Tag Archives: A More Perfect Union

Obama Stirs Multiracial Dialogue

Note: This post is one of several that discusses issues raised by Sen. Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, from the perspective of the Baha’i Faith.  It is not an endorsement of Sen. Obama’s candidacy.  Please see the first entry (link below) for a full disclaimer. 

It took some time, but Sen. Barack Obama’s presence on the national scene is now shining the spotlight on multiracial people in the United States.  After steering away from race for most of his presidential campaign, Obama finally took on those inescapable issues in his “A More Perfect Union” speech.

In a March 31 article, New York Times reporter Mireya Navarro talked to some multiracial Americans about their experiences and their impressions of Obama’s speech.  The article began with the story of a Black-White woman whose black friends gave her grief for wearing a T-shirt that said “100 percent Black.”  That darn category problem again:

Being accepted. Proving loyalty. Navigating the tight space between racial divides. Americans of mixed race say these are issues they have long confronted, and when Senator Barack Obama recently delivered a speech about race in Philadelphia, it rang with a special significance in their ears. They saw parallels between the path trod by Mr. Obama and their own.

 The article notes how some people challenge multiracial Americans to label themselves “by innocently asking ‘What are you?'”  (I’m not sure how innocent that question is, but I’ll give those generic interrogators the benefit of the doubt.)  In a previous post on this blog, I brought the issue of multiracial people’s struggle to find a vocabulary to “describe themselves to themselves” and to describe themselves to others.

As the Times article put it:

Americans of mixed race say that questions about whether Mr. Obama, with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, is “too black” or “not black enough,” as the candidate himself brought up in his speech on March 18, show the extent to which the nation is still fixated on old categories.

 “There’s this notion that there’s an authentic race and you must fit it,” said Ms. Bratter, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston who researches interracial families. “We’re confronted with the lack of fit.”

But the times they are a changin’, and that fit is getting a bit easier.  The Times reports the 2000 Census showed 3.1 million interracial couples (I assume this is all combinations) or 6 percent of married couples.  Those numbers are eight years old, with a new Census only two years away.  The 2000 Census also showed 7.3 million million Americans selecting more than one race, or 3 percent of the population.  But the really significant number is that 41 percentof those who self-identified as multiracial were under 18 in 2000.  Many of those legions are now in the Obama campaign, or at least expressing support for someone whom they see as like them.

Read the Times article, and view the accompanying video of a meeting of young multiracial people.  You’ll see people as diverse as the world.  Yet America, despite its motto “e pluribus unum” or “from many, one” hasn’t necessarily wanted to see these faces.

In an article posted on commondreams.org, Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker wrote of Obama:

He is the change America has been trying desperately and for centuries to hide, ignore, kill. The change America must have if we are to convince the rest of the world that we care about people other than our (white) selves.

This is the change America, or White America, at least, tried to “hide, ignore, kill” with laws barring the “abominable mixture and spurious issue,” of interracial sexual relations.  Yet a powerful counter-narrative has been at work for a long time.  In 1831 — 177 years ago – abolitionist activist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison wrote this about interracial marriage:

“If he has ‘made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth,’ then they are one species, and stand on a perfect equality: their intermarriage is neither unnatural nor repugnant to nature, but obviously proper and salutary,” [as democracy, education and Christianity spread] everyone would intermarry and, “… the earth is evidently to become one neighborhood or family.”

Such a vision was way ahead of its time, but we now hear such sentiments all the time.  It is a major theme of Obama’s campaign.  Baha’u’llah, the Prophet/Founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote: “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”  His son, Abdu’l-Baha, wrote this:

Consider the flowers of a garden … How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants … were all of the same shape and color! Diversity of hues, form and shape enriches and adorns the garden, and heighten the effect thereof. In like manner, when diverse shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which rules and transcends the realities of all things, is capable of harmonizing the divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas and convictions of the children of men.

