Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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In constant demand as a public speaker, Locke’s lecture schedule was quite busy. A few examples of Locke’s activities during his tenure in Madison will give the reader an adequate impression of Locke’s continued focus on the full realization of the founding principles of democracy in America. Among his many other commitments, Locke served as President of the American Association for Adult Education from 1946–1947.

Demand As Public Speaker: On 8 Jan. 1946, Locke gave a luncheon lecture on “Racial Threats”—under the broader topic of “Threats to American Unity and What Can Be Done About Them”—in the Boston Institute for Religious and Social Studies (established by the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York) at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (program, ALP). The next week, on 14 Jan. 1946, Locke received, along with such notables as W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, jazz musician Duke Ellington, boxing champion Joe Louis and singer Frank Sinatra, an award for his “contribution towards an America for all peoples,” at the Hotel Commodore (ALP) from an organization called New Masses. And Locke kept on contributing “towards an America for all peoples,” often at a dizzying pace.

In the month of February, his engagements were almost on a weekly basis. On 12 February 1946, the visiting professor gave a talk on the “Price of Democracy” at one of the local Lions Club Luncheon meetings, which were held Tuesdays at noon at the Park Hotel in Madison. (Two weeks later, Feb. 26, would be “Stag Night.”) Presumably Locke spoke to an all-white, politically conservative audience there. As Locke reports: “Mentioned because they took it and seemed to like it, and got it foursquare with only indirect reference to the Negro end of it.”666

The very next day, during “Religious Emphasis Week,” on 13 Feb. 1946, Locke gave a presentation on the topic, “Comparative Cultures” —which was really more of a talk on “Comparative Religions”—in University of Wisconsin Memorial Union. Locke’s former student, Beth Singer, notes the newspaper story, “Dr. Locke Pleads for World Culture,” having quoted Locke as saying: “We are fast approaching a stage in which culture will have to be international. […] This culture must have courtesy and reciprocity and must be aided by religious tolerance. […] And in order to have tolerance, we must have every person intelligently aware of the common denominators of basic ideas and basic moral issues. That is necessary for basic unity.”667 The article closes with Locke citing several religious axioms.668 Locke interpreted through a journalist’s ear, this report of Locke’s lecture is a way to understand Locke in more practical, mundane terms.

On the occasion of Negro History Week, 20 Feb. 1946, Locke was invited to speak on “The Cultural Contributions of the Negro” at Union Theatre, presumably on campus (ALP). On 24 Feb. 1946, Locke spoke at the Harmon Portrait Exhibit of Distinguished Negro Americans, Chicago Historical Society (ALP). These speaking appearances continued apace throughout the year. Of particular note is his commencement address, “On Becoming World Citizens,” delivered on 28 May 1946 at the Thirty-Fifth Annual Commencement, Wisconsin High School of the University of Wisconsin (program, ALP).669 On 31 May 1946, Locke lectured on “A World View of Race” at the “Women’s All Day Conference” hosted by the St. Paul’s Women’s Council. On 25 July 1946 at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, North Carolina, Locke participated in a symposium on “Some Implications and Challenges of The Convention Emphasis” at the 44th Convention of the American Teachers Association. The great African American historian John Hope Franklin was present (program, ALP). During 9–12 Sept. 1946, Locke attended the Seventh Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life (International House, university of Chicago), but evidently presented no paper on this occasion. Perhaps he needed a rest, or simply had not the time during his frenetic schedule this year to prepare a formal paper for a scholarly audience. In practice, Locke was more of a popular philosopher rather than an academic one.

Locke’s involvement in the arts was extensive. He served on the advisory board for Princeton Group Arts. On 4 Oct. 1946, at the First Annual Conference of the African Academy of Arts and Research in New York, Locke chaired the session on “Education and Culture” (program, ALP). On 29 Nov. 1946, Locke spoke on “New Outlook in Adult Education,” at the Thirty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in Atlantic City, New Jersey (program, ALP). In this frenzy of speaking engagements, Locke still found time to give in order to further the Bahá’í community.

