“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 Quintessence of Marianne Williamson: Democratic Debate Winner
Marianne Williamson enrages some, makes others laugh, and inspires still others to form occult task forces. Could she be the only one who could meet Donald Trump on her own terms?
Objectively, Marianne Williamson had a fantastic night at the latest Democratic debate. She gained the largest number of Twitter followers afterwards, after all, and was the most Googled candidate of the night.
Perhaps this is because Williamson may be the most intriguing character of all the progressive Democratic candidates. With her aura of patchouli and residual dust from the astral plane, detectable even through the TV screen, she's the most memeable candidate (Elizabeth Warren and her plans are a strong second). She's also perhaps the most out-there, even compared to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. If Warren and Sanders are marooned on the far left, Williamson has transcended direction, and she intends to bring America with her.
Regardless of how her campaign pans out, Williamson has undeniably made waves. She's the first political candidate to bring non-mainstream spirituality directly into her platform, and she's done it at the perfect time.
Four years ago and earlier, she would've seemed as absurd a candidate as Donald Trump—but we all know how that worked out. Today, qualifications for the presidential office matter less than one's star power and ability to inspire a movement, and Williamson seems to have the star power (if not the ability to commune directly with the stars).
Image via NewYorker.com
In all seriousness, out of all the candidates, she may be the most similar to Donald Trump, in that she exists in the same realm of humorous implausibility as he does. Like Trump, she could be a reality TV fixture. She posts memes, is popular in fringe online forums, inspires occult task forces, and generates massive quantities of loathing and disbelief. She fits into the glitchy landscape of ironic and disillusioned online discourse and is bizarre enough to capture and hold the public's attention.
Like Trump, she's also bringing race directly into the conversation—though for the opposite reasons. Where Trump used racist ideas to win the presidency, Williamson has brought systemic reparations into the discussion. "We need to realize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with," she said. "That great injustice has to do with the fact there were 250 years of slavery followed by another 100 years of domestic terrorism." She followed this statement with some unusually cogent statistics. "If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there were 4 to 5 million slaves at the end of the Civil War—they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for a family of four. If you did the math today it would be trillions of dollars."
Her articulate commentary about reparations was a high point in an otherwise discouraging debate that mostly revolved around the same arguments, with moderators and candidates circling around Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. While the Democratic party ate itself, Williamson—placed as far to the left as could be—stood on the outside.
None of these points are reasons to elect her. She is definitely not an experienced politician—she's a self-help guru, spiritual advisor, and occasional activist. Her platform's main points include a potential Department of Peace "as a first step to dismantling our systemically entrenched perpetuation of violence," movements towards sustainable agriculture in order to reestablish "humanity's spiritual connection to nature," and of course, fighting Donald Trump and his battalion of "dark psychic forces" with love.
Image via USA Today
Her ideologies are absurd, and not based in (our) reality. She may be promoting an individualistic, dangerous brand of New Age spirituality that promotes an unhealthy fixation on the self. Still, she's arriving at a time when many Americans feel they are already living in an absurd, delusional world, and when they're seeking broader, more creative solutions.
Arguably, Williamson and Bernie Sanders are the only presidential candidates who have proposed changes to the sources of America's problems, not quick fixes that remain within its current, shattered structure. Where Sanders is proposing a revamp of the American economic system, Williamson is wisely proposing a different kind of recalibration—one that cuts to the sources of racial tension, the sources of pollution, the sources of neoliberalism, and the roots of the sicknesses that are costing Americans so much in health care costs.
In her distance from the here-and-now, she is undefinable, without order or direction. In her removal from the real world, she is quintessent: untouchable, and difficult to pin down. Depending on how you see it, she's absurd, enlightened, out of touch, awake, a crackpot, or a witch.
She would probably make a very poor president. But by bringing her messages of spirituality and structural healing to the table, she's changing the rules of the game.
Image via The Bulwark
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