Thursday, June 2, 2011

Honoring the First Black Nobel Prize Winner: Ralph Bunche

When I was a young child, my mother had an office in the Antro department at UCLA. Her office was in Bunche Hall, a building I always knew as "the waffle" because of its appearance at a distance. Outside the building is kind of bland: rectangular with regularly spaced square windows (hence our seeing it as "the waffle" as kids...and I admit even today). The interior courtyard contains lush plants rising up through the center of the building...something I fondly remembered in dreams for many years before rediscovering the building that contained it. I remember wondering for years if that memory of plants growing inside a building (really in a courtyard) was real or a kid's imagination. Nearby is the UCLA sculpture garden where my brother and I played while my mother worked back in those days where leaving kids alone to play was common.

Memories of Bunche Hall and the sculpture garden have always remained with me. Now, every other year, when my field has an international conference at UCLA, I stay in the UCLA guest house right across the street from these memories so I can reconnect with my earliest association with the place. I have many other associations with UCLA (including getting my doctorate there) but those earliest days of "the waffle" and rolling down the hill of the sculpture garden are the root of my love for the place.

All those years I barely knew who Bunche Hall was named after. Barely even thought of it. These days places are often named for donors, not people of genuine accomplishment. So I never really wondered who was the Bunche that "the waffle" was named after.

Ralph Bunche was, I learned far more recently, one amazing person. In the days when separate but equal was still accepted in the United States, Ralph Bunche mediated the first peace between Israel and the Arab nations, was the first black person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and received the Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy. All before Jim Crow was officially dead.

Here is the biography of Ralph Bunche on the Nobel Prize website.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating peace in the Middle East in the late 1940's. After the assassination of the chief UN negotiator, Folke Bernadotte, by the radical (and rather disgusting) Jewish militant group Lehi, Ralph Bunche became the chief UN negotiator to end the war that followed the withdrawal of the British from Palestine/Israel. His efforts brought about the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Israeli representative Moshe Dayan remembers Ralph Bunche making commemorative plates for each negotiator long before the final agreement was reached. Taken aback by this optimism, Moshe Dayan asked what Bunche would have done had the talks fallen apart. Ralph Bunche replied, "I'd have broken the plates over your damn heads."

Later Bunche also served as mediator in conflicts in the Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus.

All while Jim Crow was alive and well in the United States. It is hard for me to imagine that the United States clung so tightly to racism at a time when someone like Ralph Bunche was winning the Nobel Peace prize for such a public and difficult endeavor.

Here is Bunche's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize:

To be honored by one's fellow men is a rich and pleasant experience. But to receive the uniquely high honor here bestowed today, because of the world view of Alfred Nobel long ago, is an overwhelming experience. To the President and members of the Nobel Committee I may say of their action, which at this hour finds its culmination, only that I am appreciative beyond the puny power of words to convey. I am inspired by your confidence.

I am not unaware, of course, of the special and broad significance of this award - far transcending its importance or significance to me as an individual - in an imperfect and restive World in which inequalities among peoples, racial and religious bigotries, prejudices and taboos are endemic and stubbornly persistent. From this northern land has come a vibrant note of hope and inspiration for vast millions of people whose bitter experience has impressed upon them that color and inequality are inexorably concomitant.

There are many who figuratively stand beside me today and who are also honored here. I am but one of many cogs in the United Nations, the greatest peace organization ever dedicated to the salvation of mankind's future on earth. It is, indeed, itself an honor to be enabled to practise the arts of peace under the aegis of the United Nations.

As I now stand before you, I cannot help but reflect on the never-failing support and encouragement afforded me, during my difficult assignment in the Near East, by Trygve Lie:, and by his Executive Assistant, Andrew Cordier. Nor can I forget any of the more than 700 valiant men and women of the United Nations Palestine Mission who loyally served with Count Bernadotte and me, who were devoted servants of the cause of peace, and without whose tireless and fearless assistance our mission must surely have failed. At this moment, too, I recall, all too vividly and sorrowfully, that ten members of that mission gave their lives in the noble cause of peace-making.

But above all, there was my treasured friend and former chief, Count Folke Bernadotte, who made the supreme sacrifice to the end that Arabs and Jews should be returned to the ways of peace. Scandinavia, and the peaceloving world at large, may long revere his memory, as I shall do, as shall all of those who participated in the Palestine peace effort under his inspiring command.

In a dark and perilous hour of human history, when the future of all mankind hangs fatefully in the balance, it is of special symbolic significance that in Norway, this traditionally peace-loving nation, and among such friendly and kindly people of great good-will, this ceremony should be held for the exclusive purpose of paying high tribute to the sacred cause of peace on earth, good-will among men.

May there be freedom, equality and brotherhood among all men. May there be morality in the relations among nations. May there be, in our time, at long last, a world at peace in which we, the people, may for once begin to make full use of the great good that is in us.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1950, Editor Arne Holmberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1951

It was ten years before another black person won a Nobel Prize and 43 years before a black woman won a Nobel Prize.

A somewhat bland, but informative, video about Ralph Bunche:

Part 1:

Part 2:

It is a shame that so few people know about this remarkable man. Now I will remember him each time I look up at "the waffle" at UCLA as I walk towards the sculpture garden. It is hard for me to imagine how it felt to be right there at the center of history as a black American in 1950.