“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.
Why Politics Feel Personal in 2020
Politics is the ongoing debate over who and what gets to thrive and survive, and it is always personal.
Abortion. Gun control. Immigration. Police violence. The MeToo movement.
A dozen political issues, a dozen debates that we seem trapped in, condemned to repeat. It's been four decades since Roe v. Wade, and women's access to abortion seems as fragile as ever. Since the Sandy Hook massacre, there have been 2,402 mass shootings in the United States, and yet we don't feel any closer to passing common sense gun legislation than we were eight years ago. The American federal government has come to a complete standstill, but the poison runs deeper than that; at every level of human existence—political, cultural, artistic—we have lost the ability to meaningfully alter the status quo. We have the same arguments that we did eight years ago, we listen to the same types of music, and all the movies are sequels or franchises or reboots. We are a stopped culture.
It's a concept cultural theorist Mark Fisher referred to as the "slow cancellation of the future," part of his broader theory of Capitalist Realism—the notion that, as neoliberal hegemony continues, the people living under it will increasingly lose the ability to imagine a future different from the present. A mood has settled over America, a sense that things simply are the way they are. Massacres are common, police brutality happens regularly, abortion is difficult and precarious, healthcare costs are insane, and the government has no power (or will) to stop any of it from happening. The whole world is telling us, consciously or not, that nothing can be done. So what does all this have to do with the modern phenomenon recognized as "grievance politics?"
Simple. When we feel our politics have lost the ability to affect our lives, the only issues that seem to matter are personal ones.
If society is stuck, if we lack the power to change it and make it the way we want it to be, the only thing we can do is own each other—on Twitter, on stage, or in the voting booth. No politician can actually pass any legislation, but if the right ones win then the people on the other side will get upset. In turn, you might feel good for a little while, and maybe even convince yourself that your interests are being represented even though they're not. In modern mainstream political discourse every issue is disguised by one question: Who is "triggering" who? The whole world is telling you that nothing will be done about mass shootings or police violence or rape culture, but you can own the "Bernie Bros," and feel like you're owning all of the people in your life that you don't like.
That's how we got Trump. Whether or not they'll admit it, very few people really believed, in the logical parts of their minds, that Trump was ever gonna build his stupid wall. How could he? That would involve something happening, and nothing ever happens. The MAGA crowd, in a real sense, have as little power to bring about their ideal world as we do (thank god), because they can't stop us from agitating about inequality or gun control or kneeling for the national anthem. But when Donald Trump wins, college kids cry. And triggering the libs is as close as they can get to a victory.
If there's one good thing about the COVID-19 pandemic that is gripping the nation, it's this: We can no longer deny that our politics have a very real, very material impact on our lives. However, and this is important to stress: Politics is the ongoing debate over who and what gets to thrive and survive, and it is always personal. The pandemic has brought it home to the most privileged and insulated among us, but if you are vulnerable, if you are poor, if you are a racial or sexual minority, if you are a victim of gun violence or assault or our rapacious healthcare system, you have felt the effect of our politics in your life every single day. It's more important than the feeling it gives you, and it's more important than who's triggering who, and that's going to become more and more clear as we continue to suffer the consequences of a civil infrastructure that has spent the past forty years being ransacked.
Mainstream politics has always operated under the delusion that nothing was ever going to really happen. It would threaten to happen, it would almost happen, but it never actually would. Well, something has happened. Maybe now something can be done about it.
Probably not, though.