Amanda Boyden is the author of two novels, Pretty Little Dirty and Babylon Rolling, an international bestseller. She's worked as a screenwriter and nonfiction writer for the last decade.
“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.
Today in NOLA, Easter Sunday was the strangest in memory.
COVID-19 isolation, New Orleans. It sounds like wind in old live oak trees and gunshots down the street. Tonight a storm is on its way. The sky has been gray all day and it's wicked hot. I have been alone for two months now.
I took my dog, who is battling some war of his own with his gut, out back of my apartment building. I heard a party from the third story. A man I know a little, somebody who used to likely be a pro athlete, leaned into his wide-open window, his ass on the sill. He was naked from waist up. I couldn't see below that from my vantage point. He had people over. I couldn't tell how many but could see at least three others.
He's nice enough as a neighbor. There are over forty of us now in the building. Every time I let the dog out, I touch door after door. I try to follow wise cultures who've not had easy access to running water for centuries. I have a dirty hand and a clean hand for the task of getting my dog outside to smell the small patches of grass amongst the parking spaces.
Some of my best friends live only a few blocks away, but I can't visit them on Easter Sunday. I'm making a pot of soup to feed a dozen people for my own dinner. I'll freeze the rest of it, save it for later till I move out of this place at the end of June when my lease is up. I wonder if I will have to wear a mask then. Still. I exchange food preservation small talk on the phone with my father, states and states away, and fill my apartment up with the scent of barley and thyme.
Note from the editor:
NOLA has faced impossible odds in the past, and it's always the community pulling together that gets us through. Even at a time like this, when we are all sheltering at home, physically removed from our community, it's important to remember, "Storms Never Last."