“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.
Even subtle cultural differences change how a country handles crisis.
On March 3rd, 2020, I left New York City to go spend three months in London with my longtime partner.
You likely recognize that date as shockingly close to when all hell broke loose around the world thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I was leaving NYC, there were already stirrings of unease surrounding a mysterious new virus that was making its way from China to the States, but very few people thought it would be anything but a passing inconvenience.
As it turned out, I likely already had the virus when I departed New York. I began running a fever the day I arrived in London. Still, I figured I had probably just caught a cold on the plane (this was before we knew what we know now, that the coronavirus was already extremely prevalent in NYC by March 3rd), and there was no way of knowing for sure, because tests were only available to people in the hospital with COVID symptoms. Soon, my partner also came down with symptoms.
As we recovered (we were both lucky to have relatively mild cases that lasted only a couple of days), we watched London slowly close down around us. First, theaters and public venues began to close, then office workers were told to stay home. Throughout it all, there was a reigning sense of calm and acceptance among the British people, even as the rest of the world began to panic.
The complaints I heard from British friends and acquaintances were never about the lockdown measures, but rather about the conservative government's hesitance to take more drastic steps and the lack of clarity surrounding what they expected the population to do to prevent the spread of the virus.
Still, I was struck by the difference in tone that I saw on my social media from American friends discussing the pandemic and the calm acceptance of the British people around me. Every post by an American discussing the pandemic used the word "I" over and over again and had a generally panicky tone. Meanwhile, the British were speaking with "we" and jokingly mourning their inability to grab a pint and watch football.
Sure, this composure was not true of every single citizen in the UK, just as panic was not every American's reaction, but there was a distinct difference in the responses I personally saw. In general, people who lived in London seemed quick to ask how they could help each other and their country, while many Americans seemed ready to batten down the hatches and take on an "every man for himself" attitude.
I was struck by this sign I saw outside a local corner shop in London:
Everywhere in London I saw examples of collectivism. While images were coming out of America of totally bare supermarket shelves thanks to people hoarding food and supplies to ensure their own comfort and safety, in London I watched two older women argue over who should take the last packet of chicken thighs. Both women insisted the other should have it.
Now that I'm back in the US, I haven't seen a thing like that in my local grocery stores, and while I know mutual aid networks are flourishing and neighbors are assisting each other in cities around the US, I've still been struck by our general lack of visible camaraderie.
It's no secret that the British government handled the COVID-19 crisis relatively poorly, but I was still struck by a sense of hard-fought unity I felt I shared with every average Londoner.
The British aren't an overly expressive people, but they're extraordinarily cordial. We Americans usually think of this kind of British decorum as a stuffy relic of the past that's only relevant in the event of an afternoon tea at Harrods, and perhaps that's partly true, but COVID-19 showed me just how deep this cordiality goes.
British decorum is not a form of politeness that's just about saying "Please" and "Thank you" or moving out of someone's way on the sidewalk; it's the kind of regard for your fellow man that makes it second nature to wait patiently in line if that makes a supermarket safer. It's an innate sense of obligation to each other that makes wearing a mask on public transportation an obvious and inarguably appropriate step to take during a deadly pandemic.
Sure, Brexit proves that nationalism is just as alive and well in England as it is in America, and in many ways Boris Johnson is a slightly less terrifying version of Donald Trump. But my time in Britain showed me that nothing can rid the British people of their ability to weather a storm as a united people, while I can't say the same of America.
On March 20th, Boris made the historic decision to close the pubs in the UK. For context, even during WWII, when London was being regularly bombed by the Germans, the pubs mostly remained open. This was the only time during my stay in London that I saw a collective outpouring of emotion.
I walked to my local pub out of curiosity that night (I had been two weeks without symptoms and told I was fine to leave the house), knowing that it would be closed indefinitely first thing the next morning. What I found was a sensibly socially distanced crowd of people laughing and singing and drinking together to mark the unthinkable day when the pubs would shut. Everyone was fast friends with their neighbor, and even the drunkest among us kept their distance and used hand sanitizer often. But there was a feeling of unity in the pub that night that I have never experienced in America. A sense that, as a people, Londoners would get through this by looking after one another in ways their government had nothing to do with.
Londoners survive; that's what they do. But the part of "keeping calm and carrying on" that doesn't fit as neatly on a poster is the additional impetus to help one's neighbors in big and small ways.
As we're forced to reckon with the failings of the American government during this time of political, social, and economic turmoil, I wonder if we should not also be looking at the pervasive sense of individualism that's so innate to our culture. I'm not even sure I fully recognized it until it became starkly obvious to me in contrast to a different culture.
Yes, the American government failed us in the way it handled the COVID-19 outbreak, but shouldn't we also interrogate our personal inability to care for each other without strict mandate from the government? Shouldn't we consider that true change can't come to America until we start taking personal responsibility for each other? Yes, we need to deconstruct the systems of oppression inherent in the American government that allow for widespread injustice. But we also need to ask ourselves everyday if we're asking the government to do the work that we aren't doing ourselves.
In the wise words of people who have been doing mutual aid work for generations: We keep us safe. It's time we take a page from Londoners' book and consider that politeness isn't just nice; it can also be an act of radical resistance.