Rest in Love: Harry Belafonte was a beautiful example of Black manhood
OPINION: The entertainer and activist, who died Tuesday, left a powerful mark with his global activism.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Harry Belafonte’s spirit was beautiful.
And I don’t mean to say powerful, bold, influential or some other equally acceptable masculine-leaning adjective. Yes, he was that too — but above all else, he was beautiful. His energy was beautiful. Giving and kind. Thoughtful and caring. Decisive and direct. He spent a lifetime pouring his love across the world into others who needed it most, and that is nothing short of beautiful.
So, as he leaves this physical form and returns home from a life well lived, I’ll unapologetically call his life what it was, beautiful. A beautiful display of manhood.
It’s not often in our society that we celebrate men for their beauty. That term is usually reserved for women and artwork. Very rarely do we sink into a true appreciation for the beautiful symphony of manhood. Because there’s beauty there, too. Beauty in the way decisive action and strength can melodically be intertwined with a strong moral compass and a keen ability to love. Harry Belafonte exemplified this in outstanding fashion.
He was a different breed. Walked in his own lane. Defined manhood on his own terms. Defined living on his own terms. Even defined Blackness on his own terms. And he did it all, effortlessly. A strong moral fortitude birthed of struggle and love, he was a good man. He had an immense capacity for caring, working as an activist alongside not only Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the battle for civil rights in the United States but also alongside humanitarian workers in Africa in the service of human decency worldwide.
He was a beautiful example of Black manhood. A powerful reminder that Black men have limitless capacity to be as visionary as they desire. Limitless magic to create a new order in their communities. And limitless capacity to be giving and nurturing in service to humankind. Harry Belafonte is an example of this gift personified.
He had an intense desire to do something about the problems of the world, and he had the drive and determination to get about the business of actually doing it. Action is at the forefront of his legacy. An artist who gave truth a stage. A heart that gave those in need of refuge and shelter. Love that was split, shared, and multiplied throughout the world.
There is not a decade in most of the past century where Harry Belafonte was not relevant. In the ’50s, he used his artistry to tell Black stories to diverse audiences, tapping into his Jamaican roots and Harlem upbringing to bring to life the tales of the working class with songs like “Day-O.” His debut album “Calypso” was the first LP by a single artist to sell a million copies. But he was not one-dimensional in his artistry. He seamlessly shifted from singing to acting and back again during this decade, starring in both TV and film, including in one of the first successful all-Black major motion picture films, “Carmen Jones” with Dorothy Dandridge. To this day, this film is still applauded and celebrated for its milestones and artistry.
Into the ’60s, Harry Belafonte was a powerful voice in the civil rights movement. He marched beside Dr. King, even helping to plan the March on Washington. On several occasions, he used his celebrity to raise money for various civil rights causes, including to bail Dr. King and other protesters from jail following peaceful protests. He also used his celebrity to support the various initiatives of well-known equal rights organizations, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of which a young John Lewis was an active member.
It was during this time of fighting for equality in America that Harry Belafonte really began his lifelong journey of supporting humankind wherever support was needed and especially in Black communities across the globe.
The ’70s and ’80s were spent building upon the legacy that he’d begun to create in his early career. He continued moving back and forth between music, film and activism, always using his voice to amplify the needs of those whose voices weren’t heard. In 1984, he helped organize the celebrity-packed “We Are the World” charity benefit song in support of the humanitarian needs of Africa. So often when we think of that song, we think of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, and while they were key components to bringing the idea to fruition, it was Harry Belafonte who initiated the idea and efforts around gathering the celebrities for this cause. He was a visionary who sought to use his privilege and position for good.
In the ’80s, he also became an outspoken advocate for the ending of apartheid in South Africa. His humanitarian efforts found a permanent home in Africa during the ’80s and ’90s. He sought out problems on the continent and actively worked to bring about solutions. He cared about the people who the world had left behind. He showed up for them — in service of human decency. He gave love. He gave of himself.
After all of this, Harry Belafonte could have literally rested on his work, hung up his hat and enjoyed retirement, but he kept at it. In 1987, he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and remained as such until he died. In the 2000s, he spoke his mind on politics to both Democrats and Republicans alike. He called out George W. Bush for his handling of the war in Iraq and both Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. He even came for Barack Obama and the Carters (Jay-Z and Beyoncé) for what he saw as their lack of attention to the struggles of the poor. He had a mission to serve, and no one, no matter how high, would get in the way.
Harry Belafonte was a voice that sought to speak the truth. He was the hand that sought to right wrongs. The love that sought to heal the world. What a beautiful way to live.
And so while his life may have ended, his legacy begins. A legacy wrapped up in the beautiful things he’s done throughout his life in service of humankind. And so we end where we began — with beauty. A beautiful life; a beautiful man; a beautiful fight for human decency. And a beautiful legacy that now begins as a bookend to a life of service to mankind.
Kamaria is an attorney, poet, writer, and lover of all things created #ForTheCulture. She runs a blog, ‘Words of My Mother,’ has lived all over the DMV (heavy on the V), and enjoys skating, debating, and car karaoke. (Because, why not?!) She can be reached on Twitter at @like_tha_moon.
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