Image: Front cover of Tod Ewing’s book: Seeing Heaven in the Face of Black Men.
Course: Writing Biographies and Histories: Recording Stories of People and Places (2022)
Faculty Mentor: Robert Stockman
by Zaynab Ewing-Boyd
You could say that my grandfather’s DNA is encoded with love, patience, stubbornness for sure, and a whole lot of fight. My great-grandparents, his parents, moved to a house in Minnetonka, Minnesota, in 1952. They were met with prejudice as the white neighbors made it their mission to prevent them from moving in through veiled threats and by trying to bribe the seller to retract the contract. They were told if they did move in, the neighbors would make their lives miserable. Kick them out. No matter how much effort the neighbors put into pressuring my great-grandfather Curtis “Curt” and great-grandmother Mildred “Mille” Ewing into abandoning their new life in this new home, they did not budge. “I am going to do all I can to stay, no matter what happens,” my great-grandfather said. I have been raised with my grandfather in my life and, ever since I can recall, he has endured the same fight that his parents did. This is what I mean when I say it is encoded; it has been passed down from generation to generation.
My grandfather, Tod Ewing, was born a year later in 1953, amid a world of hate and miseducation, yet still surrounded by love and light. Discrimination based on skin color remained legal throughout the United States and the impact of Jim Crow laws still forced separation on Black and white communities. The tragic and heartbreaking lynching of Emmett Till would come shortly after the birth of my grandfather, but the world was itching for change as the birth of the Civil Rights Movement was coming to fruition. In 1955, Rosa Parks would lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, ultimately desegregating public transportation. Brown v. Board of Education would soon integrate public education. So much pain, but still, beauty was everywhere you looked.
I explained one time to my auntie how, when I am on the train, I think about how each person has their individual life, relationships, and understandings of life. She said, “This means that you do not have to do it all on your own; there are enough people, you just have to do your part.” My grandfather is a soul who does his part and sometimes more; he is constantly thinking about how to make the world a more loving and accepting place for all.
When he was a young boy, he felt the impact of adults’ unwillingness to recognize the humanity of Black people; he felt the impact of not everybody doing their part. He and his family were the only African American family for 15 miles in any direction. He was young, experiencing emotions that are difficult to verbalize, which in turn created internal turmoil. In his semi-autobiographical book, Seeing Heaven in the Face of Black Men, he writes: “From the time I can remember, it just felt like my whole life, including relationships, was perilous, tenuous, uncertain and full of anxiety.”
He recalled a time when he was in elementary school when a bigger kid at recess called him the N-word. He felt so enraged, but he wasn’t sure why he felt all this anger. When you are young, the meanings of words do not always make sense, but the emotion that comes with the words never fails to translate. How difficult must it be to know that you are angry but not know how to describe your anger? What is the journey one must take to see yourself fully and embrace yourself fully when you never see yourself in others?
My grandfather was raised with the knowledge of the existence of God but, just like for many of us, the idea of God is always there when we are young, but the internalization of God’s impact does not happen until much later. Once he reached that point, the ideas of the Bahá’í religion resonated with him. Unity, love, justice, and equality all made sense to him. His parents made certain that, even with the brutal experience that came with being Black and American in the 1950s (and to this day), their children would treat everyone, “friend and stranger alike, with dignity and honor.” That idea would return many times throughout his life and, therefore, throughout mine as well.
As he grew up, his relationship with God and his Faith changed and his views on race expanded. He developed a deeper understanding of himself and his definition of Blackness; the question of his value was no longer based primarily on the color of his skin, and he committed to sharing his love and the Bahá’í Faith’s teachings with whoever was open.
The Bahá’í Faith became his “saving grace,” as he described it. The Faith showed him that all people are noble, he is noble, and his Blackness does not strip him of his value but, in a real sense, adds to it. According to the Bahá’í writings, he is the pupil of the eye (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, No. 78). In Seeing Heaven in The Face of Black Men, he writes:
“[I]t is spirituality that, in the heat of our daily challenges and inner struggles with race, provides us with a transformative way of responding, lifting us through, out and above our emotional and protective impulses. It can lift us through the emotional pain and anger associated with race and transform it into motivation, will and strength to build unity and justice.”
