Stories can bring us inside the Golden Rule
In 1912, Louis Gregory, an attorney with a well-established law firm in Washington, D.C, married Louisa Mathew, a British woman of refined character. What is extraordinary is not that they had a fruitful and happy marriage of forty years, until his death in 1951. This was not uncommon in those days. It was not extraordinary that Mr. Gregory gave up that law practice to promote his ideals, though perhaps that was not as common. What is extraordinary is that Mr. Gregory descended from slaves and slave owners, and his skin was a lovely shade of milk chocolate brown. What made this extraordinary is the rarity of interracial marriages during that period in American history. Intimate relationships between blacks and whites such as marriage were at an all-time low in early twentieth century (Gullickson 291). Segregation had been firmly established across the country, and racism’s pernicious influence could be felt in every train station and diner, every school and hospital, every church and department store. It could be felt by Mr. Gregory, that is, and by those whose skin did not reflect light the way privileged White skin did.
Racism, or racial prejudice, is prejudging “on the basis of race – primarily skin color – and to maintain such a prejudgment even in the face of evidence that all human beings are equal” (Lepard 64). This prejudgment generally manifests itself as a partiality towards people with lighter skin in most parts of the world. This kind of prejudice can be seen throughout human history, but for brevity’s sake I want to focus on American history. In America’s colonial beginnings, indentured servitude and slavery were the primary sources of labor. As the idea spread that European-Americans had a duty and a right to expand westward, so did the notion that those with darker skin had no rights to the glorious destiny awaiting those pioneers. According to Richard Thomas, a historian who chronicled racism in his book Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, “Between 1815 and 1855, ideas about liberty and the progress of human beings (derived from the Enlightenment and the American Revolution) were replaced by the concept of white supremacy which resulted in the removal of Indians from their native lands and in the perpetuation of slavery” (qtd. in Berjis para. 3). Economic reasons essentially justified the idea that some were less human than others : free land and labor.
Though slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, racism did not. Segregation and anti-miscegenation laws drove the races even further apart in almost all aspects of life. As historian Aaron Gullickson rather clinically describes, “After emancipation, miscegenation threatened an emerging biracial order that demanded an end to interracial sex and its ambiguous product” (291). To keep a biracial social order in which those with lighter skin maintained a privileged status the notions of superiority were perpetuated and became ingrained in the social fabric. If people of different races coexisted, equality would have been required to keep social harmony. Those in power could lose that privilege.
But these injustices were and are not sustainable. Racial violence and the non-violent civil rights movement swept through the nation from the mid-fifties to the early seventies, and established legal equality with regard to race, religion, gender and ability. But the country is still far from the ideal of racial unity that Louis Gregory was promoting in 1912 when he married his white British wife, an ideal which “demolishes all superstitions, all prejudices. Here racial boundaries disappear as men gaze upon the souls and characters of their fellows … Here men and women have the same rights and neither tries to enslave the other” (Gregory qtd. in Buck 21).
Exploring several examples of efforts towards racial unity can help increase our awareness of the effort required to cure the disease of racism. In American history, there are several well-known examples in the abolitionists of the antebellum period and the civil rights movement of the mid-20th Century. During these periods, people of both the Black and White races arose to defend the human and legal rights of the oppressed. Here, though, I will focus on two more intimate human endeavors: friendship and marriage.
Also in 1912, Louis Gregory, and other Baha’is in the Washington, D.C. area, hosted an “Interracial Unity Meeting.” The invitation reads, in part: “You are cordially invited to an interracial unity meeting. “All are welcome, regardless of race, color or creed” (viewed in Buck 8). The meeting was held to promote and discuss a central principle of the Bahá’í Faith, that of the oneness of humanity, which calls the abolishment of all forms of prejudice. Gregory and his wife continued to promote these ideas throughout the decade, and were often required to travel separately because of segregation, and at times were even in danger because of their marriage. In 1921, along with Agnes Parsons, a wealthy White woman from Washington, D.C., and Martha Root, a White female journalist from Pittsburgh, Louis Gregory helped to organize the first in a series of “Race Amity” conventions. These well-attended conferences featured other advocates of equality at the time, such Jane Addams, Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke, and anthropologist Franz Boas (Louis Gregory para. 5). That these conferences and meetings were organized and attended by a diverse audience (the first had an estimated 1500 attendees) was nearly unheard of during the era of extreme segregation (Buck 25). Their supporters coexisted, flying directly in the face of the idea that the races should be kept separate, and that a “biracial order” should be maintained. Today, as a consequence of those early meetings, the Bahá’í Faith does not follow the trend Martin Luther King described when he said, “the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life” (qtd. in Freyer 1). Across the country, Bahá’í spiritual gatherings, religious study and children’s classes will show a diverse, loving and unified community.
Interracial marriage is another powerful, yet intimate means of destroying the root of enmity. Sociologists often use interracial marriage statistics to measure racial attitudes (see both Gullickson and Freyer). According to Freyer, “social intimacy is a way of measuring whether or not a majority group views a minority group on equal footing. In most information-based theories of discrimination, stereotyping, stigma, and inequality, social intimacy leads to less discrimination and improved outcomes for racial minority groups.” This bodes well for American society, as both Gullickson and Freyer show that interracial marriage as been on a steep incline since the early 1970s. Though marriage partners are as likely to project their negative qualities on to their spouses as any other human grouping, marriage requires a continually heightening awareness of one’s foibles and follies, as well as an acceptance of one’s spouse’s, if the marriage is to succeed. Louis and Louisa Gregory lived in the harmonious unity of marriage. What better way to become aware of, and root out, prejudicial tendencies?
