During Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to North America in 1912, a heartwarming story emerged involving a group of boys who came to visit him in New York—one of them an African American of dark complexion.
Howard Colby Ives described Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith, greeting this thirteen-year old with a heavenly smile and referring to him as a “black rose” in the company of the other boys. Not only that, but a bit later Abdu’l-Baha held a dark chocolate nougat to the boy’s cheek, wordlessly conveying that he was not only a black rose, but a “black sweet.”
Witnessing this, Ives recalled in his book Portals to Freedom the following:
Again that awed hush fell upon the room. Again the boys all looked with real wonder at the colored boy as if they had never seen him before, which indeed was true. And as for the boy himself, upon whom all eyes were now fixed, he seemed perfectly unconscious of all but Abdu’l-Baha. Upon him his eyes were fastened with an adoring, blissful look such as I had never seen upon any face. For the moment he was transformed. – Howard Colby-Ives, Portals to Freedom, p. 67.
I am currently a doctoral candidate pursuing a degree in applied sociology, specializing in race, class, and gender and urban sociology. Deeply troubled by the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and too many others, I was compelled to seek a deeper understanding of the structural roots of racial matters.
In my studies, I seek to critically engage with conventional notions of race by analyzing how it combines with other forces of inequality such as class, gender, and place. For example, my dissertation is focused on Black middle-class neighborhood attainment. I hope that by developing a more holistic understanding of how race is socially constructed, I can more effectively contribute to actions leading to race unity.
If we reflect on the historical period surrounding this spiritual encounter—one in which the Jim Crow social order consolidated itself in the South and depicted African Americans in popular media as idiotic, childlike, and subservient—it was quite revolutionary that Abdu’l-Baha ennobled this youngster in such a manner. This occurrence begs the question: What did Abdu’l-Baha see in this thirteen-year old that his white peers could not see? What does this exchange say about the distinction between material and spiritual reality, and the nature of race as a social phenomenon with spiritual implications?
Baha’is understand Abdu’l-Baha’s spiritual station to be far above our own as human beings, and yet he is known to us as the “Divine Exemplar.” Through his writings as well as his example, he guides us toward deeper realities:
Let all be united in this Divine power of love! … Shed the light of a boundless love on every human being whom you meet, whether of your country, your race, your political party, or of any other nation, color or shade of political opinion. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 38.
Despite the socially-constructed implications of having skin of dark complexion, Abdu’l-Baha recognized and emphasized the spiritual reality of this adolescent boy and his inherent nobility. In a society that denigrated him as “lesser than” because of phenotype and ancestry, Abdu’l-Baha “laid his arm around the shoulder of the boy” and this act of loving-kindness kindled a radiance that “seemed to fill the room.” Despite what the dark social forces of racism sought to impose, Abdu’l-Baha enraptured the soul of this boy with the light of love.
Unfortunately, the constant bombardment of racial controversies we face today has a negative effect on our souls and society at large, challenging us to discern what is real. This presents a fundamentally spiritual challenge, rooted in the dualism of human nature: our divine nature is attuned to the spiritual reality of oneness and strives to see this reflected in society, while our material nature seeks advantages that align with the struggle for existence.
The segregated history of the United States conditions us to associate racial groups with hierarchical social positions and ignore the inherent value that true diversity brings to a society. The racial group in the position of dominance sets the stage and has the advantage in shaping social policies, allocating resources, accessing opportunities, contouring public debate, and deciding how groups are culturally represented. In turn, relational dynamics associated with one’s “place in society” ignite conflicts when it is perceived that individuals act outside of their “rightful place.”
Race is made real because the material advantages that have accumulated are real, and many people feel that perpetuating a lie is of higher value than rectifying the contradiction between the reality of our oneness and the deep inequalities that align with skin color and ancestry.
Abdu’l-Baha’s actions not only exemplified a radical opposition to racial injustice, but also remind me of the Baha’i writings dedicated to people of African descent:
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. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 114.
If Abdu’l-Baha had ignored the lone African American within that group of rowdy boys, or even dared to treat him as equal to the boys, not much of a fuss would’ve been made. Instead, Abdu’l-Baha, as someone ever-operating in the spiritual realm, chose to elevate that boy in the eyes of his friends, allowing them to see him in a new light. He chose to make a spiritual point in a deranged social environment.
All of us can enjoy similar opportunities to recognize the spiritual reality of the racial situation and ask ourselves what is real? and who are we, really? as human beings. Like many of you, I long to see the day when we build a society so full of light and love that the eyes of each soul, regardless of background, become “fastened with adoring, blissful looks,” inspired by the victory of unity’s light over the illusory shadows of racial stratification.
In carrying out that unifying process, we can all conceptually define race and racism as part of a materialistic social order, and understand that racial unity on a sustainable scale involves a spiritualized revolution in how we self-identify and view our connection to our fellow human beings.