“Gumbo Diplomacy”

As we near the end of this year’s commemoration of Black History Month, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to a woman whose life story is that of a Black American girl who rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to a place of honor and influence in our country.

I hope you’ll spend an uplifting 10 minutes watching this 2018 TedTalk video of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, our newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, as she describes overcoming adversity and being strengthened by it–with compassion, kindness, and a smile.

And those adversities have been numerous. They included the indignities and fears of her childhood, such as watching the KKK burn crosses on nearby lawns. Further insults and attempted degradation during her education years served only to propel her forward. She discusses in the video her pleasure in being honored years later by the same university that she’d been admitted to by the force of a court order.

As a Foreign Service officer, she was sent to Rwanda in 1994 as that country spiraled into genocide. There, she looked death in the face and talked her way to safety—as she details in the video. That time in Rwanda, she said, “changed my life forever.” Her Foreign Service career has spanned more than three decades.

Thomas-Greenfield won me over when I first read about what she calls “gumbo diplomacy.” I read about it again in a New York Times article written just after her ambassadorial confirmation days ago.

“Diplomacy is driven by relationships, and talking about difficult topics while chopping onions for a gumbo sauce can break barriers and foster success, she said.”

One of her colleagues in the Foreign Service, Dehab Ghebreab, interviewed in the Times article, recalled working with her when she was the ambassador to Liberia in 2012.

Thomas-Greenfield felt that the increased harassment of LGBT young people in Liberia required attention. Her approach: a little dinner party with 8 key invitees, including the country’s minister of information, two LGBT youths, and members of the press. They talked as they consumed her gumbo, chicken, rice, and fish.

The Times reports:

“Hours after the country’s minister of information left, he released a statement condemning the rise in abuse, Ms. Ghebreab said, which caught some embassy staff by surprise, because most top politicians in the country had refused to address the issue.”

“‘She’s very effective,’ Ms. Ghebreab said.”

After serving in Liberia from 2008 to 2012, and then as director general of the Foreign Service, she became the US diplomat for African affairs, working to contain the Ebola epidemic. When Rex Tillerson became Secretary of State in 2017 and decided the State Department needed an overhaul (some called it a “hollowing out”), she was one of the diplomats he ousted.

She assumes her new position as a seasoned and respected professional at a particularly important and delicate time for our country’s UN ambassador, as the post-Trump US reasserts itself on the world stage.

When President Biden nominated her in November, she reiterated his emphasis that “America is back,” and added: “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.” But she’ll have her work cut out for her to reestablish America’s credibility.

She’ll have to “undo a lot of the work” of the Trump administration, according to President George Bush’s secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi E. Frazer. But, he said,

“she’s the perfect person to do it, because of her diplomatic style.”

She’ll dive right into the middle of the action in March, when the US serves its rotation as the presidency of the UN Security Council for the month. She’ll be running the Council’s meetings and—diplomatically—describing the results. Adversity? She’s ready for it.

So we can expect non-stop gumbo simmering away in the vicinity of New York’s East Side—where the UN is located—as she practices her particular blend of the culinary and the diplomatic.

China is obviously one of our/her biggest challenges. It is now second only to the US in financial contributions to the UN and has enlarged its presence in a number of agencies.

Thomas-Greenfield faced scrutiny from Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio during her confirmation hearings because of a speech she’d made in 2019 about her hope to work with the Chinese government in helping the African nations. She assured them she wasn’t naive about China and would deal with the Chinese aggressively. The vote in favor of her confirmation was 78-21, but—surprise!—Rubio and Cruz voted “Nay.”

I’m betting Thomas-Greenfield will prove any doubters wrong about how she’ll handle our tough adversaries. And assuming she has successes on this very difficult terrain, I wonder if we’ll ever find out what role her gumbo played in winning over the Chinese delegation–gumbo served up with a hefty dollop of compassion, kindness, and a smile.

Annie

31 thoughts on ““Gumbo Diplomacy”

  1. She’s just the kind of diplomat we need to help start repairing the damage to our national reputation caused by Trump and his gang. I can’t help but contrast her sense and sobriety and capacity for respect, despite the terrible conditions in which she grew up, with Trump the blustering and arrogant phony with no capacity for introspection, despite having grown up with every material advantage.

    But it’s a disgrace to the country that such bigotry in official places persisted so late. She says she went to LSU in 1970 and encountered flagrant racism. 1970 is not ancient history. I was nine years old then. It’s a year after the first men landed on the Moon. This stuff is disturbingly recent. There are plenty of people in positions of power right now who grew up steeped in the culture that perpetrated such bigotry — including senators.

