The Bahá’í Studies Unit Presents on Race and Religion at the American Academy of Religion’s 2016 Annual Conference

The Bahá’í Studies Unit of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) held its program at the AAR’s annual meeting in San Antonio on November 20, 2016. The theme was “The Most Challenging Issue: Religion and Race in the Bahá’í Community.” The program attracted twelve conference goers.

Dr. Loni Bramson, who teaches in the American Public University System, spoke first, discussing “The Most Challenging Issue: Improving Race Relations in the 1920s and 1930s and the Bahá’í Faith.” She reviewed various efforts by local Bahá’í communities to sponsor race unity programs and the efforts of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States to encourage them.

Dr. Susan Maneck, from Jackson State University, followed with a presentation called “After Tuskegee: The Lives of Dempsey Morgan and Myron Wilson.” Both men were African Americans who were members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous African American pilots during World War II. Both men became active Bahá’ís in the 1940s and 1950s, Morgan serving as a pioneer in Africa and Asia.

Guy Emerson Mount at the University of Chicago spoke on “Whither the Syncretic? Black Internationalism and the Bahá’í Faith.” He focused on the need to think expansively about how the Bahá’í Faith has circulated internationally among African Americans who continue to blend a variety of religious thoughts and practices in to their daily lives. This long and ongoing syncretic tradition is often overlooked in the postemancipation period both by Bahá’í scholars and academia more broadly. Mount supplied archival evidence indicating that affirmative action for the sake of insuring diversity was first promoted by Shoghi Effendi in 1938 and that this idea may have ultimately made its way into the wider black ethos through W.E.B. Du Bois, who we now know was familiar with the following passage in The Advent of Divine Justice (53:35):

So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between the various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community.

Mount argued that only by being attentive to these “less obvious” connections between African Americans and the Bahá’í Faith can its full influence be accurately recounted.

Finally, Dr. Louis Venters of Francis Marion University in South Carolina presented “Toward an Understanding of Large-Scale Growth of the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina, 1968–1986.” The paper offered preliminary observations about the mass teaching that succeeded so dramatically in the Palmetto State when, during a series of growth campaigns, some twenty thousand people became Bahá’ís. The presentation consisted of a conceptual framework and brief chronology for understanding a development that significantly altered the U.S. Bahá’í community’s identity, structures, and aspirations. Drawing from his current book project, a short, illustrated introduction to the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina, Venters also included a discussion of a few significant visual documents from the era.

All four papers presented in the Bahá’í Studies Unit at the AAR convention are to be published in a book about Religion and Race in the Bahá’í Faith. Four additional papers have also been accepted for the book, but the authors were unable to attend the conference:

      • Christopher Buck, “Alain Locke on Religion and Race” and “The Bahá’í ‘Pupil of the Eye’ Metaphor: Promoting Ideal Race Relations in Jim Crow America.”
      • Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, “The Most Challenging Issue Revisited: African American Women Bahá’ís and the Question of Race.”
      • Mike McMullen, “Bahá’í Race Unity Efforts since 2000: Evidence from FACT Data.”

In the large exhibit hall at the AAR convention, Bahá’í Publications sponsored a book display, which was seen by thousands of attendees. Many stopped to talk to those at the booth, and some accepted free literature and books.

The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature sponsor a joint conference every year, attended by over ten thousand professors, students, journalists, and others interested in the professional study of religion. The four-day event features tours of local religious sites, movies, lectures, receptions, an exhibit hall with over 150 publishers, and well over a thousand presentations on every aspect of religious studies. Such subjects as bioethics and religion; Christian spirituality; the psychology of religion; feminist theology; capitalism in Buddhism; animals and religion; interfaith dialogue; Islamic mysticism; religion and popular culture; and religion and sexuality were the focus of some of the sessions.

Bahá’ís have been presenting at the AAR conferences since 1984. In 2016 AAR accepted the Bahá’í Studies Unit as part of its organizational structure and now includes it and its Bahá’í programs in the AAR program and also invites officers of the Bahá’í Studies Unit to attend coordinating meetings with the officers of the AAR’s many other units, sections, and seminars. The officers of the Bahá’í Studies Unit are Dr. Robert H. Stockman and Dr. Susan Maneck.

The theme of the Bahá’í Studies Unit for 2017 will be “Religion and Public Discourse in an Age of Transition.” For the Call for Papers, see the next article in this issue.

Bahá’ís interested in relating religion to their field of interest should consider attending the next AAR conference, which will be held in Boston, November 18–21, 2017. Watch the Conference Column in future issues of the eNewsletter to see when registration opens, or check the American Academy of Religion website.

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