Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy



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Final Thoughts on Locke: It is in the realm of race relations that Alain Locke speaks to America today. As an American icon, Locke is both ebony and ivory. He was—and still is—a statesman across America’s racial divide. In a letter dated 7 Nov. 1943 to the editor of The Washington Star, Locke cites, with approval, a story that appeared in the Nov. 2 Salt Lake Tribune, which quoted him as saying:
There must be complete consistency between what democracy professes and what democracy practices. […] Public opinion in America has got to be sold on racial democracy. Now is the time for the people to face this question. Race equality alone can secure world peace. […] To save the United States from moral bankruptcy we must solve the color problem.889
If interracial unity, beyond racial justice, was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” for America, it was Alain LeRoy Locke’s vision for the world. Locke prized unity. He had a disdain for black “self-segregation”890 as well as for Jim Crow segregation. In an unpublished essay that Johnny Washington titled, “The Paradox of Race,” Locke not only advocated racial integration but encouraged interracial marriage as well.891 It is quite clear that Locke’s vision of interracial unity was inspired by his experience as a member of the early American Bahá’í community. Interracial unity, in Bahá’í parlance, is often described as “unity in diversity”—a term that encompasses the entire range of human differences.892 This term appears in both Locke’s philosophical as well as religious essays.

One can tentatively say that the Bahá’í principle of “unity in diversity” has indirectly influenced African American philosophy by way of Locke. This study has also suggested that Locke’s religious works were informed by his philosophy, which served as the “handmaid of theology” while the Bahá’í Faith served as Locke’s handmaid of philosophy. Not only was there a synergy between the two, but there was also a creative connection between Locke’s Bahá’í values and philosophical commitments. For instance, in his essay, “Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle,” Locke praises Royce: “Josiah Royce, one of the greatest American philosophers[,] saw this problem more clearly than any other western thinker, which is nothing more or less than a vindication of the principle of unity and diversity carried out to a practical degree of spiritual reciprocity.” Here, Locke directly correlates religious and philosophical principles.

The salience of race remains a social fact. Synergized by Bahá’í values, Locke adroitly linked race progress with world peace. In one of his Bahá’í essays, “Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle,” Locke states: “Each period of a faith imposes a special new problem” (PAL 137). In a philosophical essay, “Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace,” Locke expresses a similar conviction, hinting at what would today be called a paradigm shift: “There has never been a new age without a new scholarship, or, to put it more accurately, without a profound realignment of scholarship” (PAL 72). Locke’s realignment of scholarship was to detoxify “race” of its biologism, to transform “race” into culture, to “convert parochial thinking into global thinking” (PAL 268) and to promote “progressive vistas of the new intercultural internationalism” with “passports of world citizenship good for safe ideological conduct anywhere” (PAL 99). “The intellectual core of the problems of the peace […],” Locke maintains, “will be the discovery of the necessary common denominators and the basic equivalences involved in a democratic world order or democracy on a world scale” (PAL 62).

As a religious personality, Locke was always listed in biographies as an Episcopalian, the denomination in which he was raised. In a real sense, Locke was a Christian–Bahá’í. This was due, in no small measure, to his mother’s influence. While, at first, she urged him to become a Methodist,893 she later encouraged him to become a more fully committed Bahá’í.894



