How 'Abdu'l-Baha saw "colour"
The following delightful story about an incident during ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s stay in New York illustrates the fact that He was not ‘colour-blind’, but rather He found racial differences a thing of beauty.
Towards the latter part of April, late one Sunday afternoon, I was again at the home where so many wonderful hours had been spent. It had become almost a habit, when the service at my church was over and dinner dispatched, to hasten in to New York and spend the rest of the day and evening at this home. Sometimes I would have an opportunity to speak to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, but usually I must be content with a glimpse of Him, or with listening to Him while He spoke to a small group. This particular afternoon, however, was destined to be a red-letter day. I was standing alone at one of the windows looking out upon the street, when I was startled by seeing a large group of boys come rushing up the steps. There seemed twenty or thirty of them. And they were not what one would call representatives of the cultured class. In fact, they were a noisy and not too well dressed lot of urchins, but spruce and clean as if for an event. They came up the steps with a stamping of feet and loud talk, and I heard them being ushered in and up the stairs.
I turned to Mrs. Kinney, who was standing near. "What is the meaning of all this?" I asked.
"Oh, this is really the most surprising thing," she exclaimed, "I asked them to come today, but I hardly expected that they would."
It seemed that a few days before 'Abdu'l-Bahá had gone to the Bowery Mission to speak to several hundred of New York's wretched poor. As usual, with Hun went a large group of the Persian and American friends, and it made a unique spectacle as this party of Orientals in flowing robes and strange headgear made its way through the East Side. Not unnaturally, a number of boys gathered in their train and soon they became a little too vocal in their expression. As I remember, even some venturesome ones called names and threw sticks. As my Hostess told the story, she said: "I could not bear to hear 'Abdu'l-Bahá so treated and dropped behind the others for a moment to speak to them. In a few words, I told them Who He was; that He was a very Holy Man who had spent many years in exile and prison because of His love for Truth and for men, and that now He was on His way to speak to the poor men at the Bowery Mission."
"Can't we go too?" one who seemed to be the leader asked. I think that would be impossible, she told them, but if you come to my home next Sunday, and she gave them the address, I will arrange for you to see Him. So here they were. We followed them up the stairs and into 'Abdu'l-Bahá's own room. I was just in time to see the last half dozen of the group entering the room.
'Abdu'l-Bahá was standing at the door and He greeted each boy as he came in; sometimes with a handclasp, sometimes with an arm around a shoulder, but always with such smiles and laughter it almost seemed that He was a boy with them. Certainly there was no suggestion of stiffness on their part, or awkwardness in their unaccustomed surroundings. Among the last to enter the room was a colored lad of about thirteen years. He was quite dark and, being the only boy of his race among them, he evidently feared that he might not be welcome. When 'Abdu'l-Bahá saw him His face lighted up with a heavenly smile. He raised His hand with a gesture of princely welcome and exclaimed in a loud voice so that none could fail to hear; that here was a black rose.
The room fell into instant silence. The black face became illumined with a happiness and love hardly of this world. The other boys looked at him with new eyes. I venture to say that he had been called a black--many things, but never before a black rose.
This significant incident had given to the whole occasion a new complexion. The atmosphere of the room seemed now charged with subtle vibrations felt by every soul. The boys, while losing nothing of their ease and simplicity, were graver and more intent upon 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and I caught them glancing again and again at the colored boy with very thoughtful eyes. To the few of the friends in the room the scene brought visions of a new world in which every soul would be recognized and treated as a child of God. I thought: What would happen to New York if these boys could carry away such a keen remembrance of this experience that throughout their lives, whenever they encountered any representatives of the many races and colors to be found in that great city, they would think of them and treat them as "different colored flowers in the Garden of God." The freedom from just this one prejudice in the minds and hearts of this score or more of souls would unquestionably bring happiness and freedom from rancor to thousands of hearts. How simple and easy to be kind, I thought, and how hardly we learn.
When His visitors had arrived, 'Abdu'l-Bahá had sent out for some candy and now it appeared, a great five pound box of expensive mixed chocolates. It was unwrapped and 'Abdu'l-Bahá walked with it around the circle of boys, dipping His hand into the box and placing a large handful in the hands of each, with a word and smile for everyone. He then returned to the table at which He had been sitting, and laying down the box, which now had only a few pieces in it. He picked from it a long chocolate nougat; it was very black. He looked at it a moment and then around at the group of boys who were watching Him intently and expectantly. Without a word. He walked across the room to where the colored boy was sitting, and, still without speaking, but with a humorously piercing glance that swept the group, laid the chocolate against the black cheek. His face was radiant as He laid His arm around the shoulder of the boy and that radiance seemed to fill the room. No words were necessary to convey His meaning, and there could no doubt that all the boys caught it.
You see, He seemed to say, that he is not only a black flower, but also a black sweet. You eat black chocolates and find them good: perhaps you would find this black brother of yours good also if you once taste his sweetness.
Again that awed hush fell upon the room. Again the boys all looked with real wonder at the colored boy as if they had never seen him before, which indeed was true. And as for the boy himself, upon whom all eyes were now fixed, he seemed perfectly unconscious of all but 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Upon Him his eyes were fastened with an adoring, blissful look such as I had never seen upon any face. For the moment he was transformed. The reality of his being had been brought to the surface and the angel he really was revealed.
I left the house with many deep thoughts crowding my heart. Who was this Man? Why did He have such power over souls? He made no pretensions of goodness. He did not preach; oh, never! Not even by the faintest implication did He ever intimate that one should be otherwise than what he was: yet somehow He showed us worlds of beauty and grandeur which tore our hearts with longing to attain, and made us loathe the round of so called life to which we were bound. I did not know what to think of it all, but I did know, even then, that I loved Him as I had never dreamed of love. I did not believe as those around me did. Indeed, I hardly ever thought of what their many words concerning His "station" sought to convey. I was not interested in that at all, it seems. But I certainly did believe that He held a secret of life which I would give my life to discover for myself.
-Portals to Freedom by Howard Colby Ives (Oxford: George Ronald, 1983 first written or published 1937)