Nana Lit the Beacons

Ralph J. Bunche - New York, New York
As heard on This I Believe Podcast, February 26, 2018
Ralph J. Bunche
UN Photo/Marvin Bolotsky

Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche had a "poor and hard life," having lost both of his parents as a young child. But he was raised by his grandmother, a woman of principle, who taught Bunche the simple lessons that became the foundation of his beliefs.

Themes: integrity, peace
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I feel more than a little self-conscious about trying to elucidate my personal, private creed. For after all, when a person strips down all the way to his innermost beliefs and in public, he stands awfully exposed. Nevertheless, it strikes me as a very useful experience to sit down with one’s self and seriously think through one’s beliefs and convictions. I recommend it to everyone without any necessity, however, of crying one’s findings aloud from the housetops.

The trail of my beliefs and their development leads back to my childhood. I was reared in a deeply religious family. It was a sort of matriarchal clan ruled over by my maternal grandmother, Nana—a name, incidentally, which I had given her as a tot in trying clumsily to say “grandma.” Nana, a strong and devout personality, beloved and respected by all who knew her, guided the family by simple but firm beliefs. Foremost, she believed in God.

In worldly matters, she believed that every person, without regard to race or religion, has a virtually sacred right to dignity and respect; that all men are brothers and are entitled to be treated as equals and to enjoy equality of opportunity; that principle, integrity, and self-respect are never to be worn as loose garments. For each of us in that family, these beliefs almost automatically came to be part of our very being. For me, this was particularly so, since Nana became both mother and father to me when, in my early youth, I lost both parents.

In my youth, I had what many would consider a poor and hard life. But as I recall it, I was never unhappy. Rather, I enjoyed my youth immensely. For I had been taught how to appreciate and get the most out of very little, and that happiness in any circumstance is primarily a matter of control over one’s state of mind. I find that most everything in which I now believe stems from the simple lessons I learned at the knee of Nana. The beliefs I acquired quite unconsciously and unthinkingly in those early years, the lessons on how to approach life and its many problems, have been my unfailing guideposts.

Like Nana, I have an implicit belief in a supreme being and a supreme will beyond the kin of mortal man. In this, I find both comfort and security. I hold that it is right to believe in oneself, but it is wrong ever to take oneself too seriously—for a keen sense of personal values, and that humility which accompanies a balanced perspective, are indispensable to congenial adjustment to life in society. In this regard, I love to visit the Grand Canyon and to stand on its rim, not only to marvel at its majestic splendor but to reflect on how puny, indeed, is man individually and collectively when confronted with nature’s awesome grandeur.

I believe in the worth and dignity of the individual, and that no man can be happy within himself if he ever surrenders his dignity and self-respect. I have faith in people, in collectively their essential goodness and good sense. Granted that there will be individual mavericks on every human range.

I believe that men can learn to live together in harmony and peace in the international community as in domestic communities, and I am unfalteringly devoted, therefore, to the historic effort of the United Nations toward this end. I believe also in looking always on the brighter side of things, in the ability of right somehow ultimately to prevail, in never pressing time or fate, in taking life philosophically and in stride—both the good and the bad, and I’ve had an ample measure of both.

These are some, at least, of my beliefs. They are, for me, imperative beacons, without which life would be utterly lacking in direction or meaning.

Ralph J. Bunche (1903-1971) was an American political scientist, academic, and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his late 1940s mediation in Israel. He was the first person of color to be so honored in the history of the prize. He was involved in the formation and administration of the United Nations and, in 1963, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy.

This essay was originally broadcast as part of the 1950s This I Believe radio series