Monday, August 13, 2007

Achieving Blackness?

Photo of some of the outrageously beautiful children that I had the blessing of meeting when I was in Ghana in December 2006

I just got the book Achieving Blackness in the mail. Many thanks to my man Malik for turning me on to the author Algernon Austin, who has already pushed my Baha'i thinking in some helpful ways in the last book of his that I read, Getting It Wrong.

What I was just thinking is what I'm often thinking about, namely "What does the Baha'i Faith have to offer to those who consider themselves black in America?" Anyone who has been reading this blog knows this is something that I spend a lot of time doing Baha'i thinking about. What came to mind are some conversations that I have had over the years with both black and white Baha'is about race.

The first kind of conversation tends to focus on the ways in which the speaker reads the Baha'i Writings as saying that race is basically not important. For people with this way of reading the Baha'i Writings, what the Baha'i Faith has to offer black people is the possibility of race-transcendence, freedom from a social construct that is seen as inherently limiting and divisive, and from the racial conditioning that appears inseparable from the concept of race itself. Someone with this perspective might point out confidently examples from the Baha'i Writings such as the following:

"There are no whites and blacks before God. All colors are one, and that is the color of servitude to God...The heart is important. If the heart is pure, white or black or any color makes no difference. God does not look at colors; He looks at the hearts."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 44)

In a society driven insane by racism, statements like the above would seem to offer a well-lit pathway to sanity, the path of race-transcendence.

Another kind of conversation that I've experienced among both black and white Baha'is focuses on the speaker's reading of the Baha'i Writings as saying that race does matter and that in fact particular races, through both their God given gifts and historical experiences have distinctive contributions to make to the mission of the Baha'i Faith. For them, what the Baha'i Faith offers to black people is race-affirmation, the possibility of a nobility that embraces black humanity in the fullest possible way. People who read the Baha'i Writings this way can confidently point out examples such as the following:

"The negroes, though they themselves may not realize it, have a contribution to make to the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. His Teachings and the Society He has come to establish are for every race and every nation, and each one of them has his own part to play and the gift of his own qualities and talents to give to the whole world. The Cause of God has room for all. It would, indeed, not be the Cause of God if it did not take in and welcome everyone -- poor and rich, educated and ignorant, the unknown, and the prominent -- God surely wants them all, as He created them all."
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to two believers, December 10, 1942)

In a society hell-bent on presenting black pathology as inseparable from black humanity, statements like this one are like cool water for a thirsting soul, they offer the life-giving sweetness of race-affirmation.

In my experience, both these readings of the Baha'i Writings tend to be offered to some degree or another as the "correct" reading. Personally, I tend toward the second reading, but it has occurred to me that it is important to validate the possibility that for those who prefer the first reading, that may very well be what they find most attractive about the Baha'i Faith. Race-transcendence is what speaks most deeply to their own heart, while race affirmation is viewed with ambivalence at best. My Baha'i thought at this moment, though is that what the Baha'i Faith offers to black people (among other things) is the possibility of experiencing both race-transcendence and race affirmation at the same time, without the need to chose one over the other. The Baha'i Writings dislodge race from it's traditional role as a basis for judging the moral worth of human beings, while also celebrating the true significance of racial differences as a reflection of the creative will of God and the forces of history in which God participates:

"God maketh no distinction between the white and the black. If the hearts are pure both are acceptable unto Him. God is no respecter of persons on account of either color or race. All colors are acceptable to Him, be they white, black, or yellow. Inasmuch as all were created in the image of God, we must bring ourselves to realize that all embody divine possibilities. If you go into a garden and find all the flowers alike in form, species and color, the effect is wearisome to the eye. The garden is more beautiful when the flowers are many-colored and different; the variety lends charm and adornment. In a flock of doves some are white, some black, red, blue; yet they make no distinction among themselves. All are doves no matter what the color. This variety in forms and colorings which is manifest in all the kingdoms is according to creative wisdom and has a divine purpose."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 112)

What do you think reader?