“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.
In February we celebrate Black History Month in America.
For the entire month, we commemorate the vast contributions from Black people who have impacted society here and abroad. After all, we are responsible for countless inventions and innovations in art, science, athletics, business, and activism, contributions that often get overlooked because of our country's pervasive legacy of racism.
Black History Month may also be the only annual instance that this country comes close to acknowledging its racist heritage. The brilliance that Blackness has provided modern-day society is, unfortunately, also rooted in hatred and exclusion.
Recognizing the creations shaped by the hands of Black people means examining the oppressive infrastructures that sparked their genius. One of those infrastructures is slavery.
The mention of slavery prompts various reactions amongst white people. Some declare it to be our country's greatest shame, while others act as if it never happened. If the latter admits to its existence, it's to admonish others for "living in the past."
The celebration of Black History Month and the acknowledgment of slavery go hand in hand. Although a vast majority of Black History itself isn't a direct result of slavery, its ramifications are certainly a factor.
For instance, Martin Luther King Jr'.s vaunted legacy hinges upon his fight against racism and segregation. His peaceful marches and resounding speeches became the introduction to Black History and the Civil Rights Movement for most children in elementary schools across the country.
King is a lauded American hero for his fortitude. But his battle with a racist system is often romanticized. His reimagining sees him as a man standing up for his beliefs instead of a victim of a hateful construct who was forced to rise up against his oppressors.
The irony resides in Black people being labeled as world-changers and trailblazers in the eyes of history but only being allowed to access a small portion of it in order to apply their craft.
Similarly, Black people becoming a dominant force in sports and entertainment hasn't been without their share of obstacles. Unlike today where they have access to a worldwide audience to entertain, Black musicians and athletes' sole audiences used to be people who looked like them.
Sports pioneer Jackie Robinson made history as the first Black man to play professional baseball. His breaking of the color barrier instituted a new day in American sports, but the country's prejudicial temperament remained the same. Robison received death threats from angry white fans, players, and even owners.
Robinson Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses at Ebbets Field in the Brooklyn borough of New York. John Rooney/AP/Shutterstock
Furthermore, musicians like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, who are pioneers of Rock and Roll, are credited with inspiring The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. But during the '50s, their sound was classified as "race music." Conversely, that same "race music" was acceptable when taken and repurposed by white artists.
They and others like them persevered in the face of adversity to open doors for Black people today. Their struggles are reminders of the resiliency of Black people that changed the world and the unnecessary roadblocks they had to overcome to do so.
The observance of Black History Month in today's racial climate in America feels insincere. When entities are dedicated to oppression the other 11 months of the year, it's hard to believe their calls for racial unity in February
We voice our grievances about the government and law enforcement's wanton negligence daily, only to hear how stuck in the past we are as a race. Yet, that same past is responsible for the evolution of civilization as we know it today. Without Black people, America would not be the culturally rich place it is today.
Still, many feel sentiments like "Black Lives Matter" are radical movements, when in actuality they are an ever-present reminder of the conditions Black people had to navigate to pull off these incredible feats.
America cannot sincerely immerse itself in the celebration of Black History Month until it confronts its history. Racism is the beating heart beneath the floorboards of privilege. But as the beating grows louder, our country continues to disregard its pulse.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is defined by his pursuit of equal rights for Black Americans through unity and peace.
He is canonized in American history as the patron saint of change through passive measures.
His infamous "I Have A Dream" speech was a rallying cry for this country to live up to its promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King urged us to be a nation that advocates for the inclusion of all of its citizens in the American Dream, no matter their race.
But Dr. King's message of non-violence and civil disobedience is often misinterpreted. For some in the Black community, it means doing absolutely nothing in the face of physical harm from white people. In the hands of many conservatives and racists, his beliefs are a gag order against racial injustice. They have distorted King's dream in an attempt to make us docile.
The marches and protests during the Civil Rights Movement were peaceful acts of civil disorder. King implored members of the movement not to engage in chaos and destruction. Unfortunately, these non-threatening gatherings became violent due to agitation from law enforcement, despite honoring King's wishes of peaceful resistance.
At the time, King's call for unity and equal rights was considered radical and unpatriotic. The FBI had him under surveillance, and he was the recipient of death threats from white extremists. King was a beacon of peace; but, his cause made him a target for hate.
The narrative surrounding King's death has been warped, as well. Revisionist history paints him as a martyr when, in reality, he was a victim of white supremacy. His assassination in 1968 was a cruel irony. He preached peace only for its antithesis to be his demise.
