Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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Appointment to Teaching Committee and Resignation: The Bahá’ís still had hopes for Locke. The Washington Bahá’í Assembly certainly did. Now that he was no longer serving on a national Bahá’í committee, why not a local one? This is just what happened. Locke was appointed to the Teaching Committee by the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Washington, D.C. The members of this arm of the Assembly consisted of Dr. Stanwood Cobb, Chairman; Charles Mason Remey, Vice Chairman; Mrs. John Stewart, Secretary; Mr. Clarence Baker; Mrs. Louise Boyle; Mr. William E. Gibson; Dr. Alain Locke; George Miller; and Mrs. Ethel M. Murray.582 Did Locke attend any of the committee’s consultations? That he probably did is based on the following statement by Louise Boyle: “Dr. Locke returns from Europe on the 23rd to strengthen both the teaching and Amity work.”583 Locke may have reacted negatively to a situation described by Boyle as follows: “A member of the teaching committee is causing grave concern because she is in personal touch with the Guardian and is using his letters as a lever.”584 Regrettably, in December, Locke declined to serve on this committee, as indicated in his letter of resignation:
December 10, 1935
Dr. Stanwood Cobb

Chairman, The Teaching Committee,

Washington Bahai Assembly
Dear Mr. [sic] Cobb:
I am indirectly informed of a meeting of the Teaching Committee set for December 14th, which I deeply regret not being able to attend because of important engagements in New York City over this coming week-end [sic]. Obviously information as to dates of meeting are given at the meetings themselves, and by reason of the Bahai calendar, these revolve and do not occur on the stated days of the week, nor is an advance calendar of meetings available.

Under the circumstances of having missed so many meetings of the Committee and the probability in view of heavy out of town engagements from now through April, I consider it regrettably my duty to resign my membership, that my place may be filled by some worker who can participate more regularly and helpfully in the consultation so necessary to the effective work of the Cause. I deeply appreciate the confidence of the Community in offering me this post of service, which I would have been glad to discharge if my duties and commitments [sic] permitted. However, I have a heavy program of editorial and visiting lecture assignments, and as you know am frequently out of town on one or other of these missions.

With the hope that my position will be sympathetically understood and granted, and best wishes for the furtherance of the Committee’s work, I am,
Sincerely yours,
[Alain Locke]585
The reader is struck by the tone of respect conveyed in this letter. Here Locke makes very clear how much he traveled. Perhaps this 1935 letter should be considered as evidence of his typical schedule—evidence that would go far in explaining why he was not involved in the community in 1934. The evidence can work both ways: It may account for why he did so little in 1936. In either or both cases, Locke was simply honest about the fact that his schedule did not permit him the luxury of involvement in extracurricular, local Bahá’í community affairs. In other words, he was simply unavailable. Notwithstanding, Locke would be available for some Bahá’í engagements outside Washington, D.C. While feeling impelled to resign from the Teaching Committee, Locke did not decline teaching the Bahá’í Faith, as will be seen in his participation in the following event.

Abdul-Baha on World Peace” and International Banquet: On 26 November 1935, Locke gave a public address at a Bahá’í-sponsored meeting in Washington, D.C., held at the Tea House of the Dodge Hotel. His topic was “Abdul-Baha on World Peace.”586 Of the details of this event there are none. But it helps delineate a pattern in which Locke, who, given his numerous other affiliations and attendant administrative responsibilities, was less inclined in later years to devote his time to the work of Bahá’í planning. Having personally observed (and possibly having been caught up in) personality conflicts in the course of committee work may have been the prime reason for Locke’s estrangement from Bahá’í administrative service. Yet, when called upon to speak at a Bahá’í event, there is scarcely any record of his reluctance to do so. This pattern is borne out by Louise Boyle’s description of an “International Banquet” at which Locke was invited to speak, either in late October or early November:

An International Dinner, or Banquet, as it was called, arranged by the Assembly—I should say, suggested by them and kept under their auspices, but arranged by poor me—had to be an Amity affair, as any Baha’i meal must be, so the Amity Committee were the hosts for it and I the chairman. I did not dream it would be so wonderfully confirmed in all the circumstances, but it was. The Service Committee aided as hostesses and ushers. Was assisted in finding a most dignified place, run by Quakers, when the Dodge [Hotel] failed for us for that night after making the date! I got nine Negroes to sing the Spirituals without accompaniment, and Mason, Dr. Locke and a young Chinese to spoke [speak] briefly before Ruhi [Afnan]. The [m]usic was exceptionally impressive and the 115 or more guests all very happy. The singers gave “Steal [A]way to Jesus” after an Ave Maria closed the meeting, and “stole” out, one by one in the dearest way. We all left the speakers table to thank them on the broad red velvet stairway, and they halted before the large doors, for an encore. There were tears in many eyes at the sheer beauty of the moment. The setting was the old Chas. Glover Mansion next the Washington Club.587
It is highly significant that nine African American singers performed Negro spirituals at this event. Here was a conscious overture to the black community, not to mention Asian Americans. Unfortunately, “Allen was away, though to have been a speaker.”588 In all fairness, this was an exception to the rule that Locke would rarely, during this period of his Bahá’í life, turn down an invitation to speak. This observation is partly confirmed by Boyle herself, who, in the very same letter, wrote: “Meanwhile the teaching work and public meetings are going forward,—the 12th and 26th [Nov.] to be at the Dodge, [—] Stanwood, Mrs. Parmelee, Allen Locke and me to speak.”589 As a Bahá’í, Locke was more effective as a teacher rather than an administrator. Another pattern that develops is that Locke began to distance himself from the local Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community, while remaining sporadically active on a national level for some time to come. Sad to say, but the year 1935 marks the end of Locke’s active participation in the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community.

From here to the end of his life, Bahá’í documents on Locke are, at best, uneven, and, at worst, sparse to the point of being non-existent. There are many gaps in the record. These might not be due so much to the inadequacy of the documentary record as to Locke’s inactivity, which the paper trail would then accurately reflect. At the same time, Locke’s activities as a Bahá’í did not tail off entirely. Some of his finest contributions were yet to come. They appear of a sudden, like the unexpected igniting of fireworks. Now that the reader, as did his Bahá’í compatriots, has learned not to expect too much from Locke during these latter years, those contributions he would make are no less significant than his early ones. In some ways, they would prove to be even more important. Here, a definite pattern emerges: Locke’s activity as a Bahá’í was primarily the outcome of his work at both international and national levels, rather than at a local level.

Apart from some personality conflicts and other problems he experienced, Locke was usually traveling abroad each summer, partly for health reasons. Largely due his heart problems, Locke frequented health resorts and availed himself of various treatments for his rheumatic heart. The present writer should hasten to add that summer 1936 was “the third summer that I haven’t had heart treatments.” Locke commented: “Yet, frankly, I seem to be much better—without it.”590 Shortly before that summer began, Locke was extremely pained by the fall of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. In a letter dated 5 May 1936 to his patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, he comments: “Suppose the real gloom for the last week has been caused by the daily agony of the Ethiopian news—and the final collapse of Haile Selassie. I had forgotten your words about his bad tactics of trying to fight a white man’s war instead of fighting according to native instinct; until talking it over with Professor [Ralph] Bunche yesterday, he said: ‘Well if he had relied on his mountains instead of the League of Nations they would be fighting yet’.”591 Interesting comment from a future laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize! Locke had traveled to Ethiopia, and it was rumored that he had interviewed Haile Selassie, although no evidence has surfaced to corroborate this story. In understanding how Locke thought, it is important to keep in mind that he always maintained a global perspective. For this and other reasons, experts on Locke credit him with having internationalized the racial crisis as not simply an American crisis, but as an international issue as well.

At home, Locke lectured far and wide across America, partly for academic advancement, and largely as a means of travel and for pay. At times his speaking schedule was so busy as to convey the impression that this was a second vocation. Lecturing was a form of “moonlighting” for Locke. Take the month of March, for instance. On 2 March 1936, Locke spoke on “The Negro’s Contribution to America” at Smith College. The next day, on 3 March 1936, Locke participated in the Springfield Forum, sponsored by the American Association for Adult Education in New York City. The topic of his speech was “The Negro in the Two Americas.” Referring to this event in a letter, Locke wrote: “In the Springfield talk I will give the Nordic skull a round hard crack—but even that is fashionable now—except perhaps in New England.”592 Yet, in another letter, dated 30 March 1936, to patron Charlotte Mason, Locke despairs of getting “so little done that really amounts to anything.”593 To complicate matters further, apparently Locke did not consider himself to be terribly effective with his black audiences. He writes:

