In a letter addressed to Robert Turner, the first African American Baha’i, Abdu’l-Baha, wrote:
O thou who art pure in heart, sanctified in spirit, peerless in character, beauteous in face! Thy photograph hath been received revealing thy physical frame in the utmost grace and the best appearance. Thou art dark in countenance and bright in character. Thou art like unto the pupil of the eye which is dark in colour, yet it is the fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.
I have not forgotten nor will I forget thee. I beseech God that He may graciously make thee the sign of His bounty amidst mankind, illumine thy face with the light of such blessings as are vouchsafed by the merciful Lord, single thee out for His love in this age which is distinguished among all the past ages and centuries.
This “Pupil of the Eye” metaphor originates from the words of Abdu’l-Baha’s father, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah. The metaphor compares people of color to the central pupil of the eye which is black in color, surrounded by white. Through this metaphor, Baha’u’llah compared the station of people of African descent to that of a source of light for the world. For Baha’i’s, these words have become a beacon of hope and a shining example for racial unity in the world, and central to our commitment as a world-wide community to the transformation of society, working towards a just and equitable future for all.
It’s incredible to think that at the time these words were written by Abdu’l-Baha in the early part of the 20th century, racial prejudice, hate crimes, and murder against people of color pervaded the consciousness of America. People of color were being treated as second class citizens or worse, while Jim Crow-era governments and groups were busy erecting Confederate monuments, the symbols and reminders of 400 years of slavery, all over the Southern states of America.
Today, these same Confederate monuments have become the topic of heated debate surrounding their protection or removal. Pressing questions regarding their inaccurate depictions of history, memory, and context have once again resurfaced.
The team at Cloud9 decided to deepen their understanding and ponder the question: Do these monuments really help or hamper humanity’s collective progress toward racial unity and justice for all peoples?
The second guest in this series is Dr Layli Maparyan, a psychologist who is currently the Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. Her research is primarily focused on social identity, Womanism, and African and Indigenous cosmology. She has also published three ground-breaking books on these subjects. In this episode we ask Professor Maparyan about the effects of Confederate monuments on the psyches of people of African descent.
In the first episode of this series we spoke with Dr. Derik Smith, a professor in the Department of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and asked Professor Smith to provide insight, answers, and perspectives on the historical context and narrative of colonial and Confederate monuments, centered on the theme of justice.
As a psychologist and professor of identity and Africana studies, we start by asking Professor Maparyan to break down the multi-generational psychological effects of these Confederate and colonial monuments on people of African descent in America. We explore how these monuments contribute to a heightened level of awareness of racism and racist undertones within the Black community, particularly within the consciousness of children of color.
Following this discussion, we turn to the following words from Baha’u’llah on the theme of justice:
The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.
Professor Maparyan shares how her work as a scholar, activist and Baha’i involves lifting the African world view, and to highlight the gifts that this world view – and the world views of many other Indigenous cultures and traditions which have been oppressed by colonialism and slavery – bring to the conversation and the work surrounding justice. True justice, Professor Maparyan observes, involves the recognition that the dominant Western view is not the only path toward racial justice. In contrast, she suggests that we will only have a functioning, just society when multiple worldviews – particularly those views of cultures which have been oppressed – are fully recognized, acknowledged and made readily available for all of humanity.
Professor Maparyan reflects on how often people only focus on the damage that racism inflicts on people of color, but forget about their resilience. She shares the following words of Baha’u’llah, to highlight how she feels as part of an oppressed group, and to explain how these words remind her of her strength and power to stand strong and undeterred in the face of injustice and racism:
These are Thy servants whom the ascendancy of the oppressor hath failed to deter from fixing their eyes on the Tabernacle of Thy majesty, and whom the hosts of tyranny have been powerless to affright and divert their gaze from the Dayspring of Thy signs and the Dawning-Place of Thy testimonies.
We continue our conversation by exploring the role of representation. In the past, monuments were meant to provoke deep reflection, remind the audience of their journey, or highlight a certain aspect or event in history. However, the Confederate and colonial monuments in question were specifically designed to inspire a very particular segment of the population, through the representations of key individuals in history, representing them as these God-like figures. The representations featured predominantly white, middle aged, able bodied men in suits or uniforms, focusing on those that held positions of power over others.
We ask Professor Maparyan how representation of an individual may limit our perception and contribute to division. We also explore how to broaden our perception and contribute to unity.
We close by exploring what the Baha’i Faith taught Professor Maparyan while she grew up as a woman of mixed race in the American South, and how the Baha’i teachings offer humanity a blueprint for how to approach monuments and memorialisation in the future.
Future episodes in this series will include conversations with Dr. Justin De Leon, currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Dr. De Leon’s work focuses on feminist theory, Indigeneity and creative storytelling, and we’ll ask him about the implications of Confederate and colonial monuments and mascots on people of Indigenous descent. Finally, we will close the series in a conversation with Anisa Tavangar, a writer, editor, and creative producer in Brooklyn, New York, who works at the intersection of art, justice, and spirituality, about how the Baha’i Faith offers individuals, community members and institutions a blueprint for ways to memorialize the past in the future.
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