“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’s killing your creativity?
The imagination is valuable, and we must clear space to let it live and thrive.
As children, our creativity is boundless. We have a few things that fuel it: energy, curiosity, and a passion for the make-believe. When I was a kid, I filmed my stuffed animals in hyper-human situations. I pretended to ride horses with my friends around the playground. I looked out over the slide to watch giant sea beasts. I pretended I lived in the 18th century, speaking in a foreign tongue. I drew cartoons of talking amoebas. None of it was real, and I loved it.
Instead of your ability to imagine, it becomes your ability to predict that starts to count. Instead of the fantasy of your stories, it's how good of a liar you can be that's more important. The adult world is less about color and more about stroke. Creativity is judged by one's ability to find new ways to trick people into doing what you want them to do.
In the adult world, creativity metamorphoses into something more profit-driven.
Young kids do not necessarily have to be stimulated by a "muse" to produce something creative. But as we age, we're less inclined to have these spontaneous thoughts. They're considered unproductive or silly. But daydreaming performs an essential function: that of stimulating different parts of our brain that need some serious dusting off.
How do we get back to that precious state of creativity? We need to free ourselves from repetitive and mundane tasks. Opening our eyes to the beautiful things around us instead of just seeing what we expect to see: the same street signs, the same faces.
We also need to perform a more difficult task. According to Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan, who is the culinary artist behind South Korean temple food, creativity and the ego cannot exist side by side. If one is to grow creatively, one has to let go of the ego. Now, everyone has ego, but having too much of it limits our ability to move forward because we are always keeping judgment at the forefront of our minds. When we stop thinking about what others think of us, we can access a new level of freedom from within, the freedom to be creative again.
But what does letting go of your ego mean? For a lot of us, this means tempering ourselves on social media, or not allowing ourselves to feel superior or inferior to anyone. We must go into situations knowing that people will be people, and we have to let them do their thing so that we can do ours. We fill our brain space with too much minutiae so we don't have any room left for our imagination. The imagination is valuable, and we must clear space to let it live.