But then—and this isn’t all alibi, the Negro audiences I meet—do not want the truth and do not keep at all within that very necessary soberness which so far as I can see alone makes truth-speaking possible. Of course you [Charlotte Osgood] could generate your own atmosphere—as I yet haven’t that power. But it may come—and when it does I will begin to be effective. (Terrible waste of time, though.)594
Of course, all this meant that he would simply be unavailable for Bahá’í service. Whether at home or abroad, Locke was really too busy to participate much in local Bahá’í activities. But Locke preserved his Bahá’í commitment. So it should really come as no surprise that Locke is included on the “List of Believers—Jan. 22, 1936”595 for that year. The broader Bahá’í context is also needed to interpret Locke’s fluctuating and somewhat declining levels of Bahá’í involvement. At the national level, Bahá’í race relations went into further decline. This year proved to be a great setback for Bahá’í race relations work. This was because the National Inter-Racial Amity Committee was dissolved by the National Spiritual Assembly in 1936. Locke had already been lost in the process. By contrast, in 1936, W. E. B. Du Bois’ first wife, Nina Gomer Du Bois, embraced the Bahá’í Faith in New York.596 At the international level, Locke’s signal Bahá’í contribution for this year was his essay, “The Orientation of Hope” published in The Bahá’í World for 1932–1934.597 This is a perfect instance of Locke’s sporadic yet significant Bahá’í contributions made during this period and in the years to follow. Another pattern emerges, in that Locke’s literary activity took precedence over his Bahá’í-sponsored race relations speaking engagements.

To place all this in the wider context of his personal and professional life, in 1936, under the auspices of the Associates in Negro Folk Education, Locke established the Bronze Booklets on the History, Problems, and Cultural Contributions of the Negro series, written by such leading African American scholars as Sterling A. Brown and Ralph Bunche. A problem arose when the ANFE commissioned W. E. B. Du Bois to contribute one of the Bronze Booklets, but exercised its veto power over Locke when it refused to publish Du Bois’ manuscript. Locke himself wrote two Bronze Booklets: The Negro and His Music and Negro Art Past and Present. Published between 1936 and 1942, the nine booklets became a standard reference for teaching African American history. The reader can see that Locke invested the majority of his time in bolstering “race pride” and group self-respect among African Americans on the one hand, and promoting improved race relations on the other, presented as a requirement of democracy itself. And his Bahá’í contributions were simply part and parcel of his larger work, whether as a “race man,” cultural pluralist, or Bahá’í.


From the standpoint of Locke’s Bahá’í activity, this year is a cipher. Administratively, Locke was again on the Bahá’í rolls: He is included on the eligible “Voting List—Washington Bahá’í Community—1937.”598 Otherwise, he has temporarily vanished from the Bahá’í horizon. Little more can be said.



Again, Locke’s name appears on a “[L]ist of Recognized Believers of the Washington Bahá’í Community, as approved by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the City of Washington, D.C. January 1938.”599 Political activism had entered Locke’s sphere of activity. Contrary to W. E. B. Du Bois, Locke strongly supported Roosevelt’s New Deal. In a letter dated 27 October 1938 to the editor of the Chicago Defender, Locke endorsed two candidates for Congress: “Next week the colored citizens of Chicago will have [the] unusual opportunity to further the progressive momentum of this New Deal aid to the Negro cause. The elections there involve the issue of the return to the only assured representation of the Negro in Congress of an experienced[,] loyal and efficient New Deal congressman, Mr. Mitchell, and the sending to Washington of one of the staunchest and best friends of the Negro cause that I have had the good fortune to know, T.V. Smith, candidate for the post of Illinois Congressman at large.” Although these two candidates were Democrats, Locke refers to himself, “Like you and other independents,” making it clear that Locke was neither a registered Republican nor Democrat.600 In a letter dated 15 April 1935 to Horace Kallen, Locke wrote: “T. V. Smith is a person for whom I have not only admiration but affection.”601 Bahá’ís are supposed to remain aloof from partisanship. Here, Locke adheres to that principle somewhat, voting as an “independent.” Perhaps Locke was engaged in this political activism only incidentally. After all, this was only a letter to the editor in the Chicago Defender.


Locke remains on a “[L]ist of Recognized Believers of Washington (D.C.) Bahá’í Community” dated 11 Jan. 1939.602 Locally, Locke is a Bahá’í in name only. Without further explanation, there is simply the fact that Locke was an inactive Bahá’í at this time. This would be cause for concern, especially on the part of Louis Gregory.


