there's nothing you can do about it. This is kind of like having Bill O'Reilly's cirrhotic liver on speed dial. We live in hell.
Okay, so the above paragraph isn't exactly true. While the emergency texting program will light up your phone whenever there's "a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety," Trump (probably) won't use this system as a means of continuing his many Twitter rants. That said, the question of what exactly constitutes a "natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety" might provide the president with just enough leeway to use the system as a means of communicating his private thoughts.
Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, is worried that Trump will abuse this system, saying, "I'm not sure that the system would protect us from rogue announcements by a president who has exhibited the kind of behavior President Trump has over the last two years."
Also, it's not as if the government's never made an honest mistake with its emergency broadcast system. Remember in January when this happened:
HAWAII - THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE. pic.twitter.com/DxfTXIDOQs
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 13, 2018
Trump's steadily erratic Twitter posts and penchant for mocking the disabled have people worried that their phones are going to be inundated with a constant stream of presidential alerts. The fear is that if we get too many false alarms (or pointless rants), the text system will be rendered useless. Whether or not this happens remains to be seen, but the chances that this is the one function of his office that Trump uses responsibly seems unlikely.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. He currently serves as Lead Editor for Gramercy Media. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff