Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy



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Teaching Tour in the South: The stagnation in both the American Bahá’í community at large and within the amity committee itself did not prevent Locke from finding another, perhaps more effective way of promoting interracial harmony. As an extension of his race amity work, Locke undertook a lecture tour throughout the American South.412 Locke traveled with his friend and cohort, Louis Gregory. In a typewritten letter to Agnes Parsons, Gregory writes:
Washington D. C. 24 October, 1925. [sic]
Dear Mrs. Parsons:
Just a brief note yours of the 13th instant, the kind and generous spirit of which is apparant. [sic] I can only let the matter rest with the hope and prayer that in time all wounds will be healed. The closer such a relationship has been the deeper and more sensitive the wounds that may be inflicted; but to the Spirit and Power of the Divine Cause nothing is impossible. And I confidently feel that in the end all will be well.

I understand that your plans for an Amity Convention to be held here next spring have had the approval of the National Spiritual Assembly. This is good news indeed in view of the critical nature of the local situation which it may go a long way toward helping. I hope that it will be possible with this new effort to do wise and systematic follow up work.

With a day or two I am leaving for the far South, but hope after a few months to return here to help in any way that is possible with this very noble endeavor.
With Abha greetings and every good wish,

Very truly yours,



Louis G. Gregory.413
If Gregory left as planned and took Locke with him, the teaching trip would have commenced on 25 or 26 October 1925. However, a 1926 report states that the departure was actually later: “Leaving Washington last December[,] Mr. Gregory traveled by sea to Northern Florida and made a complete tour of the state.”414 Morrison confirms that this tour occurred in 1925.415 The trip lasted until the spring of 1926. How far is not certain.416 In a handwritten letter dated 13 Feb. 1926, from Miller’s Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, there is another clue as to how long the travel teaching trip lasted. After expresses his sympathy for the ill health Parsons was experiencing, Gregory, at the end of his letter, states: “It is my expectation to reach Washington early next month, at the very latest, and I have pleasurable anticipations of again seeing you and others of that loyal and devoted band.”417 In a letter dated 28 January 1926, Horace Holley wrote to Locke:
I am delighted that the plans have worked out so well for your southern trip. I hope you will keep in touch with me during this trip and send me little memorandums of your public talks and any other news that might be of interest to the friends in the Bahá’í News Letter. You understand, of course, that I will present the story of your trip in an impersonal way and not refer to you as the source of the news. Consequently, please do not be so modest that you lean backward, because trips of this kind are most inspiring to all the friends and I feel that they have a right to know the details of what I am sure is going to be a remarkable speaking journey.418
In a later letter, it is clear that this trip must have taken place prior to August, as Locke was in Paris at that time.419 Narrowing the time frame to a more precise dating, the lecture tour must have taken place at some point between October 1925 and March (or perhaps May) 1926. This can be inferred from a statement that appeared in the Bahá’í News Letter: “Dr. Alain Locke of Washington, D.C., who delivered one of the notable addresses at the 1925 Convention in Green Acre, is now making an extensive teaching journey into the Southern States which will bring him in touch with the most influential audiences and individuals. Reports of this journey will be published from time to time.”420 In a letter to Locke, Horace Holley writes:
I am delighted that the plans have worked out so well for your southern trip. I hope you will keep in touch with me during this trip and send me little memorandums of your public talks and any other news that might be of interest to the friends in the Baha’i News Letter. You understand, of course, that I will present the story of your trip in an impersonal way and not refer to you as the source of the news. Consequently, please do not be so modest that you lean backward, because trips of this kind are most inspiring to all the friends and I feel that they have a right to know the details of what I am sure is going to be a remarkable speaking journey.421

Whether due to Locke’s disinclination to have such publicity or for some other reason, only one other report of Locke’s trip appear to have been published in the Bahá’í News Letter. After referring to the publication of The New Negro “by Dr. Alain Locke, our brilliant Baha’i brother of Washington, D.C. and New York City,” the article simply states:


Altogether inadequate has been the mention in previous issues of the News Letter of the remarkable work carried on throughout the South during the winter by Mr. Louis Gregory, Mr. Howard MacNutt, Dr. Locke and Mrs. Louise Boyle. These teachers, in cooperation with the Spiritual Assembly of Miami and many Baha’i groups and isolated believers, held an astounding number of meetings from autumn to spring, in churches, schools clubs [sic] and private homes, with the result that a powerful concentration of spiritual forces was focussed on this great and important territory.422
Here, “Spiritual Assembly of Miami” probably meant the Bahá’í community of Miami. Bahá’í historian Robert Stockman has pointed out the several usages of the term “Spiritual Assembly” in the early history of the Bahá’í Faith in America.423 As will be seen, this association with the Miami Bahá’ís was critical for the future development of the Bahá’í Faith in the South.

The published accounts of this teaching trip are too general. These leave us with very little idea as to what actually happened. However, in the transcript for the 1926 Convention, in a report from El Fleda Spaulding, chairperson of the National Teaching Committee, on recent Bahá’í efforts in the South, there is reference to Locke that indicates what his primary role may well have been: “[T]he delicate problems here are being ably handled by Mrs. Boyle, Mr. Gregory and Mr. MacNutt. Dr. Locke also expects to speak before a number of the Universities.”424 Some other details on Locke appear in the Southern Regional Teaching Committee Report, which was read into the transcript.425 These details, which have recently been brought to light, are as follows:


An important contribution to the teaching service has been rendered during the past few months by Dr. Alain Locke of Washington, who is regarded by many as the outstanding scholar of the Negro race in America. Having been invited to address many universities and colleges in various parts of the country[,] Dr. Locke consented to present the Bahai Message to educators and student groups, and has been able to touch the best Negro institutions in the Middle South and Northern Florida. Before proceeding South he was called to the Middle West and was thus enabled to give the message at the Dunbar Forum of Oberlin, at Wilberforce University and at Indianapolis, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Dr. Locke has been everywhere received with marked distinction. He writes of the deep spiritual refreshment experienced through his labours for the Blessed Cause. Through special arrangement with the President, Mrs. Mary Bethune [,] he will make a return visit to the Daytona Industrial Institute in May, and at that time will visit Mr. Dorsey of Miami as his guest to confer on educational plans for the new city. He will also visit the Hungerford School near Orlando in which Mr. Irving Bachellor and other distinguished people are actively interested.426

Reference here to “Mr. Dorsey” deserves comment. According to the report, D. A. Dorsey was the owner of the Dorsey Hotel, where weekly Bahá’í meetings were held. The report states:
Its owner, Mr. D. A. Dorsey, is a colored financier, highly regarded by all the promoters of Greater Miami. Having accumulated more than five million dollars, he is now actively engaged in founding a Model Negro City near Miami, in which he has donated a site for a Mashrak el Askar [Bahá’í House of Worship].

It is the desire of Mr. Dorsey to use his wealth for the advancement of his race and he will build schools, a university for the arts and sciences, a hospital, modern administration buildings and other institutions for the practical and cultural progress of his people. He is a man of the highest moral character, simple and unassuming, and respected by all—a noble-hearted[,] God-directed man.427


The report also confirms that Dorsey enrolled as a Bahá’í, having “accepted the teachings wholeheartedly through the labours of Mr. Louis Gregory and Mr. [Howard] MacNutt and are constantly bringing people of all races to hear the Glad Tidings.”428 The fate of this model city, and the status of the land he endowed for a Bahá’í temple, as well as solid information on Dorsey himself, require further investigation.

In the absence of a diary or travel log, the next best primary source comprises personal reminiscences. There is one anecdote that may be the only extant, firsthand account of that trip. In fact, Gayle Morrison closes her magnificent book, To Move the World, with this story.429 In the course of his public address on “The Oneness of Mankind,” which he gave during the 1926 National Bahá’í Convention in San Francisco, Louis Gregory related a story that might possibly have involved Locke, who is not mentioned. While Gregory refers to the fact that there were two black men in this account, one of whom was Gregory himself, Locke’s identity as the other black man cannot be proven, for the simple reason that Gregory says that: “I was invited to join a group of workers going out to visit a country school.”

Locke’s last trip to the Deep South may well have been his tour with Booker T. Washington, from March 1st to March 8th, 1912. One could speculate as to any parallels that might be drawn. Was Louis Gregory the spiritual counterpart of Booker T. Washington? Economic development, with the goal of self-sufficiency, was Washington’s avowed method and goal. A by-product of this would be an increased respect for blacks on the part of whites. While increased tolerance would thereby be achieved (and this was no small victory), what would not be achieved is anything even remotely resembling racial harmony. The Bahá’í strategy was no less pragmatic than Booker T. Washington’s, if one considers that the most fundamental way of reforming society is to transform entrenched social attitudes.

The year 1925, measured in Bahá’í terms, was an extraordinary year for Locke. The combination of his speech on America at the Bahá’í Congress, his continued service on the National Racial Amity Committee, and his travel teaching tour of the Deep South stand out as a testament to Locke’s depth of soul as an avowed Bahá’í.


OUR SPIRITUAL DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE” (1926)

“America’s cultural autonomy can as yet claim no sesquicentennial,—the ink is still damp on our spiritual Declaration of Independence,”430 Locke wrote in 1926. “Can it be doubted?” he added. “At least the contemporary Negro poets have no hawk shadow of doubt over their attempts to sing and soar; they are writing today poetry of national distinction and value, but poetry none the less full of a vitally characteristic racial flow and feeling, inspired by the belief that a people that can give its sorrow enduring musical expression can make its soul powerfully articulate” (45). Here is Locke at his finest, promoting race pride as collective self-respect, and, at the same time, engendering reciprocal respect among whites. The media through which this elevation of respect was promoted was through the arts. The Harlem renaissance was in full swing.



Speaking of the first African American poet, Phyllis Wheatley, Locke described her as “a controversial prodigy.” But here was the drawback—her greatest limitation: “She was race-conscious but not race-minded” (43). That was one extreme. At this time, Locke was particularly critical of those poets who, in his opinion, were guilty of “the opposite excess of being so race-minded that they were race-bound.” Their poetry was irredeemable—not of “treasurable value.” The Harlem Renaissance poets Locke did have tremendous respect and hope for were James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay were “at one and the same time more universal and more racial” (44). Locke quotes McKay’s “America”: “Although she feeds me the bread of bitterness / I love this cultured hell that tests my youth” (44). Locke speaks of these poets’ “race spokesmanship” (45). Here is a heuristic key to a deeper understanding of Locke: Whatever he says of the Harlem Renaissance poets he admires, he says of himself. In other words, Locke himself was a “race spokesman.” Like McKay’s “America,” Locke would experience more directly—more profoundly—the “cultured hell” of America, particularly in the Deep South. But the experience would be worth it.

Continued Teaching Tour in the South: While he did serve for a number of years on various race amity committees, this Bahá’í tour would be Locke’s lengthiest, sustained service to the Bahá’í Faith. It is the only one in which it could be said that virtually all of his focus was on promotion of the Faith and his every public act was in his capacity as a Bahá’í. Of Locke’s part in this travel teaching tour in the southern USA, we know relatively little. Based on the sparse and sketchy details at hand, a full reconstruction of this teaching trip eludes the historian. But what we do know of it is quite significant. The teaching efforts had results of historic significance within Bahá’í history, the highlight of which was the formation of the Miami Spiritual Assembly.

Formation of Miami Assembly: As stated, this travel teaching trip began in October 1925 (or perhaps as late as December). While there were seven Baha’i groups in Florida at that time, the Bahá’í Faith was virtually an unknown entity. This contrasts with the renown the Faith had enjoyed among the African American intelligentsia, especially in Washington, D.C. Morrison notes that “successful meetings” were held in Miami, Jacksonville and St. Augustine. Evidently, a new spiritual assembly was formed in Miami as one of the signal outcomes of this teaching trip, through the combined efforts of white Bahá’í “homefront pioneers” and the itinerant teachers (although there is no evidence that Locke was directly involved). According to the Bahá’í News Letter:
Space is lacking this month to relate the truly extraordinary spiritual victories which have been won through the sacrificing efforts of Mr. Louis Gregory in Florida this winter. This inspiring story must be deferred. Meanwhile it is a matter of extreme gratification to record the organization of a Spiritual Assembly at Miami, and secretaries should add the name of Mrs. Olive E. Kretz, Secretary, 103 N. E. 21st Street, Miami, Florida, to their directory. It is hoped that the friends can welcome a delegate from the Miami Assembly at the forthcoming National Convention.431
Here, reference to an address and a secretary establishes a definite, administrative meaning for the otherwise ambiguous term, “Spiritual Assembly,” which, as noted above, admittedly of more than one meaning—an ambiguity that only context could cure. However, Locke’s involvement in the formation of this local Bahá’í council is uncertain. Can one say that Alain Locke was instrumental in helping to establish the Miami Bahá’í council, which may well have been the first spiritual assembly in the South?432 Probably not, since there is evidence that the council may have formed close to the beginning of Locke’s traveling teaching trip in the South:
Mr. and Mrs. MacNutt and Mr. and Mrs. Grundy reached Florida last November [1925] after touching Bahai centres in Athens and Augusta, Ga., Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Stuart, Orlando, Lakehead and Indian Rocks, Fla. They purchased a charming home in Miami and with the cooperation of the Atwater family, Mrs. Kretz, Miss Sunshine and other friends, established a spiritual assembly in that city.433

A minimum of nine adult believers must reside in a given locality before a local spiritual assembly may form. If one counts at least one member of the Atwater family as an enrolled Bahá’í, then the above report refers to seven of the requisite nine adult believers. It is not clear whether or not this body formed immediately on the MacNutts’ arrival and purchase of a home in November 1925, or sometime later in 1926, when the formation of this Bahá’í consultative institution was reported nationally. Did Locke’s teaching efforts result in any enrollments that in turn raised the number of believers in Miami to the required number of nine adult Bahá’ís? We do not know.

Why is the formation of the Spiritual Assembly of Miami significant? Generally, there is a correlation between Bahá’í community development and progress an race relations, to the extent that Bahá’ís are effective in their promotion of racial harmony. What was true in the past still holds true today: Wherever there are Bahá’ís, race relations efforts are sure to be initiated. This is for the simple reason that, with certain exceptions in its history, the American Bahá’í community has always placed improved race relations at the top of its social agenda. This is in so small measure due to the leadership of individuals like Gregory and Locke, without whose energy and accomplishments progress in the spread of the faith—and the improved race relations it fosters—would scarcely have been made.

Impressions of Haifa” Reprinted: Locke’s “Impressions of Haifa,” originally published in Star of the West in 1924, was reprinted in the Bahá’í Year Book.434 In probable reference to this article, Shoghi Effendi wrote: “The article by Prof. Locke is very good and sufficient.”435



Special Consultation with National Spiritual Assembly: The reader will recall that, in 1925 and 1926, the Bahá’í race amity work was largely abandoned. Besides deficits in the Bahá’í fund, coupled with a lull in general enthusiasm for race amity efforts, there was yet another reason: The National Spiritual Assembly had shifted its primary focus from race amity to the ideal of world unity in its public relations. Racial unity was overshadowed by the broader concern of world unity, notwithstanding the fact that former is a sine qua non of the latter. “Yet inattention,” Morrison observes, “cannot be equated with intentional neglect.”436

Sooner or later, the National Spiritual Assembly would revisit the race amity program that had been of such paramount importance to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This was probably spurred by those Bahá’ís like Louis Gregory who remained committed to the goal of furthering improved race relations in America, to which cause the Bahá’ís could continue to make a special contribution. Such champions of race amity would not fail in reminding the National Spiritual Assembly of this primary obligation, the overarching ideal of world unity notwithstanding.

