Thursday, March 08, 2007

The African American Attitude: A Few Baha'i Thoughts

Photograph of a young revolutionary and future Baha'i, Nashville, Tennessee 1977

As some of you know, I offered a few Baha'i thoughts about WHITE RAGE, based on a powerful piece of Baha'i literature called The Advent of Divine Justice, which among others things, identifies racism as America's most vital and challenging issue. This time I'm going to address the flip side of WHITE RAGE, which I call the African American Attitude.

In the Advent of Divine Justice we find the following statement regarding the challenges facing African Americans (note: The Baha'i Writings use the racial terminology of the period in which they were written, so prepare yourself for the use of the world "Negro"):

Let the negroes..., show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipeout every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds.
(Shoghi Effendi: The Advent of Divine Justice, pp.33-34)

But wait, there's more. The Baha'i Writings have this piece of advice for African Americans:

"... it is incumbent upon the negro believers to rise above this great test which the attitude of some of their white brethren may present. They must prove their innate equality not by words but by deeds. They must accept the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh for the sake of the Cause, love it, and cling to it, and teach it, and fight for it as their own Cause, forgetful of the shortcoming of others. Any other attitude is unworthy of their faith (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, February 9, 1942)

Let's consider each of the three challenges facing African Americans. The three challenges can be summed up in this way:

1. Responding warmly to the efforts by whites to overcome their own prejudice and treat us like human beings (finally!)
2. A readiness to forget the past
3. Wiping out every trace of suspicion

Responding warmly: Ironically this is the first thing on the list which is made really hard if you have not addressed the other two challenges. But it is possible as African Americans throughout history have demonstrated time and again. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Book T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King and millions of everyday black folk like my grandmother Willer Dean McKinley, have shown a great capacity for a just and loving response by the sincere effort among white Americans to treat African Americans like human beings. This capacity of warmth in spite of our bitter experience is among those spiritual qualities which the Baha'i Writings tell us people of African Descent have been "richly endowed" with and that, on our better days, we make look easy.

Readiness to forget the past: Say what?! This one can be a bitter pill for a people whose past was systematically brutalized out of them and whose very sanity to some degree has depended on recovering that past and unlearning the propaganda that we have been taught about our history, before, during and after slavery. One way of looking at this is as a spiritual and psychological discipline. There is a fine line between a consciousness of the past experience (whether positive or negative) that empowers a person to meet the challenges of the present and move confidently into the future with nobility and grace, and an emotional attachment to past wrongs (real or perceived) that feeds a self destructive resentment while starving the soul. Readiness to forget the past does not mean literally forgetting the things that African Americans have suffered, but letting go of our emotional attachment to those things. It means not allowing the past to determine our present or our future.

Wiping out every trace of suspicion: This is about healing from that ever present paranoia that a white person is acting this way or that way because of race. You could say that many African Americans engage in an on the spot racial mathematics when interacting with whites, constantly calculating (generally subconsciously) their motives. This springs for a deep and painful sense of insecurity born of centuries of bad experiences and is not easy to shake. Ultimately African Americans have to let go of a preoccupation with what whites may or may not feel towards them and focus on fulfilling their own destiny as a people who will contribute their "great gifts of mind and heart" to the creation of a new social order based on unity and justice. It's a much better use of their time and energy.

African Americans in the 21st century must adopt a new attitude towards our experience in the United States. They must prove to the world their "innate equality not by words but by deeds". They must accept the full implications of Baha'u'llah's teaching that humanity is one, "love it, and cling to it, and teach it, and fight for it as their own Cause, forgetful of the shortcomings of others. Any other attitude is unworthy" of those whom Baha'u'llah has described as the pupil of the eye.