Today, civil unrest is at an all-time high. Innocent Black lives are taken by police almost daily, and the election of President Trump brought to light how much America hasn't changed since Jim Crow. We've applied the same tactics that King advised his followers to use, only to receive the same treatment decades later.
When highlighting the level of violence against non-aggressive demonstrations, many on the Right feel that Black people's right to protest is a justification for police brutality. In their eyes, the need to peacefully assemble to combat racism is excessive and unnecessary, as if any non-violent uprising is a threat and has to be silenced to preserve law and order.
Even Black entertainers and athletes have faced public backlash for speaking against racial inequality. NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed for kneeling in protest against police brutality. Kendrick Lamar's "Alright", a song about Black people overcoming struggle, was deemed an anti-police anthem. White America demonized them and others for using their platforms to bring awareness.
Meanwhile, white nationalism doesn't face the same level of persecution that Black liberation receives. Racists and fascists that subscribe to Trumpism are considered "patriots." But Black people seeking a level playing field are labeled as treasonous. One side has resorted to rioting as a last resort. The other looked at insurrection as a first solution.
Over 50 years after his death, Dr. King's message of peaceful resistance is a patronizing jab at the Black community. His philosophy isn't a factor when barbaric bigots are looking to harm us. Instead, it's as a pseudo restraining order to thwart our attempts at seeking change and potential retaliation.
For many Americans, Dr. King was a Civil Rights Superman. Unfortunately, his stance has become the movement's kryptonite.
"President Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon...Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad." -Malcolm X.
The attack on Capitol Hill was another example of how President Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacy. His term in office has given racism and fascism a bigger platform and an official advocate. He proved that, at his command, MAGA fanatics will assemble to do his bidding.
As the world watched the descent of democracy, many were appalled at the visual. This was an attempted coup two weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. News outlets and politicians questioned how we, as a country, got to this point. But for Black Americans, this has always been our country.
The violence witnessed on Capitol Hill was a scene all too familiar for Black people. The difference was that we weren't the direct targets. Trump's base has antagonized and threatened violence against Black people while law enforcement abuses its power when interacting with us. The confrontation between the two entities responsible for our oppression was unexpected, but not surprising.
Many Trump supporters and members of law enforcement are cut from the same cloth. In fact, many members of law enforcement voted for him. Their belief in excessive force under the guise of law and order gives them what they feel is the right to harm anyone who goes against their authority. They are loyal to a flawed system and a man that keeps them in power and not to the country and its citizens seeking progress and peace.
Throughout this presidency, both sides have pledged their allegiance to each other. MAGA supporters have backed the Blue Lives Matter movement. Police officers have demonstrated leniency when dealing with unruly Trump disciples at rallies and protests. Both believe they are the good guys trying to make things great again.
Black people have had to do battle with both. We've had to listen to the various lies spewed about the Black Lives Matter movement from supporters of the president while fighting police brutality daily. The assault on Blackness was a cause that unified them. Black people have warned the world of the dangers these factions were capable of for years. Those claims fell on deaf ears, until yesterday when they turned on one another.
For many Black Americans, yesterday was the manifestation of this country's inability to address domestic terrorism. Peaceful protests and resistance against police brutality are viewed in the same light as the insurrection. The anarchy and mayhem that GOP pundits accuse BLM of inciting was a direct order from their leader.
Their ignorance and arrogance gave them the courage to lay siege to a government building. But if angry Black protesters attempted the same actions, many lives would've been lost.
The same reason why the police routinely kill Black people is the same reason why the police are routinely unprepar… https://t.co/Rc3yWRZ2PA— Ibram X. Kendi (@Ibram X. Kendi) 1609964271
Suddenly, Trump supporters view themselves as oppressed. Their reign over the country is coming to a not so graceful end. Rather than humbly accepting defeat, they want to dismantle the establishment. The same establishment that helped empower them over the last four years.
Somehow this attack was yet another revelation for white Americans. Before Trump's election, the idea of police officers displaying a lack of regard for the lives of Black people was inconceivable to white Americans. The thought of parts of our government upholding systemic racism was unfathomable.
Last night, after a year of reckoning with the racism built into America's system, white Americans were forced to once again look at the enormous part white privilege plays in policing. But for Black people, it was simply a clear visual of America's decision on November 8, 2016, coming home to roost.