 

Multiracial scholar G. Reginald Daniel discusses multiracialism from a more academic perspective, as summarized in my masters thesis:

“In the 1990s, the appearance of multiple or plural identities, be they racial or otherwise, are not merely symptomatic of the tendency of fin-de-siécle relations between humans to become ‘deranged’ or ‘disjointed,’” Daniel (2002, p. 83) writes. This “explosion of plural identities …” seeks to “ … transcend this loss of continuity by reconnecting and reintegrating humans with the life history of the universal and collective self,” (Daniel, 2002, p. 183). This emerging multiracial identity is based on “the ‘Law of the Included Middle,’” and thrives on concepts of “‘partly, ‘mostly’ or ‘both/neither,’” …

 

I know a lot of people who are “partly, mostly” or “both/neither” — my son, for instance, or my nieces and nephews.  Our family tree has roots in four continents: North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.  Although I’m still White, I’m not quite as White as I used to be.

So the next time you ask somebody, “What are you?” be prepared for an answer that might confuse you.  Just remember the confusion is yours.

Other entries in this series:

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Cure the Cancer!”

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Multiracial Possibilities

See also:

A Prayer to Rein in ‘Forces of Divsion’

Multiple Answers to Race Question from the Same Person

Why Obama (and the Rest of us) Can’t ‘Transcend Race’

Obama’s ‘Trip’ Over and Around the Color Line

Links:

The Mavin Foundation, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading organization that builds healthy communities that celebrate and empower mixed heritage people and families.”

The Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans, “the oldest, largest and most influential nationwide organization in the US representing the multiracial, multiethnic community.”

Multracial Sky at wordpress.com

 

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A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Multiracial Possibilities

Other posts in this series:

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity.  (See this for an important disclaimer.) 

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Cure the Cancer!

In his “A More Perfect Union” speech, Sen. Barack Obama spoke these words:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.  I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.  I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.  I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.  I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Obama is undoubtedly right: Where else could someone of his background find a place, and even earn a fair shot at the highest office in the land?  Although the process has been slow and painful, America is irresistibly evolving to live up to its motto “e pluribus unum” or “out of many, one.”  Yes, there is resistance, argument, confusion, but no turning back the clock.

Barack Obama’s story is only possible in America, but his is by no means the only story.  It is my story, my family’s story, and the Baha’i Faith made it possible.  I was a New Yorker, a former agnostic, of Lithuanian, German and Irish descent, when my friend Jan Smith introduced me to Terri Earl.  Terri’s background is African American, with the family tree including Cherokee and a man rumored to be a white English spy.  Terri’s mother, the youngest of eight, married a white man, and from that union came her biracial half-sister.  That sister’s children extend the family tree to Holland, and they include two blue-eyed redheads, and others that could be mistaken for Hispanic.

But the family tree also branches out to India, via Botswana (in southern Africa).  Terri’s cousin Charles encountered the Baha’i Faith on his travels to Africa, and in Botswana he met Gayatri, of East Indian descent, one of many East Indians living in various parts of Africa.  Charles and Gayatri later married.  They now live in Metro Atlanta, and have two African American English Cherokee East Indian children, a boy and a girl.

It’s not that Baha’is are required to marry across racial and ethnic lines, but we get plenty of encouragement.  When our son was little, he asked if he had to marry somebody with a different color.  The married Baha’i couples he knew included Black-White, White-Iranian, Black Iranian and Biracial-Hispanic.  (Because the Faith began and grew in Iran, there are many Baha’is of Iranian descent in America and around the world.)

Baha’is believe that marriages unite not only individuals, but families.  In my case, I don’t regard the people on the Kulkosky side as “my family” and the people on the Earl side as “her family.”  Everyone is my family and our family:

Thou must endeavor that they intermarry.  There is no greater means to bring about affection between the white and the black than the influence of the Word of God.  Likewise marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity.  — Abdu’l-Baha

… This union will unquestionably promote love and affection between the black and the white, and will affect and encourage others.  These two races will unite and merge together, and there will appear and take root a new generation sound in health and beauteous in countenance.  — Abdu’l-Baha

In marriage the more distant the blood-relationship the better, for such distance in family ties between husband and wife provides the basis for the well-being of humanity and is conducive to fellowship among mankind. — Abdu’l-Baha

For more information:

David Douglas and Barbara Douglas, “Marriage Beyond Black and White: An Interracial Family Portrait.”  Wilmette, Ill., Baha’i Publishing Trust.