Diversity is the key to success of any kind. Without diversity, there can be no growth and no change. Some people find comfort in staying the same. Why leave a place where you are safe to go to the unknown? It is human nature to shy away from the dark, to stay where you find the most stability. The only benefit of that approach is the (false) sense of security.
‘Abdu’l‑Bahá wrote in First Tablet to The Hague, “In like manner, when divers 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.”
In 2014 my grandfather, my beautiful grandmother (whom I hope to be able to write about soon), sisters, mother, and father all moved to Deanwood, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Chocolate city. It may not be too chocolate now, but Deanwood is 95% African-American. When I originally moved to Deanwood, I could clearly see the impact of a governing system that only cares for the wealthy and white. I could see the love, music, and warmth that was pouring out of houses on spring days and hear the gunshots ringing in my ears from those very same houses on spring nights. There were more liquor stores than grocery stores, but more than that, there were families on walks and car windows rolled down while playing DC anthems. Deanwood is a place full of love but completely stripped of opportunity.
I explained previously the impact of my grandfather living among only white people in his early years, and how his appreciation for his soul and skin was never fully acknowledged. Now I want to paint a different picture.
Imagine being around only people who look like you, but for generations upon generations, these people have been taught that they were not enough, that their skin and lips and hips were too much. Imagine being controlled by people who look nothing like you and have never stepped foot in your part of the city, but claim it as their own. Imagine how out of control you would feel. Your sense of worth is stripped because nobody is telling you how much you matter; if anything, they are telling you how much you don’t matter. Would you know the value of your soul? The beauty in your skin?
My grandfather may not have been raised in the same place, but he understands the story, he understands the feelings that come with the story. He has created, with the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, a safe place where Black youths from the city can see themselves with love and light. In my grandfather’s words, “We have to reach the youth as soon as possible, and really work with them to really see their own nobility and their role as leaders and learn from them, creating environments where their capacity can blossom.”
My grandmother always says about my grandfather, “There is never a stranger he does not know.” He created an environment of love that you can feel a mile away. When he moved to the community, he knew—more than anything—that there was a need for connection. So he carried a football around as a way to engage people in conversation, knowing that, particularly with men, it would be a source of connection. At 65 years old, he would go to the basketball court with the young men and play basketball with them. He connected with the people, without ulterior motive, just looking for open souls. Soon, the people in the community became more familiar with him. If you ever walk down the street with him, you can hear community members saying “Hi, Mr. Tod!”
When I asked my grandfather what he considered his biggest accomplishments, he said, “I am grateful for many of the relationships that I have with people in the neighborhood. I feel so moved by so many people in this neighborhood.” Of course, he took no credit; “all praise to the Most High,” he says, “we are a vehicle for the Spirit.” You can see the admiration he has for the people he is around, the amazement (profound appreciation) in his eyes when he sees their strength, perseverance, and creativity. When asked about the community, he responded with a quote that resonated with him: “As the saying goes, we have been doing so much with so little for so long, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”
The Bahá’í community has made strides in inclusion and diversity, but we are still farther than we sometimes like to accept in regard to making spaces that feel safe for all people, no matter their racial background, sexuality, or gender. The Faith is beautiful and complex and, because humans are flawed, we struggle with the comprehension of perfection. God is perfect; how are we to mirror Him when we are so far from Him? How can we create a more positive and inclusive place for all people?
We must first look within. “I always have to look at myself and say, ‘I’m not as far along as I could be as a human being, so how can I judge a community on how far along I think it should be?’” Without judgment or fear, we must look at ourselves and work on our own prejudices, and then look toward our community. What messages are we communicating when we only work in certain locations and not others? When we do not change our lesson plans into languages that people in different communities can relate to? The community may not be as far along as we might hope, but the teachings are forever present. We have tools to help build society: with the help of the Institute process, and community-building activities, we have action steps and we have a plan.