While Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Nobel Laureate Pearl S. Buck is remembered as an advocate committed to building bridges between East and West, her call for multicultural and racial understanding resonates closer to home today.
Raised as a white American in China, Buck (1892-1973) knew life as a minority and experienced racial prejudice first-hand. But it was not until she came home in 1934 that she “was hurt and confounded by the amazing hatred among all these Americans for each other.”
Buck’s call to appreciate – rather than assimilate or fear – cultural differences is as relevant to our ongoing struggles against racism and injustice today as when she spoke out against internment of Japanese-Americans and Jim Crow.
Indeed her work and words are gaining attention, once again, as a new generation confronts the ugly reality of police brutality, prejudice and violence sparked by intolerance, whether in the Middle East or Middle America. An example of Buck’s renewed relevance is the Lincoln Center performance of “Pearl,” a cross-cultural dance production, from Beijing’s Legend River Entertainment, directed and choreographed by Daniel Ezralow, celebrating her life and perspective as well as the newly announced movie-to-be staring Juliette Binoche as Pearl Buck.
Best known for bridging east and west cultures, author and humanitarian Buck was a leading advocate for social justice. In 1949, she established the first adoption agency to assure loving families for children deemed unadoptable because of their mixed race. To battle the detrimental effects of racism here at home, Buck joined organizations, wrote books, articles, papers, and letters about diversity being America’s biggest strength. Buck focused on the “Negro problem”, and she struggled to understand the disconnect between democratic ideals and its practice. She rallied people around the fight for justice, the examination of issues and solutions that America must embrace.
Yet cultural mistrust continues to thrive within our borders. Our country’s diversity grows, yet our understanding does not. In cities, schools, neighborhoods and offices, we encounter people of different colors and ethnicities. From 1960 to 2005, the Hispanic population grew from 3.5 percent of the US population to 14 percent, while Asian population expanded from .6 percent to 5 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2020, the US Census Bureau reports, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.”
For too many, these differences breed fear and, sometimes, violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports the number of hate groups surged following an economic recession coupled with election of our first black president, growing from 888 in 2008 to more than 1,000 in 2012. From 1995 through 2012, the FBI received an average of 7,573 reports of hate crimes harming more than 9,455 victims each year.
Similar issues also troubled Buck. After decades in China, she was shocked by the racial prejudice and injustice she saw in the US, which contradicted so blatantly with what she had read about our democracy. She was among the few celebrities to speak out against internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and in 1992, Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston credited Buck and The Good Earth for making Asian voices heard in Western literature. Buck was active in the civil rights movement, promoting equality through her writing and a trustee of Howard University, an historically black institution. Buck also advocated that women could “fulfill all the obligations and joys of home, and at the same time be citizens of their nation,” confounding a young Mike Wallace during a 1958 television interview exploring the “battle between the sexes.”
Buck, a lifelong advocate of cross-cultural understanding and racial harmony as a means of achieving world peace, remains an important voice. Her legacy unites nations, societies, communities and individuals with an appreciation for cultural differences and a commitment to service. Pearl S. Buck International, the organization she founded. We believe all children deserve education, nutrition and health care to become self-sufficient; all children should grow up with cultural competence to succeed in a global environment. We understand that each of us can improve conditions and resolve problems if we establish relationships with people from other cultures and build strong alliances with different cultural groups.
Today our country – and the world – needs the passion and foresight of Pearl S. Buck more than ever. Globalization has made our world smaller with once distant cultures now literally next-door or at our fingertips. As the organization dedicated to keeping her legacy alive, Pearl S. Buck International is committed to building a world where cultures are bridged, disparities are eliminated and lives are improved forever.
Janet L. Mintzer is president and CEO of Pearl S. Buck International, a nonprofit foundation providing opportunities to explore and appreciate other cultures, to build better lives for children around the globe and to interpret Buck’s life through by touring her National Historic Landmark Home. For more information, visit pearlsbuck.org