The Vision of Race Unity: A Statement by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States

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A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Cure the Cancer!

Please see my previous post, “A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity,” for an important disclaimer.

A lot of people have been viewing my blog in the past few days, a few hundred and counting (not much by blogosphere standards, but the trend-line is up).  Aside from a bit of ego gratification, I take this trend as a sign I’m meeting the needs of people other than me. I’m particularly pleased with comments from two people in their 80s. Who says the Internet is only for the young!  Dorothy Schatz, 82, wrote this of her feelings about America’s history of slavery and mistreatment of Native Americans:

The pain in the very bowels of my soul has been caused by this anguish and wrong doing those of us that are white have ignored by our arrogance.

I am immeasurably thankful that this blight on our country is being talked about, in terms that will help us dispel this cancer from our country forever.

Another comment came from Dr. Jim Turpin, 80 years old:

Our blessed Faith , for the past 140 years, [the Bahai’ Faith began in 1844] makes it abundantly clear that the ultimate answer to racial unity is a spiritual one, recognizing in a profound way that racism is an abomination to our Creator …

In a way this identification with each other is not unlike the unity of a deep, eternity-long marriage, in that we need to recognize that we NEED each other, that limited to our own “color”, we are less than completed, less than whole.

That hunger for a new vocabulary, a new dialogue, for a unity that transcends our differences without eliding them, is real and widespread, and has been observed often as a key to the appeal of Sen. Barack Obama, particularly among the young. 

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.  Let us be our sister’s keeper.  Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well. 

For we have a choice in this country.  We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism.  We can tackle race only as spectacle …   We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel … and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words.  We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

“We can do that, ” Obama went on, or we can say “not this time” and work together to solve common problems, such as education, health care, economic competitiveness and the war in Iraq.

But, as Jim Turpin declared above, the answer to our racial troubles [indeed, to all of our troubles] will not come from politics as we know it, but from spiritual sources.  Jim said in his comment: ” … this unity is supported by ample documented evidence that we- black, white, brown, red, yellow, “uncertain”- are truly made by the very same “recipe”.

Baha’u’llah provides the recipe thus:

Know ye not whey We created you all from the same dust?  That no one should exalt himself over the other … Since We have created you all from the same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest …

For the most part, humanity has not lived up to this high standard.   America, despite great strides, has yet to consistently and completely live up to the promises of its Constitution.  As Senator Obama said in his “More Perfect Union” speech:

What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

The Baha’i way is not through war or civil disobedience, but we, too seek to narrow the gap between the promise of our beloved nation’s ideal the reality of our time:

A rectitude  of conduct, an abiding sense of undeviating justice, unobscured by the demoralizing influences which a corruption-ridden political life so strongly manifests … a fraternity freed from the cancerous growth of racial prejudice which is eating into the vitals of an already debilitated society …

Thus, wrote Shoghi Effendi, great-grandson of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet/Founder of the Baha’i Faith — in 1939!  Through great efforts on the part of many brave Americans, the growth of that cancer has at least been arrested, even reversed, by some measures.  The controversy over the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s long-time pastor, proves we have yet to cure it.

Regardless of your party or whom you vote for, in fact, despite the political obstacles, you, too can work toward the cure.

Sources:

Effendi, Shoghi, “The Advent of Divine Justice,” originally published in 1939.  Wilmette, Ill., Baha’i Publishing Trust.

The Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue.  A Statement by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.  1991.  Wilmette, Ill., Baha’i Publishing Trust.

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