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African American Experiences Enlighten Believers

Jan 31, 2022
close up on the right eye of a male person of color

Course: Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society (Fall 2021)
Faculty Mentor: Elizabeth Allen

Sonja Brook’s Learning Self-Assessment

Some of the most helpful insights I’ve gained from the course on Anti-Black Racism are the glimpses into the current and historical experiences of our African American Bahá’í family members. These included the letters and addresses of Sadie Oglesby and Coralie Cook, as well as the moving and very informative videos in the series. The story told by Wilma Ellis Kazemzadeh was especially moving to me.

I’m grateful that Coralie Cook felt compelled to write her letter and that it was saved for us to learn from today:

“We do not make the mistake of supposing that ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá does not understand far more about this matter than any believer can possibly show Him but we do feel it fitting to put on record and into your hands certain facts as expressing the attitude of the colored people themselves concerning race prejudice. Since we are the ones whose progress it impedes and whose footsteps it hounds surely we must be better prepared to speak than those who view the situation ON THE OUTSIDE.”

Coralie Cook, 1914

As a result of this course, I hope I have improved the skill of listening. Listening to our dear friends of color in the Sunday sessions was always illuminating, and the Fishbowl dramatic sketch was a very helpful reminder that no one should be expected to always “be strong” and that it is important to sincerely ask—and listen to the reply—about how our friends of color are feeling and doing. Then we need to follow through with support and genuine care.

I feel a renewed sense of urgency to do even more in our Bahá’í communities to address this issue and help our communities (local and cluster-wide) become aware, better educated, and proactive in making Bahá’í spaces welcoming, comfortable, open to diverse “ways of doing,” and true listening spaces. The following quotes from Sadie Oglesby’s 1927 Address to the National Convention of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada in Montreal are powerful:

Shoghi Effendi said, “Mrs. Oglesby, whatever is the cause [of the lack of African Americans entering the Faith], whether it is the black man’s cause, whether it is his shortcomings; whether it is the white people’s cause, does not matter. What matters is that it is vital, that he enters the Cause. Whatever it is, you must remove the thing that keeps the black man out, and bring him into the Cause— Not for the sake of the Colored Group, but, for the sake of the world, and for the sake of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.” (Italic emphasis added)

“The world is looking to see what the Bahá’ís of America are going to do for the colored man, and the peace and tranquility of the world depend on that one thing. In this great hour of turmoil, when everybody and every group of people are talking about universal brotherhood and justice, we, Bahá’ís must be that centre that is not living in the realm of thinking about it, but the ones who actually have it in practice”. [Italic emphasis added]

“… this is really the White Man’s problem; it is his difficulty, and he must get rid of it; unless the people of America adjust themselves and establish this Centre, there is nowhere, in this great day of cataclysm for the hearts of humanity to turn. This is the great challenge— Will they do it?” [Italic emphasis added]

I’m thinking of ways I might introduce either a brief online devotional for interested neighbors or hold more elevated conversations with them first. I plan to introduce the topic of the oneness of humanity in the devotions and be prepared to converse on race-related topics. I belong to a Racial Healing group that I will also invite neighbors to as soon as an opening presents itself. I also am sharing some of the resource materials for this course with other Bahá’ís in our cluster, some of whom are African American. I believe they will find comfort and confirmation in them. 



Sonja Brook (Huntley, IL)

I clearly remember the moment in 1967 when I found the Bahá’í Faith. It set my life on a new path. Along the way I became a wife, mother, and grandmother. I was a medical technologist, school teacher, fruit and vegetable farmer, small business owner, and always a Bahá’í. I love learning and serving. The Wilmette Institute has been part of my journey.

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