“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.
What The 2020 Election Tells Us
Finding common ground in its aftermath
Regardless of any other conclusion from the election cycle of 2020, neither party received a sweeping mandate or a clear win. Dreams of a Blue or Red wave proved to be just that: dreams. The margin of victory will have been razor thin, whether for the White House, the Senate, or the House. It seems clear that the American people do not trust either party to have complete control, which has been the long-term trend of our history (and a healthy one in my view).
We have an opportunity in this moment to learn a lesson personally and to insist that our elected leaders do the same. The country is divided, indeed far more divided than the pollsters would have led us to believe. In general, they confidently predicted sweeping margins for Democrats that just did not exist in reality. Without regard to why those pollsters were wrong and without casting aspersions on their motivation, we must accept the reality that about half the country deeply disagrees with whichever partisan view we personally hold.
Further, we must accept the reality that we've done nothing, as a society, to bridge the deep gap in thinking that exists. Both sides tried everything in this election to convince voters of the perfidy and bad intentions of the other side. The discourse from the candidates themselves fell to the level of schoolyard taunts in the so-called first debate, which actually left me feeling dumber for having watched it.
As for "coverage" of the election, one could quickly determine the point of view of any given outlet, journalist, or commentator as we lacked any coherent, comprehensive, and fact-based reporting on the candidates, their records, or the issues that actually matter. Under such conditions we merely demonize the other and create echo chambers that amplify our own notions: we do nothing to engage with and understand the other.
Of course, one might argue that such a gap cannot be bridged anyway. One might argue that our politicians, political parties, and media reflect, rather than create, the deep difference in culture between the Red and the Blue. One might (merely to take a representative example of the Blue and Red polar ideologies) posit that secular humanism simply cannot exist alongside a theocentric world view. One might, quite convincingly, cite threatening statements from the firebrands of one side or the other as proof that Red or Blue adherents want to destroy their opponents' reputations, livelihoods, or basic freedoms. Indeed, whether by rioting or stockpiling weapons the Blues and Reds give ample evidence of mutual hatred and distrust.
I suggest that we each, as individuals, reject this paradigm. That rejection requires both a conscious decision and actual work.
The decision part involves a choice to open one's mind to the possibility that the other has honest motives and acts in goodwill for humankind. It means deciding to lower, if only by a fraction, one's own very well self-justified guard as a sign of openness to dialog. We cannot even begin to talk if we continue to excoriate each other from behind our respective shield walls like medieval warriors.
The work part involves putting oneself in the shoes of the other in a very real way. I suspect that many of us have the lived experience of telling someone else about a problem, only to have them say, "I understand. That happened to me…." Then that person tells us what happened to them in a way that neither responds to our situation nor gives any indication that they actually heard what we were talking about.
Rather, they turned our experience into a parable justifying their own point of view and actions. I think that we could agree that we don't turn to that person again for advice or counsel, as we no longer trust them to provide either.
And, if we are honest, we also recognize that we have been that bad counsel and that we have turned the experience of others into enabling us to be the hero of our own story. In other words, when we confront the deepest corners of ourselves, we see that we have been the badly counseled and the bad counselor.
What to do then?
Seek common ground. Seek it upon whatever mundane foundations you can find.
I'm reminded of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Deep Blue Something. The singer laments:
"You'll say that we've got nothing in common
No common ground to stand on
And we're falling apart
Our lives have come between us
Still, I know you just don't care."
But, the singer finds common ground in the seemingly mundane movie of the song's title:
And I said, "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?"
She said, "I think I remember the film
And as I recall I both think we kind of liked it."
And I said, "Well that's the one thing we've got."
As much as it sounds silly to seek wisdom 1990s pop songs, I do see wisdom here.
Rather than focusing on that which divides us, let's focus on what we do have in common. We'll never bridge the deeper divides if we can't find ways to relate to one another as people. If we think about our own lived experience, it's a lot easier to find common ground on big things when there is common ground on small things first.
So, let's find those small opportunities and embrace them.