In taking its first step in re-establishing a consistent policy of support for race amity initiatives, the National Assembly, in a letter dated 13 November 1926, invited a group of Bahá’ís to Chicago for a special consultation on race to be held in January 1927. Each member of this group of black and white Bahá’ís—Louis Gregory, Agnes Parsons, Louise Boyle, Alain Locke, Leslie Pinckney Hill, Roy Williams, Dr. Zia Bagdadi, Mariam Haney, and Coralie Cook—had distinguished him/herself in Bahá’í race unity work. Either as a speaker, organizer, or both, each consultant had been involved in at least one of the four amity conventions. The invitation that Alain Locke and the other invitees had received read as follows:437
In view of the overwhelming importance of the racial amity problem in this country, and desiring to assist in any constructive plans that might be advanced by those of the friends who have given this subject deepest thought, the National Spiritual Assembly has voted to invite you to attend a special conference on the subject of racial amity to be held in Washington, D.C. on January 9th. The hope is that it will be possible for you to spend perhaps a day as a committee in drawing up some constructive plan of promoting racial amity and present this to the National Spiritual assembly at a joint meeting the evening of the same day.438
The results of this consultation will be discussed in the next section. Suffice it to say that the National Spiritual Assembly wanted to put Locke’s insights to use, and to apply his training, experience, and dedication to improved race relations to real life situations.

RACE RELATIONS AND BAHA’I RELATIONS (1927)

Both on the Bahá’í front and as a scholar, this was a productive year. However, although busy, Locke was still unemployed. On the title page of Locke’s co-edited work published this year, Plays of Negro Life, the words “Selected and Edited by Alain Locke Formerly Professor of Philosophy, Howard University” accentuates the fact that he had been fired in June 1925. Montgomery Gregory, his co-editor, is similarly represented as “Formerly Professor of Dramatics, Howard University[,] Director of The Howard Players.” The book was illustrated by Aaron Douglas, whom Locke had distinguished as the “pioneering Africanist” and whom some historians later hailed as “the father of Black American art.”439 Normally, such a publication would have counted for promotion or tenure (although Locke had already been promoted to full professor). But what Locke needed was to get his job back. Fortunately, he had some powerful and influential friends. In a letter dated 5 May 1927, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to Jesse E. Moorland, to lobby for Locke’s reinstatement. Du Bois’ letter says, in part:


I am interested in having Alain Locke reinstated at Howard University. My interest has nothing personal in it. While I have known Mr. Locke for sometime [sic], he is not a particularly close friend. I have not always agreed with him, and he knows nothing of this letter. […] Mr. Locke is by long odds the best trained man among the younger American Negroes.440
The letter worked. Locke was reinstated in June 1927, under Howard’s first black president, Mordecai Johnson,441 although Locke did not resume teaching there until 1928. This was due to the fact that Locke was offered a position as an exchange professor at Fisk University for the 1927–28 academic year, which position he accepted. In the meantime, this year was another significant period in which Locke made significant contributions to the race amity work. Picking up where the year 1926 left off, Locke’s first contribution in 1927 was to serve as a race relations consultant to the National Assembly.

Special Committee on Racial Amity: After the holiday season, the special consultation took place on 8 Jan. 1927, a day earlier than the time the National Assembly had originally proposed in its letter of invitation. Since he had already promised to assist with preparations for the World Unity Conference in Dayton, Louis Gregory was unable to personally attend. “Prof. Locke and Mrs. Boyle who are particularly well informed with regard to the inter-racial work in the Southern states,” Gregory assured the National Assembly in his letter of 28 Dec. 1926, “will doubtless be able to bring forth much that is illuminating and helpful.”442 All but two of the members (Louis Gregory and Professor Hill) of the Special Committee on Racial Amity were present.

The Special Committee on Racial Amity had several recommendations to make. The first was that the Nation Spiritual Assembly appoint a National Amity Committee, and that Local Spiritual Assemblies be encouraged to engage in race amity work and to cooperate with the national committee in such ventures. The next recommendation was that a national program be formulated “to stimulate racial activity by the local Assemblies.” Further to this, that Bahá’ís avail themselves of proclamation opportunities and that a concerted effort be made to reach people of capacity. In other words, the recommended strategy was to inform “the wise men of the nation” of the Bahá’í principles of interracial harmony.443 Having apparently persuaded the National Assembly, it immediately acted to put at least some of these recommendations into practice. The first was the appointment of a National Inter-Racial Amity Committee. This the National Assembly did.


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