Racism is ultimately a spiritual issue, not a cultural or economic one. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, addressed both Black and White Americans about racism in 1939, saying:
“Let neither think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort [i.e. means by which psychological defenses may be rooted out], can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country” (qtd. in Lepard 71).
The process by which we unify recognize the unity of the races is gradual and organic, much in the way that human development is. We crawl before we walk, we walk before we run. As described in The Power of Unity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism, in the beginning of our efforts to establish a unified humanity, we can recognize the oneness of humanity according to our limited understanding, and we make tentative steps towards understanding through contact with and respect of others from different races. These tentative steps lead to confirmations and we become excited about the potentials we see in unity in diversity, and we work more enthusiastically for it. Finally, as Louis Gregory envisioned, “racial boundaries disappear as men gaze upon the souls and characters of their fellows” (qtd. in Buck 21).
What role does multicultural literature play in this process? It is the creative matrix for conveying deeper understanding and love. As the character Sean says in the play Bee-luther-hatchee, by Thomas Gibbons, “Black marks on white paper. Because of them – miraculously! – a world that exists in one mind is recreated in another. Its sights, its sounds, its texture. Something is communicated”. Through literature we enter a world and begin to feel and understand it. Multicultural literature offers us the experience of characters from one culture striving to live in and adjust to a different and often hostile culture.
For example, in A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gains, we experience racism and segregation through the main character Grant’s eyes. We see the signs marking the separate bathrooms for Blacks and Whites. We watch as the young Black prisoner bows his head at the command of the deputy to clean the toilets for colored people. We can imagine the stench of the toilet that Grant, and everyone he knew, avoided (69). We are privy to his thoughts as he remembers how he should speak to white people, using “sir” (81), and pondering “whether [he]should act like the teacher that [he] was, or like the nigger that [he] was supposed to be” (47). We feel his self-loathing as he relates to his former mulatto teacher, Matthew Antoine, (63-66), and as he struggles to accept his role in helping an innocent boy on death row become a man before he dies, and we empathize. In reading the book we not only understand Grant’s experience as a black man better, but we come to see ourselves in the other characters, projecting their insecurities on Black people as they ignore their presence, or condescend, or degrade, and we can feel the disgust as we recognize our own prejudice. Though this can potentially engender denial, it can also potentially and powerfully engender the kind of love, patience and humility that Shoghi Effendi calls for.
One challenge not yet met by examples I have encountered in multicultural literature is the fewness of examples like Louis Gregory. We rarely see interracial intimacy in literature. There are several examples of romantic and/or sexual intimacy: in A Gesture Life, by Chang-rae Lee, the main character, a Japanese immigrant to America has a brief relationship with a white woman; in House Made of Dawn, by N. Scot Momaday, Able, a Native-American man has a sexual relationship with a white woman; Sophia, the youngest of the Garcia girls in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, marries a blond European. In Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen, the main character, Mona, a Chinese-American girl, falls in love with and later marries a Jewish boy named Seth. But the only satisfyingly intimate exchanges of ideas and feelings we experience occur between Mona and Seth, and between Yolanda and her first husband, John. Mona struggles with her Chinese identity. She rejects it and is nearly rejected by her mother entirely. She and Seth engage in meaningful conversation with Black and Hispanic friends. Yolanda goes through a similar process as her marriage fails.
Writers of multicultural fiction need to draw their readers in to more of these kinds of interactions. We need not only to encounter the struggle and suffering of prejudice as we read and learn to relate to, and even love, the characters. We need to watch as they build bonds of unity through “sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort” (Effendi, qtd in Lepard).
But we must keep reading, even while writers develop the language of those kinds of stories. The stories that already exist unlock the doors to understanding, and the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Writers must write what they know. So let this be both a call to action to other writers to begin to know racial unity at a gut and bone level, and a promise from this writer to dig deeply into her own experience, her own prejudices, and her own soul to find those stories that will create unity and reflect the nobility of the human soul, regardless of the color of the skin associated with it.
Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. 1st ed. New York: PLUME, 1992.
Berdjis, Nassim. Rev. of Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, by Richard W. Thomas. Baha’i Studies Review: 6 (1996). Print.
Buck, Christopher. “Alain Locke: “Race Amity” and the Baha’i Faith.” Lecture. Alain Locke Centenary Program, American Association of Rhodes Scholars. Blackburn Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 27 Sept. 2007. Dr. Christopher Buck. Web. 28 June 2010.
Freyer, Jr., Roland G. “Guess Who’s Been Coming to Dinner? Trends in Interracial Marriage over the 20th Century.” Department of Economics. Harvard University, 2007. Web. 22 June 2010. http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/interracial_marriage.pdf.
Gains, Earnest J. A Lesson Before Dying. 1st ed. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1993.
Gibbons, Thomas. Bee-luther-hatchee. New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2002.
Gullickson, Aaron. “Black/white Interracial Marriage, 1850-2000.” Journal of Family History 31.3 (2006): 289-312. Department of Sociology. University of Oregon, 4 Oct. 2007. Web. 22 June 2010. http://www.uoregon.edu/~aarong/papers/gullick_intermarhist.pdf.
Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. 1st ed. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knofp, Inc., 1996. 15,188-215. Print.
Lee, Chang-rae. A Gesture Life. 1st Riverhead paperback ed. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1999. Print
Lepard, Jenina. “Obstacles to interracial unity: Some psychological and spiritual insights.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 4.1 (2007): 63-73. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 June 2010.
Louis Gregory Symposium On Race Unity. “Louis Gregory History.” Race Unity.net. Huston Tillotson University, 2010. Web. 28 June 2010.
Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. First Perennial Classics. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1999.
National Race Unity Committee. The Power of Unity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism. Ed. Bonnie J. Taylor. Willmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1986.
Read Full Post »