In 1940, the ANFE published Locke’s The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and the Negro Theme in Art, which was the leading book in its field and Locke’s best-known work after The New Negro. As any academic author can testify, the creation, editing and publication of a book is a major undertaking, and requires an inordinate commitment of time and energy. Certainly this project would have taken priority over any other commitments, Bahá’í projects included. The necessity of “explaining away” Locke’s inactivity would border on the apologetic if it did not take into account his own choice in the matter. Had he elected to do so, Locke certainly could have done more for the Faith. But he didn’t do less. He did what he did and historical sources provides a record, however complete or incomplete, of Locke’s contributions, which are significant in their own right. Even so, it was time that someone would take notice of Locke’s long periods of absence from his local Bahá’í community.

There are other examples of Locke’s non-Bahá’í commitments during this period. Together with seventy-eight other leading American intellectuals this year, Locke became a charter member of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, which published its annual proceedings. This organization originated in a in November 1939 colloquy of academics and seminary presidents convened by Jewish Theological Seminary president (later chancellor), Louis Finfelstein. Through its collaboration of scholars from a wide array of disciplines, the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion championed the preservation of democracy and intellectual freedom as a conscious response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. Meeting annually from 1940 to 1968, these conferences were variously held at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia, Harvard, the American Philosophical Society, University of Chicago, and Loyola University. Conference proceedings were, on most occasions, subsequently published, with Locke’s papers among them.603 While he did write several essays for the Bahá’í World volumes, Bahá’ís did not publish proceedings volumes at that time. (With the advent of the Association for Bahá’í Studies and other Bahá’í-sponsored learned societies, proceedings volumes would occasionally appear. In theory, the Bahá’í World volumes were intended for a wider public. And although they were typically given to civic leaders and government officials, in practice the real audience were the Bahá’ís themselves. This being the case, Locke could not expect to reach the public through Bahá’í publishing venues.

Contact By Louis Gregory: As in preceding years, Locke’s name continued to appear on local Bahá’í membership lists. And so he appeared on the list for 1940. Beside his name is the note, “No telephone.”604 Assuming that such service was available and that he could have easily afforded it, Locke’s choice not to have a phone provided some respite and relief perhaps from the many demands that were placed on him. His “castle” had a rampart that would not be breached by wires. Did that rampart also close off the rest of the Washington Bahá’í community? Probably not intentionally. Marzieh Gail, who was another prominent Bahá’í somewhat later, was a very active Bahá’í, but had no telephone (by choice).

As his stalwart friend, admirer, and elder Bahá’í brother, Louis Gregory was keenly aware of Locke’s situation. Gregory made repeated efforts—not so much to re-engage Locke as an active Bahá’í—but to make the decision to become nationally known as a Bahá’í. An occasional hello sometimes works magic in trying to keep the flame still burning. Although this cannot be conclusively said, it does appear that Locke’s fire of religious zeal had burnt down to mere embers. Gregory faithfully kept in touch with Locke over the years, and the relationship, however uneven it may have been, was reciprocal and a genuine friendship, although not a close one. During 5–10 August 1940, at the Green Acre Bahá’í School in Eliot, Maine, Louis Gregory and Curtis Kelsey conducted a workshop on race unity. Prior to Aug. 5th (presumably), Gregory had sent Locke a syllabus of this course. (Oddly, Gregory and Kelsey do not cite Locke in the “Bibliography” that appears on the last page of the syllabus.) Handwritten on the title page was this short note: “We do not forget you. Call again! L.G.G.”605

Without wishing to belabor the obvious, it is clear that Locke had called Gregory. Perhaps Locke had phoned from his office at Howard University. (Judging from notes on various Washington, D.C. Bahá’í membership lists, Locke did not have a phone at home for years.) The point to bear in mind is this: Even during relative lulls in his active Bahá’í life, even during periods of what might be regarded as estrangement, Locke kept alive some of his closest Bahá’í contacts. These relationships were neither defunct nor entirely one-sided. On that syllabus appears the following statement by Bahá’u’lláh, with no reference given, but reliably translated by Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi:
Fortunate are those souls who have not become slaves of the color of the world and whatever is contained therein, and who were honored by the color of God, which is sanctified above the different colors of the world. And none but those who are severed know that color.606