    Her description of the conversation with the murderous young man in Rwanda made me wonder if she knows French. I don’t think many people in Rwanda speak English.

    The Chinese regime is a murderous fascist dictatorship (there is not much “communism” left in it now), and I doubt its representatives are open to being swayed much by personal qualities. But if Thomas-Greenfield says she will deal with them “aggressively”, well, I’m sure she knows how. And perhaps her experiences in Rwanda will help her address the horrors going on in Xinjiang, a new genocide on which the US so far has been disgracefully reluctant to speak out in any high-profile way.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Infidel: It is indeed shocking but not surprising to think how “disturbingly recent” this racism is—as recent as now, in different guises: the Big Lie designed to deprive Black voters of their franchise, which continues to be perpetrated with the help of Republicans from both chambers. Add to that all the state laws being readied to make it more difficult to vote. And add to that all the women of color, and one man, Becerra, the only Biden nominees whose confirmations appear to be in jeopardy.

      I do see Thomas-Greenfield as another iron fist within a velvet glove. She can’t have spent 3 decades in the Foreign Service in some pretty dicey areas and circumstances if she weren’t quite tough. But the dreadful Chinese leaders seem to like superficial niceties, so they may well be respectful of the genuine article. That’s my hope, anyway.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What a remarkable woman! I did watch her talk and fell in love with this woman! Thank you so much for this post, Annie … encouraging and uplifting. We are lucky to have her serving as our Ambassador to the U.N. at this difficult time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Today is the last day in February, the last day of this year’s Black History Month, and last night I came across this post by Annie about a woman, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who was confirmed on February 23rd to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. After reading about her, and listening to Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s TedTalk from 2018, I see this woman as being perfect for the Ambassadorship to the U.N. She has not only survived adversity throughout her entire life, but been made stronger by it. She reminds us, though, that one must be kind and compassionate, as well as strong. Thank you, Annie, for this wonderful post for this final day of Black History Month 2021!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Annie, thank you for sharing this and it is shocking that it was not that long ago. I am glad her voice is getting heard, just as I am glad they are showing movie about “the US Government v. Billie Holiday” as J. Edgar Hoover did not like her singing the painfully truthful “Strange Fruit.” Thanks again. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Keith. It is indeed shocking that such blatant segregation occurred fairly recently—but not nearly so shocking that our society continues to be riven by institutional racism.

      I haven’t seen the latest film yet, but hearing “Strange Fruit” evokes an overwhelming visceral reaction in me. Here’s some background about it and Billie Holiday from a post I wrote a while back.

      https://annieasksyou.com/2019/09/08/beyond-music-to-ritual-the-impact-of-four-songs-on-americas-psyche/

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful Ted Talk. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. What a moving piece and how hopeful — her message, and yours. Honestly, your work always brings my head up to look around at all that I have been missing. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. What a life! It gives me hope to know that we have dedicated, talented people being put into the positions where they excel. Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s mother sounds amazing!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Wonderful video Annie. I don’t know how oppressed people manage to persevere in the face of so much hatred and willful ignorance. She’s an inspiration. Shame on Tillerson for ousting her. She obviously has far more poise, savvy, courage, and sincerity than he’s ever exhibited.

    Mothers teach us many wonderful lessons. I have no doubt that she’ll pass her mother’s and more onto her kids and grandkids, just as she hopes.

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  8. Thanks, Carol. I think it takes tremendous spirit and courage to emerge from her experiences with such compassion and kindness. It’s more than we have a right to expect from people. But thank goodness there are souls like her with such generosity toward flawed humanity.

    I doubt Tillerson took the time to get to know her, but I also doubt she would have felt comfortable as an ambassador in that administration.

    And hooray for mothers who hand down such loving messages!

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  9. Wow that’s certainly some CV – a list of hotspots that should enable her to do a fantastic job. Really enjoyed that anecdote about being honoured by the same institution she had to challenge to educate her as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She hasn’t received much attention, but as I wrote, she won me over with her gumbo diplomacy. She sure has been in some hotspots.

      Yes, you could see her pleasure when she described the honors she received from the alma mater that would have rejected her if they could have done so. It was her good fortune—and now ours—that her actual mater nurtured in her the fortitude to be strengthened by such obstacles.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I wish her well, but the idea of “gumbo diplomacy” seems a lot like diplomacy by relationships that the previous administration wasted too much time on. I rather doubt that regimes like China, Iran, North Korea or Russia put much stock in relationship-building so much as they seek to build and wieldpower. I hope she has those tools in her belt too.

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