We can all be heroes
How do we decide what makes a hero? Heroism is not just found in fanfare and acts of daring, but also in the quiet moments, the spaces in between breaths when normal people seek change. Each of us can exercise and manifest change, and inspire others to do better, to be better. This is just as big a part of heroism as flashy parades and bombastic stories.
In June, we celebrate National Heroes Day, as well as Race Unity Day, Juneteenth and we recently commemorated the anniversary of the Tulsa “Black Wall Street” massacre. This June in particular marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, which may make people ask: why do things like this happen?
After the First World War, White American soldiers returning home found that many of their former jobs had been filled by Black workers, half a million of whom had moved out of the southern United States to the north during the Great Migration. Returning Black American soldiers who had had positions of authority during the war were now expected to return to accepting a subservient social rank.
From late winter to the early autumn of 1919, ordinary White citizens perpetrated intense racial violence and massacres, which occurred in more than three dozen American cities such as Omaha, Chicago and Washington. This period came to be referred to as the “Red Summer”. This was also the first time that Blacks had resisted and retaliated in any number. It was in response to this latest widespread racial violence of 1919 that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tasked American Bahá’ís, both Whites and Blacks, to create the Race Amity Conferences.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and the foremost proponent of His teachings. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited North America in 1912 at the age of 68, He noted the intense racial animosity between Whites and Blacks. Since racial harmony and unity are at the forefront of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá always addressed it in His many talks over His eight-month North American journey.
Often speaking to mixed-race audiences in family homes, churches, synagogues, and university auditoriums, He underscored His father’s message and the need and importance for racial integration as the only way for society to advance. Encouraging America to embrace diversity and to dismantle racial barriers in all spheres He said, “[In the future] mankind will be as one nation, one race and kind —as waves of one ocean. Although these waves may differ in form and shape, they are waves of the same sea. Flowers may be variegated in colours, but they are all flowers of one garden. All are nourished and quickened into life by the bounty of the same rain; all grow and develop by the heat and light of the one sun; all are refreshed and exhilarated by the same breeze that they may bring forth varied fruits”.
Carried out by both Whites and Blacks ‘Abdul-Bahá’s vision came to fruition at the first three-day, Bahá’í-sponsored Race Amity conference in 1921. Beginning on May 21 just ten days before the Black Wall Street Massacre, this event titled “Convention for Amity Between the Coloured and White Races Based on Heavenly Teachings” — the first in a series of conferences — was conceived to advance the principle of racial equality and was aimed at expanding the nation’s thinking to embrace not merely tolerance, but also racial harmony and unity.
At a time when every sphere of society was divided along racial lines, and lynching and racial violence were an ever-present threat, these Race Amity Conferences were “a practical effort to influence public discourse on race in the United States”. These conferences were succeeded by a range of Bahá’í race relations initiatives, all the way into the present. Race Unity Day is one such example.
While Bermudian history may not perfectly mirror that of our closest neighbour, history shows us that there was a common “economic agenda”— that of keeping White people in positions of power and economic superiority. At the exact same time that the “Red Summer” and the Tulsa massacre were happening in America, Black Bermudians were being dispossessed and displaced from their homes in Tucker’s Town.
The Black Lives Matter movement has put the historical and continuing inequality and danger for Black people into even sharper focus. Having meaningful conversations about race and the legacy of systemic racism is difficult and takes courage — both to tell these stories as well as to hear them. It takes courage to seek out the painful history and learn from its lessons.
So let’s demonstrate our courage by facing history and having necessary, uncomfortable conversations. Only through this process can we see that we truly are “waves of one ocean”. Let’s all be heroes.
• Shyama Ezekiel-Fagundo is a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Bermuda and the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í of Smith’s Parish. For more information about the Bahá’í Community in Bermuda, please visit our website www.bermudabahai.org, and find us on Facebook and Instagram at bermudabahaicommunity