Invitation to Speak at Green Acre Summer School: As in the previous year, Locke was more than just a Bahá’í in name only, although his name did, as expected, appear on the “Bahá’í Membership List, Washington, D.C. Electoral District for 1946 State and Province Elections (Corrected List).”670 There were positive indications that Locke was on his way back to a healthy and productive Bahá’í life. On 3 Feb. 1946, Locke was invited to give a course on “The Negro in American Life” at the Green Acre Summer School during the week of July 15th. The alternative of any week of Locke’s choice between July 1st and August 31st was offered as well.671 This shows how earnest the organizers were in trying to secure Locke’s acceptance. No record has been found to indicate whether or not Locke actually did make it to Green Acre to conduct the course. His non-involvement with the Washington Bahá’í community notwithstanding, Locke was still sought after by Bahá’ís, from Shoghi Effendi in Haifa to New York, to Rhode Island, and to Maine. But to put all this in context, let us continue to compare Locke’s lectures in both secular and Bahá’í arenas.

Democracy in Human Relations”: In thematic symmetry with his secular lectures on democracy and race relations, another bright moment in Locke’s public life as a Bahá’í took place in March or April 1946 during a visit to Rhode Island, where he lectured on “Democracy in Human Relations” at the Rhode Island School of Design. This event was jointly sponsored by Negro College Club and the Bahá’ís of Providence.672 Locke’s lecture was reported on as follows:

When Dr. Alain Locke was scheduled as a speaker for the Rhode Island School of Design’s exhibition of Negro art, the Negro College Club and the Providence Bahá’ís held a joint meeting for which Dr. Locke talked on “Democracy in Human Relations” and spoke of being a Bahá’í. There were twenty non-Bahá’ís present in spite of bad weather. His talk was reported and the next Sunday’s program was announced in both the Urban League Bulletin and the Providence Chronicle. As a result of this unsolicited publicity, the Sunday meeting for Mr. George Goodman, a Negro Bahá’í from Hartford, Connecticut, had a record attendance.673
As in his appearance at the Racial Amity Convention on 10 December 1932, here was another public event at which Locke “spoke of being a Bahá’í,” thereby explicitly identifying himself as a Bahá’í, as Louis Gregory had encouraged him to do all along. As this event would appear to contradict the “estrangement” thesis, some clarification needs to be made. In his 30 March 1941 letter to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í’s of Washington, D.C., Locke wrote: “Some time ago, I expressed to Mr[.] Remey a desire to retire formally from the community and to be regarded as an “isolated believer[.]” Earlier in his letter, Locke indicated that he had found himself unable to commit himself to being an active Bahá’í locally. “I naturally am reluctant to sever a spiritual bond with the Bahai community, for I still hold to a firm belief in the truth of the Bahai principles,” Locke wrote. “However, I am not in a position, and haven[’]t been for years, to participate very practically or even with the fullest enthusiasm, in the collective activities of the local friends.”674 This is really a key statement, because Locke reaffirms his belief in Bahá’í principles while registering his doubts about the effectiveness of how Bahá’ís were endeavoring to implement those principles. But, given his firm belief in the efficacy of improving race relations through culture, how could Locke pass up an opportunity to speak at an exhibition of Negro art, especially in such a venue as the Rhode Island School of Design?

Locke was ever mindful of his mortality, especially because of his heart condition. In a letter dated 25 December 1946 to Cornelia Chapin, Locke made reference to his plans for depositing his papers and art collection at Howard University.675 Perhaps this partly accounts for this burst of activity, for each year could very well be his last.


Things can change from one year to the next. World War II had ended some time ago, and so Locke was no longer needed as a champion of democracy, much like when his role as a Bahá’í race relations leader came to an end when the race amity initiatives went into decline in 1936. Although he had a change of venues that enriched his professional experience, a certain amount of cynicism would tarnish Locke’s otherwise indefatigable idealism. Perennial tensions between idealism and realism saw realism (i.e. cynicism), briefly take the upper hand.

