Saturday, January 19, 2008

How Does It Feel To Be A Solution?

A black man counts the waves, Akka, Israel, 2006

There's a brilliant editorial in the Boston Globe today arguing for a reframing of the violence that recently broke out in Kenya. Take a look:

"FROM READING recent headlines about Kenya, one would think that the post-election violence is the result of tribal hatreds. But this assessment is wrong.

"Tribal violence spirals in Kenya," "tribal war," "tribal bloodletting" announced headlines around the world. A recent New York Times article said the mayhem in Kenya is a result of the "atavistic vein of tribal tension that . . . until now had not provoked widespread mayhem."

This is a facile explanation of Kenya's post-election violence. Yes, some people from different tribes are attacking one another. It's ugly and scary. But it's not inevitable; it's not part of the genetic makeup of the president's tribe, the Kikuyu, and the runner-up's tribe, the Luo or of any other tribes to both hate and kill one another.

Why the violence then? It's about politics and poverty. For their own gain, politicians exploit tribal differences and manipulate the poor and the destitute. It's no surprise that the perpetrators of "tribal violence" are usually idle young men who also loot and thieve while rampaging. Politicians often covertly hire or encourage them.

Don't think in terms of tribal violence. Consider, instead, "politically engineered violence," or "politically instigated violence." These are much more apt descriptions. And the difference is critical." (Read the whole thing here)

When I think about what this writer said, a basic theme comes to mind, "You know how those people are." What do I mean by this? Basically that there is a certain attitude reflected in the way that many of us (including myself sometimes) talk about behavior perpetrated by the members of certain groups, blacks in particular. Whether it's "ancient tribal hatreds" or "genetic intellectual inferiority", there are all kinds of ways of implying that when blacks engage in destructive behavior, that's what should be expected thus there are limits on what anyone can do about it. The origin of this attitude lies in the tendency to define blacks as a "problem" whether in America, Africa or anywhere else. W.E.B. Du Bois articulated this tendency in his classic work, The Strivings of the Negro People:

"BETWEEN me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience, -- peculiar even for one who has never been anything else..."

One of the great contributions I believe that the Baha'i Faith makes to the advancement of people of African descent is that it turns this "black people as a problem" paradigm on its head and suggests that we are actually a "solution" to a problem. The problem in this case is a misguided, materialistic civilization, a "lamentably defective" social order.

"Bahá'u'lláh once compared the coloured people to the black pupil of the eye surrounded by the white. In this black pupil you see the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the Spirit shines forth."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Abdu'l-Baha in London, p. 68)

This simple but profound metaphorical description of black people as the pupil of the eye from which the "light of the Spirit shines forth" reverses centuries of racist propaganda equating blackness with "badness". Within the context of the legacy of racism it is truly an example of making the last first and the first last, of exalting those who were "brought low in the land".

In a recent letter to an individual Baha'i of African descent, the Universal House of Justice had this to say about black Americans:

"Yet it is clear, too, from the Teachings that every people, through its own inherent potentialities and particular range of experience, will make its own distinct contribution to the creation of a new civilization. To the extent that African-American who embrace the new Revelation arise to do their part by adhering to the Teachings will the gifts that are uniquely theirs be realized in the splendors of the Golden Age. The "pupil of the eye", Baha'u'llah's metaphoric reference to Black people, will no doubt acquire clear meaning as they conscientiously strive over time to fulfill the divine purpose for which the Blessed Beauty came. There can be no doubt that Americans of African descent can find in themselves the capacity, so well developed as a result of their long encounter with injustice, to recognize and respond to the vision of love and justice brought by the Promised One of all ages. Imbued with that vision, past and present sufferings are transformed into measures of patience, wisdom and compassion-qualities so essential to the effort to moderate the discordant ways of a confused world and aid the healing of its spiritual ills. What better than the transformed character of a bruised people to smooth the course, to offer perspectives for new beginnings toward world order!"

Imagine if our public and private discourse, our social policy and personal behaviors were guided by this way of looking at black people? Imagine if we all began to ask them "How does it feel to be a solution?"