BLACK PEOPLE ARE THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE. . .we have a responsibility to be leaders of the earth, become caretakers of the earth and help the earth heal.
FIRST we have to know our power and position in the universe.
Centering the “Pupil of the Eye”: Blackness, Modernity, and the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh By: DERIK SMITH
Abstract In the late nineteenth century, Bahá’u’lláh likened people of African descent to the “pupil of the eye” through which the “light of the spirit shineth forth.” This essay argues that the “pupil of the eye” metaphor is a deeply consequential, distinguishing feature of the transformative social and spiritual system laid out in Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. Studying the nexus of capitalism, race, and intellectual history, the essay historicizes Bahá’u’lláh’s elevating metaphor, arguing that it amounts to a forceful refutation of anti-blackness and thus a dismantling of one of modernity’s pivotal ideologies. Ultimately, the essay demonstrates that the unique integrity and coherence of Bahá’u’lláh’s system for the creation of universal unity and justice is especially manifest through analytical contemplation of the “pupil of the eye” metaphor. ojo. 8 The Journal of Bahá’í Studies 29.1-2 2019 For twenty-first century organizers and intellectuals addressing issues of racial justice, best praxis often involves centering the experiences of those most marginalized by social power relations.
- This challenging principle demands that any project of social transformation prioritizes the predicaments and perspectives of groups with the least amounts of cultural, social, and economic capital. Prioritizing consideration of such groups is of course antithetical to the mainstream of social thought and shakes the very foundation of hegemonic world order, which is stabilized by systemic devaluation of the most marginalized and the least capitalized. And because rhetorical and practical attempts to implement this principle predictably meet strong resistance, those now at the forefront of secular movements for racial justice in the United States and elsewhere are often adamant in their efforts to call attention to the most marginalized people—people who are often black. At first blush this adamancy can appear parochial, even ethnocentric. (Why must black lives matter? Why can’t all lives matter?). . . . . .Angela Davis explains that, in this approach to social action, “universal freedom is an ideal best represented not by those who are already at the pinnacle of racial, gender and class hierarchies but rather by those whose lives are most defined by conditions of unfreedom” (xiv). With racial specificity, Alicia Garza succinctly unpacks the tactical logic of the Black Lives Matter movement that she helped to spark: “When Black people get free, everybody gets free” (“A Herstory”). The strategies of social transformation offered by these racial justice activists do not perfectly mirror those being implemented by Bahá’ís throughout the world. However, the rationale of these initiatives that foreground the predicament of the most marginal ought to pique the interest of followers and students of the universal project of social and spiritual transformation laid out in the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. Indeed, the explicit centering of black life called for by some twenty-first century social theorists and activists was anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh’s nineteenth-century emphasis on the special spiritual station and capacity of black people. In His global Proclamation, pivoting on the principle of the “Oneness of Mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh accorded “colored people” a particularly hallowed and seemingly cynosural position in the figurative body of humanity.
- The “pupil of the eye” metaphor first appeared in the letters and talks of ‘Abdu’lBahá in the early decades of the Blackness, Modernity, and the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh 9 As most observers of race matters in the Bahá’í Faith know, Bahá’u’lláh declared that black people were appropriately comparable to the “black pupil of the eye” through which the “light of the spirit shineth forth” (Shoghi Effendi, Advent 37).
- This selection of metaphor, often referred to by Central Figures and Institutions of the Bahá’í Faith, effectively positions blackness at the epicenter of a “bold and universal” world-transformative project that involves nothing less than the “coming twentieth century when “colored people” was a respectable term for those who might today be described as “people of African descent.” With evolving conventions of language, the term “colored people” has fallen out of use and is now evocative of racial and linguistic politics associated with the mid-twentieth century and earlier. In this essay, people of African descent are sometimes referred to as “colored” in order to evoke the era in which the “pupil of the eye” metaphor first appeared. The essay also uses the term of contemporary parlance, “black people,” in reference to the collective that Bahá’u’lláh metaphorized as the “pupil of the eye.”
- Although ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appealed to the “pupil of the eye” metaphor in a variety of contexts, its most notable articulation is found in The Advent of Divine Justice, wherein Shoghi Effendi writes, “‘Bahá’u’lláh,’ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá moreover has said, ‘once compared the colored people to the black pupil of the eye surrounded by the white. In this black pupil is seen the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the spirit shineth forth’” (37). of age of the entire human race” (Shoghi Effendi, World Order 43, 163). Explications by the Universal House of Justice clarify that “Bahá’u’lláh favored the black peoples by making a specific reference to them” through this metaphor (“Letter,” Ridván 153). Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation offers few, if any, analogous designations, which isolate and “favor” a racialized subset of humanity. Thus, this specific reference to black peoples constitutes a noteworthy moment in the “wondrous System” He elaborated in the nineteenth century (Kitáb-i-Aqdas ¶181). Explanations of the importance and potential meaning of the “pupil of the eye” reference have been outlined by scholars who primarily have examined ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s deployment of the metaphor as a means of building an egalitarian, interracial religious community in North America during the early twentieth century.
- This essay extends those explorations by proposing a number of interpretive possibilities organized around two interrelated claims. First, by giving black people a principal position in the figurative body of humanity, Bahá’u’lláh’s metaphor is reflective of the material reality that black people were among the principal builders of global modernity—a reality that has been obscured in scholarly and lay discourse, but which is becoming increasingly prominent in the work of influential historians. Second, by favoring black people 4 See the important scholarship by Richard Thomas, Christopher Buck, and Bonnie J. Taylor. 10 The Journal of Bahá’í Studies 29.1-2 2019 through the “pupil of the eye” metaphor, Bahá’u’lláh produced a rupture in racial epistemology of the nineteenth century, one that distinguished the world-transformative project of His Revelation from social reformist movements of the era and was critical to the establishment of the “principle of the Oneness of Mankind—the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve” (Shoghi Effendi, World Order 42). Indeed, the special favoring accorded by the “pupil of the eye” metaphor is an indispensable element of a System meant to bring on the Oneness of Mankind in the context of a modern era riven by a uniquely potent animus directed at black people. That is to say, the anomalous nature of the metaphor—the fact that Bahá’u’lláh seems to have reserved this exceptional favoring for black people—highlights the particularly virulent role that anti-black ideology has played in the constitution of modern social and philosophical thought, and suggests that anti-blackness is a distinctively ominous impediment to human oneness. Scholarly engagement with the implications of the “pupil of the eye” metaphor, and its function in the context of modernity, provokes a number of preliminary questions and caveats. To begin, very little is known about the specific circumstances, rhetorical context, or historical moment in which Bahá’u’lláh offered up the metaphor; in His Writings that have been translated into English thus far, the phrase does not appear. However, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—who was Bahá’u’lláh’s “vicegerent on earth” and the appointed “Interpreter of His mind” (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 245)—established that His Father used the metaphor. On that basis, the “pupil of the eye” designation is considered the Word of Bahá’u’lláh, an element of a Divine Revelation unfolded in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When exactly in the latter half of the nineteenth century did Bahá’u’lláh offer the metaphor? During which period of His ministry? This has not yet been determined. Similarly, it is all but impossible to precisely delimit the human collective that Bahá’u’lláh intended to compare to the pupil of the eye. Who exactly are the “colored people” that Bahá’u’lláh esteems with the metaphor? It may be simply assumed that all people of African descent are honored by the designation—‘Abdu’l-Bahá evoked the metaphor when addressing African Americans. (excerpt.)