Cynicism towards Whites: It seemed that cynicism had set in, as Locke’s idealism became jaded. In a letter dated 14 Aug. 1947, Kallen writes: “And I mean to continue in this spinozan affirmation of life till the day I die, counting you as one of the dear friends beside me, fighting the daily fight for freedom that never ends.”676 At this time, Locke did not share Kallen’s optimism. In an unpublished note dated 26 March 1947, Alain Locke wrote: “The best argument against there being a God is the white man who says God made him.”677 This could be interpreted as a negative affirmation of his faith as well. The only information we have on Locke during this year is, as usual, the membership list, to wit: his name is duly listed on the “D.C. Bahá’í Membership List, D.C. [sic] Electoral District for 1947 State and Province Elections.”678

New School for Social Research: On 14 March 1946, Horace Kallen extended Locke an invitation: “By vote of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, I have been authorized to invite you to serve as Visiting Professor in the Graduate Faculty in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology for the Spring term 1947.”679 The courses Kallen encouraged Locke to teach were “an open course in Social Philosophy, with special reference to minority problems, a graduate course in The Philosophy of the Arts, and a seminar in the Theory of Value.”680 In a previous letter, Kallen said that “the salary would be from about $2,000 to $2500.”681 This is how Locke came to be a Visiting Professor at the New School for Social Research in 1947.

From 1948–1952, Locke taught concurrently at both the City College of New York and Howard University. Harlem was such a powerful cultural magnet that it would draw Locke to it practically every weekend. Indeed, he would typically leave for New York after fulfilling his teaching responsibilities at Howard, and this was his habit during each academic year. It should already be obvious to the reader by now that Locke was simply unavailable to his local Bahá’í community most weekends and summers. His time was now more constrained than ever, not to mention his growing disinclination to remain an active Bahá’í, although he always remained at heart a Bahá’í. Now he had dual teaching responsibilities that constricted his time even further. But the reader is surely perceptive enough to note that, when something is a priority in one’s life, a person will surely find a way to “make time” for something important. And the present writer has waited until this point in the book to introduce another, far more personal issue that must be factored into an analysis of Locke’s relationship to the Bahá’í Faith.

As with some previous years—what one might call “gaps” in the narrative—the years 1948–1949 are absolute ciphers in Locke’s Bahá’í life. Apart from membership lists, there are simply no records of Locke having had any meaningful connection with the Bahá’í community during this period of time. Again, as usual, Locke remained on the “Bahá’í Membership List: 1948 State Election, Washington, D.C. Electoral District.”682 The next year would be the same: Locke is a “paper” Bahá’í, appearing on list of Bahá’í eligible voters, 6 April 1949683 as well as on the “Bahá’í Membership List: 1949 State Election, Washington, D.C. Electoral District.”684

Religiously, one gets the impression that Locke still thought in a basically Christian paradigm, and, while not openly espousing his Bahá’í affiliation except on rare occasions, had also moved a considerable distance away from orthodox Christianity. Yet, on a pensive Christmas day, Locke wrote: “I am sorry, but all my mind and temperament allow me for prayer is a Hail to the Source of Life and a bow to the Inscrutable.685 The “Inscrutable” is closer to the Bahá’í concept of God as the “Unknowable Essence”—a divine Mystery with clues everywhere in existence. This did not mean that Locke’s religious beliefs were diffuse or without form, although the depth of his knowledge of the Bahá’í Faith is difficult to assess. It was neither shallow nor profound. One must also remember that Locke knew that he could die at any time, and in fact he was in a twilight period, close to the end of his life.

Plans for an Autobiography: During this time, Locke was planning to write an autobiography, evidently at the suggestion of friends and admirers. In a note dated 1 Oct. 1949 and titled, “Auto-Biog,” Locke jotted down this reminder: “Mrs. Isaacs: You must write your memoirs.” This is direct evidence that individuals close to Locke urged him to write his autobiography for posterity. And that was a good idea. Certainly Locke was a well-traveled man and doubtless his international experience would have enriched his personal narrative. But the problem with an autobiography is that, to be authentic, it would have to reveal some intimate details of the author’s personal life. What if there were any hidden skeletons in Locke’s closet? There were.