Is the language of color here racially referenced? It does bear close resemblance to Baháu’lláh’s Hidden Words, Persian #74: “All will I gather beneath the one-colored covering of the dust and efface all these diverse colors save them that choose My own, and that is purging from every color.” Here, colors are an apparent reference to the variegations of existence, the diversity of the material world, its “gay livery,” in contrast to the “color” of divinity before which all colors pale. While Bahá’u’lláh’s language of “color” is clearly metaphorical and its general purport spiritual, it adumbrates racial “colors.” What Bahá’ís in America and Canada did was to apply this type of language to the immediate racial crisis. More explicit is Bahá’u’lláh’s statement: “Close your eyes to racial differences and welcome all with the light of oneness.” But this text was not yet available to the Bahá’ís during Locke’s affiliation with the Faith (1918–1954).

An instance of Locke’s predilection for a national stage is the Library of Congress concert. On 20 December 1940, the Music Division of the Library of Congress hosted a concert of traditional Negro folk music, performed by the Golden Gate Quartet, accompanied by Joshua White on guitar and vocals. Alain Locke gave the opening commentary on “The Negro Spiritual” and served as the event’s “time-keeper”—probably a euphemism for “master of ceremonies.” Blues and ballads were introduced by poet Sterling Brown, with Alan Lomax as commentator on the “reels” and work songs that the quartet performed. The official program notes cite the occasion: “The Librarian of Congress and the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation present a Festival of Music commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the proclamation of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Sound recordings of the concert were made in the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, D.C. and produced by the Music Division and the Recording Laboratory of the Library of Congress.607 Jeffrey Stewart has published a transcript of Locke’s talk. Apart from the intrinsic value of his commentary, Locke made a trenchant statement on democracy:
Now, of course, the slave didn’t get his democracy from the Bill of Rights. He got it from his reading of the moral justice of the Hebrew prophets and his concept of the wrath of God. And, particularly, his mind seized on the experience of the Jews in Egypt and of the figure of Moses, the savior of the people, leading them out of bondage, and, therefore, there is not only no more musically beautiful spiritual, but no more symbolic spiritual than “Go Down Moses.”608
On the compact disc recording issued by Bridge Records, Locke’s lecture is eliminated entirely, except for his last sentence, “The quartet will close with ‘Travelin’ Shoes” (Track 7). But Locke’s introduction, “The Negro Spiritual,” is featured on Track Two (1:14). At least this commercial release makes available Locke’s voice, so that one may get a sense of the tonality of his lectures, and what it was like for those fortunate enough to have benefited from Locke’s erudition and spiritual vision, in person.

Over the next several years, Locke would focus more and more of his attention on the idea of democracy itself, which was bound up with the American experience. To be American did not necessarily entail being democratic in practice. But it did presume a commitment to democracy in principle. This principle, which dates back to the Declaration of Independence and which asserted itself as the supreme law of the land when enshrined in that other American scripture, the U.S. Constitution, became the African America’s most effective weapon for obliging white Americans to see and admit the contradiction between racism, forced segregation and the ideals of American democracy.


On 7 May 1941, Locke was in the limelight when he spoke at a dedication ceremony that was nationally broadcast on radio. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was present to preside over the dedication of the Southside Community Art Center, a predominantly African American center in Chicago, built as part of the Illinois Federal Art Project. A photograph of Mrs. Roosevelt speaking with Locke and Peter Pollack, supervisor of community art centers of the Illinois Art Project is available on the Smithsonian Archives of American Art web site, along with a facsimile of the official program for the dedicatory dinner honoring “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt” herself.609 Locke was one of nine “After Dinner Speakers.” In a letter dated 22 March 1941, also posted on the site, Locke mentions having “had several recent contacts with her” and that “[s]he has a copy of the book,” referring to his new publication, The Negro in Art (1941).

Retirement” from the Bahá’í Community: Locke was in such great demand that he had little time or inclination for Bahá’í activities. But to leave it at that evades a deeper issue. Naturally, for years Bahá’ís had high hopes for Locke’s promotion of the Faith. In many ways, Locke had frustrated these hopes and no doubt disappointed many Bahá’ís. Locke had all but fallen off the face of the Bahá’í map. We can only imagine Locke’s nagging sense of having to explain himself to the Bahá’ís. That time had come. It was precipitated by a letter of inquiry from the Washington Bahá’í Assembly. It read:

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