Achilles Heel of Homosexuality”: It is a well-known fact that Alain Locke was a homosexual. Historian and Locke authority Leonard Harris refers to this as an “open secret.”686 While direct evidence from Locke himself is scarce, an important self-disclosure is found in an archival note dated 1 October 1949, superscripted “Auto-Biog.” According to Harris’ transcription of it, Locke wrote: “Three minorities—Had I been born in ancient Greece I would have escaped the first [homophobia]; In Europe, I would have been spared the second [anti-black legal segregation]; In Japan I would have been above rather than below average [height].”687 Searching the Alain Locke Papers at Howard University in June 2000, the present writer encountered this very note, and can vouch for Professor Harris’ reading as entirely accurate. However, some marginalia should be considered. Above the word “escaped,” Locke wrote “the ________ of,” which might have meant, “the stigma of homosexuality.” Moreover, over the line, “the first, In Europe, I,” Locke inserted: “the weight + [illegible] of inferiority”—again, indicating “racism.” Locke added: “This I sensed intuitively soon early years.”688 That a stigma attached to being homosexual was obviously a social fact back then (and still is, although to a far less degree, countervailed by a burgeoning rise in “gay pride”). His direct juxtapositioning of the first two stigmata shows that Locke viewed homophobia in much the same constructivist terms as he saw racism: as an equivalent social construct, one that is equally reprehensible.

In interpreting this autobiographical text, one should be careful not to draw the conclusion that Locke himself regarded his orientation as inherently evil or something to be ashamed of. (Nor should this possibility be ruled out.) But it did conflict with Bahá’í values as well as with the social norms of the time. There was never a reconciliation between Locke’s homosexual private life and his public Bahá’í identity. The two stood in unresolved tension, necessarily compartmentalized and insulated from each other. Locke’s homosexuality may, to a greater degree than might be expected, have accounted for some of the considerable lapses in his active involvement as a Bahá’í.

That Locke exercised prudence in keeping his homosexuality discreet is one thing; that curators and historians have done so as well raises fundamental methodological concerns. According to Leonard Harris, Michael R. Winston, former heard of the Moorland–Spingarn Library, “removed from scholarly access letters that explicitly discussed or alluded to Locke’s sexual life.”689 How did he accomplish this objective? According to Harris, Winston “told a curator, on her first day of work, to remove from the Locke papers all letters that discussed or alluded to homosexuality and give them to him.”690 Harris adds: “It is rumored that such letters were progressively returned to the archives.”691 Whatever the case, the present writer has discovered another autiobiographical note that directly addresses the issue of Locke’s homosexuality—a document that appears to have eluded scholars until now. Dated 10 June 1948, Locke wrote:

My wise and loving Mother dipped me as a very young child in the magic waters of cold cynicism and haughty distrust and disdain of public opinion and this with satisfaction of an almost [illegible] child. However the all too vulnerable/invulnerable Achilles heel of homosexuality— [Reverse] which she may have suspected was there, [but] both for her sake and my own safety, I kept in an armoured shell [?] of reserve and haughty caution. I realize that to bask in the sunshine of public favor, I would have to bathe in the dangerous fatal pool of publicity—.692
Such “disdain of public opinion” notwithstanding, the risk of social stigma is that it can ignite adverse publicity and scandalize its victim. Thus we may take Locke’s last statement, “the fatal pool of publicity,” on its face. Locke was, after all, a public intellectual. To have openly disclosed his orientation would have exposed him and ruined his career. Locke could scarcely afford to risk such adverse publicity. Harris makes this point quite clear:
Locke’s choice of veiling during and prior to the [Harlem] renaissance was one among several reasonable options in a homophobic and racist world. Locke’s mother once advised him to be careful because the “vice control,” Howard University’s administration, fired Montgomery Gregory from Howard’s theatre teaching staff because he was seen leaving a “lurid” establishment frequented by homosexuals. Arguably, the lesson was not lost on Locke: veil or lose a complete intellectual and social world, not to mention the possibility of torture, lynching, or death.693
Although today he enjoys a certain iconic notoriety in the gay community, the question is open as to whether Locke wished to be remembered and valued in this way. Put bluntly, would Locke have wanted his private sex life to have been exposed back then? Probably not. Perhaps the more interesting and controversial question is whether today, some fifty years later, Locke would have preferred to “out” himself, or to keep his sexual life private. To categorically answer one way or the other is conclusory and probably anachronistic.

Even so, it is reasonable to draw from the foregoing passage that Locke regarded his sexual orientation, at that moment in time at least, as a social liability that could all-too-easily burst into negative publicity. Nor is it dogmatic to say that Locke’s homosexuality certainly did not accord with Bahá’í principles of morality, either. As a lifestyle, homosexuality stands in stark conflict with received Bahá’í values. It did back then, and still does a half a century later. Sexual activity, by Bahá’í standards, is forbidden outside of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual.694 That is, Bahá’í norms of sexual holiness characterize all nonspousal sexual activity as aberrant.

To what extent did Locke know of the Bahá’í ideal of sexual holiness? Suffice it to say that Bahá’í law, in terms of the moral standards it embodies and mental discipline it inculcates, has, over time, been communicated to the Bahá’í community and applied gradually. This was certainly the case in terms of the American Bahá’í community, of which Locke was a prominent member. Precisely how much Locke knew of Bahá’í standards of sexual conduct is far from clear, and it certainly would be anachronistic to adduce later official pronouncements on the issue to characterize what would have been considered normative within the Bahá’í community back then.695 Assuming, for the sake of argument, that he was aware that homosexuality was not in accord with Bahá’í teachings, and that public disclosure would prove to be an embarrassment and a potential source of shame for the Bahá’í community, we may tentatively conclude that Locke almost certainly never discussed or hinted at his orientation in his personal interactions with Bahá’ís—and probably not with many others either. Thus Locke’s homosexuality would go to his grave as a well-kept but “open” secret, at least outside of Bahá’í circles.

Is this analysis vulnerable to criticism? The answer is yes. The late Bahá’í archivist–historian Jackson Armstrong-Ingram (d. 2004) was critical of the preceding interpretation, characterizing it as “travesty” (“something that is falsely dressed”) in that it is “misleading as to gender.” The present writer’s gloss is defective because it amounts to “a projection of heterosexism into Locke's psyche.” In its place, Armstrong-Ingram offered this interpretation of Locke’s autobiographical statement:

Locke’s use of classical imagery here is interesting particularly as he has stated that in the ancient world his homosexuality would not have relegated him to a ‘minority’ clearly indicating (with the following race reference also) that he regards any ‘minority’ status he occupies as socially constructed not inherent in him. He asserts his independence from, even disdain for, the opinions of the modern world and equates his homosexuality with Achilles’ heel. Yet it is not simply a point of weakness in an otherwise invulnerable body, like Achilles’. His homosexuality is his “vulnerable/invulnerable” point. It has been a source of both risk AND strength in dealing with the world.696
Armstrong-Ingram adds that Locke’s autobiographical note “suggests a strongly positive attitude toward his sexuality; and the supposedly analytic comment that most closely follows it states with absolute certainty the opposite.” Either way, Locke’s orientation is simply a fact of his life, a facet of his personality that history ought not to obscure. The problem for the biographer is how central (or peripheral) is the fact of Locke’s homosexuality To what extent does it serve as a key to interpreting Locke’s thought? No matter where the reader may stand on this issue, Locke’s homosexuality ought not diminish his greatness, whether as a “race man” or as a Bahá’í champion of “race amity.” For others, Locke’s homosexuality is an indispensable heuristic in properly understanding and appreciating his universalism. Consonant with this interpretation is Leonard Harris’ estimate: “How is it possible to honor Locke, that is, exalt him because of his intrinsic qualities, virtues of character—his courage? How can we love and respect him as an aesthete, friend, philosopher, pragmatist, American, African American, and homosexual?”697 Harris answers this rhetorical question by saying: “One way it is possible, I think, to progressively surmount the vagaries of prejudice is through philosophies born of struggle to overcome oppression.”698 That is, we can best honor Locke by carrying forward his philosophy.
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