Locke’s religious convictions were, at times, expressed in different ways. For instance, in an unpublished autobiographical statement, Locke wrote: “I am really a Xtian [sic] without believing any of its dogma, because I am incapable of feeling hatred, revenge or jealously—though filled all the time with righteous indignation. […] I have always hoped to be big enough to have to justify myself not to my contemporaries but to posterity. Small men apologize to their neighbors, big men to posterity.”895 Compare this private statement to one that was almost certainly intended for the public: In his untitled manuscript, to which we have provisionally assigned the title, “The Gospel of the Twentieth Century.” Locke expresses his appreciation of—and solidarity with—the Bahá’í Faith, in these words:
The gospel for the Twentieth Century rises out of the heart of its greatest problems—and few who are spiritually enlightened doubt the nature of that problem. […] The redemption of society—social salvation, should have been sought after first […] The fundamental problems of current America are materiality and prejudice. […] And so we must say[,] with the acute actualities of America’s race problem and the acute potentialities of her economic problem, [that] the land that is nearest to material democracy is furthest away from spiritual democracy […] And we must begin heroically with the greatest apparent irreconcilables: the East and the west, the black man and the self-arrogating Anglo-Saxon, for unless these are reconciled, the salvation of society cannot be. If the world had believingly understood the full significance of Him [Jesus Christ] who taught it to pray and hope[,] “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven[,]” who also said[,] “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” already we should be further toward the realization of this great millen[n]ial vision. The word of God is still insistent, and more emphatic as the human redemption delays and becomes more crucial, and we have what Dr. Elsemont [Esslemont] rightly calls Baha’u’llah’s “one great trumpet-call to humanity”: “That all nations shall become one in faith, and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled... These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and family.[”]896
In racially segregated America with its Jim Crow coercions, Locke’s universalism far exceeded the scope of his contemporaries. But what is Locke’s standing among his successors, the Black pragmatists of today? Cornel West, America’s leading Black philosopher, is dismissive of his forebear: “And as much as I respect pioneering figures such as the legendary Alain Locke (encouraged by the pathblazing work of Leonard Harris and others) […] I find the notion of Locke as a towering philosophic figure suspect […].” West goes on to say: “I read Locke’s Harvard dissertation and many other writings in preparation for a Harvard conference in 1974 on Locke […]. I concluded then that he was a towering man of letters with a fine training in philosophy. Yet he never fulfilled his great promise in either philosophy or criticism.”897 Fellow Black pragmatist Leonard Harris would take umbrage with this estimate. In Harris’ rediscovery of Locke’s published work and recovery of his unpublished work, we find that Locke’s philosophy of democracy stands just as tall, as eloquent, and as inspired as Cornel West’s prophetic pragmatism. Both men are recognized as important cultural critics. Their respective philosophies broaden our scope and enlarge our moral vision. But Locke did much more. As a catalyst of Black culture—Locke was the godfather of an artistic movement that was truly historic. While West was explicit as to his Christian convictions, Locke was professionally discreet. Indeed, during his periods of estrangement, there were moments of real ambivalence about his relationship to the predominantly white Bahá’í community. Yet, Locke’s adherence to his core Bahá’í principles of interracial unity and its integrationist implications deeply rooted and unswerving.

Cornel West has been described as a Black pragmatist whose “prophetic pragmatism” is inspired by “his trinity of Christ, Marx, and Dewey.”898 As the Cornel West of the Jim Crow era, Locke’s own prophetic pragmatism drew its inspiration from the trinity of Bahá’u’lláh, Royce, and Boas. One can say that Locke has synthesized faith (Bahá’u’lláh) and philosophy (Royce), reinforced by scientific anthropology (Boas). While all but Josiah Royce among the first white pragmatists had turned a blind eye to race, Locke would agree with Cornel West in characterizing American pragmatism as “unique as a philosophical tradition in the modern world in its preoccupation or near obsession with the meaning and value of democracy.”899 (Here, pragmatism West’s synecdoche for philosopher John Dewey.) Although West, in The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989), had excluded him, Locke has finally entered the canon of American philosophy and taken his rightful place in the philosophical pantheon with the appearance of John Stuhr’s Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy (2000).900 This is a belated but welcome recognition of Locke’s contribution as a pragmatist philosopher. Indeed, Louis Menand, in his edited anthology, Pragmatism: A Reader, credits Horace Kallen, Alain Locke and Randolph Bourne with the philosophical shift from metaphysical to cultural pluralism. In an unpublished “Private Memorandum,” Locke reflected on his achievements:


I have taught continuously at Howard University from 1912 to date, with the exception of two years, 1925–27 when I was discharged[.] My main objectives have been to use philosophy as an agent for stimulating critical mindedness in Negro youth, to help transform segregated educational missions into centers of cultural and social leadership, and to organise an advance-guard of creative talent for cultural inspiration and prestige. Unless education be construed in the broad sense of moulding thought and public opinion, my work has no special claims in this field, but rather in that of belles lettres on the one hand and race relations on the other.901
As one indication of Locke’s contribution to American pragmatism, Locke, in his essay, “Values and Imperatives,” has identified a gap—a flaw really—in American philosophy, for not having given due consideration to the role of feelings in the formation of social values. As though pragmatism itself was guilty of its own inert abstraction, Locke writes:
[W]e again have made common cause with the current scientific attitude; making truth too exclusively a matter of the correct anticipation of experience, of the confirmation of fact. Yet truth may also sometimes be the sustaining of an attitude, the satisfaction of a way of feeling, the corroboration of a value. To the poet, beauty is truth; to the religious devotee, God is truth; to the enthused moralist, what ought-to-be overtops factual reality. It is perhaps to be expected that the typical American philosophies should concentrate almost exclusively on thought-action as the sole criterion of experience, and should find analysis of the emotional aspects of human behavior uncongenial. This in itself, incidentally, is a confirming example of an influential value-set, amounting in this instance to a grave cultural bias. (PAL 37)
Public intellectuals dare not be perceived as parochial. Locke was at his religious best in not being openly religious. But the reader should bear in mind that, while identified as an “Episcopalian” in Who’s Who and other biographical entries published in his own lifetime, Locke’s only published religious self-identification was as a Bahá’í, as can be seen in his several Bahá’í World essays. Public display or ostentation in matters of religion could jeopardize one’s career and professional reputation among peers. In secularizing the sacred, Locke was following a venerable American tradition. Through his unique synergy of faith and philosophy, Locke fused pragmatism with prophecy to achieve a constructive synthesis—his multidimensional philosophy of democracy. Locke’s Athenian city-state was Harlem, but his wider democratic vista was the world. The Harlem Renaissance, philosophically framed by the New Negro Movement of which Locke was the principal spokesman, was a black empowerment movement in which art was at heart. Except in conferences at which he presented, Locke contributed relatively little to the formal philosophy of his day. He took his philosophy of democracy directly to the people, especially in radio broadcasts and public lectures during World War II. Art was philosophy applied. So also in the adult education movement in which Locke took a leadership role.

Just as Locke cannot be understood without reference to his intellectual pedigree, the Bahá’í Faith was part and parcel of Locke’s spiritual pedigree. It was the dominant spiritual influence on him. In his application of Bahá’í principles and values, Locke’s life and work is a testament to William James’s dictum: “Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action.”902 As in his advice to his fellow Bahá’ís, Locke imposed upon himself the “task of transposing the traditional Bahá’í reciprocity between religions into the social and cultural denominationalisms of nation, race and class, and vindicating anew upon this plane the precious legacy of the inspired teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Bahá’u’lláh” (PAL 138). In an age of social conformity and racial oppression, Locke championed Bahá’í principles through what Bahá’ís refer to as the “indirect teaching” method. Locke might not have conceptualized his activities in quite this way. But he was always “transposing” Bahá’í principles in his vocation as a philosopher, and reciprocally as well. That “synergy” between Locke’s professional philosophical and confessional Bahá’í essays has been demonstrated in this study, amply and abundantly, by means of adducing parallels and shared vocabulary between Locke’s philosophical and other secular writings, and his Bahá’í essays, both published and unpublished. Although a formal discipline of Bahá’í philosophy has not yet evolved, whenever and in whatever form a distinctive Bahá’í philosophy emerges, it will look back, as one of its forebears, on Alain Locke, Bahá’í philosopher.

Transcending confessional boundaries, Locke claims a rightful place in American history as a champion of democracy. Through his extensive race relations work both as a race leader and cultural pluralist, Locke did more for American unity than any other American during the first half of the twentieth century. In this, he surpassed the towering influence of the great W. E. B. Du Bois. As the year 2004 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Locke’s passing, Americans would do well to revaluate Locke and realize his continuing relevance for race relations today. While Du Bois articulated “the problem of the color line” with greater precision and persuasion than ever before or after, Alain Locke formulated “the solution to the color line” more fully and eloquently than ever before. In this important respect, Locke may be said to have further democratized American democracy. While Du Bois more or less gave up on it at the end of his life, Locke championed American democratic ideals throughout his life. While his vision was global, Locke articulated America’s “world role” in moral and social terms, just as Woodrow Wilson first defined America’s world role politically as to international relations.

If remembered by history exclusively in terms of his pivotal role in the Harlem Renaissance, Locke would remain little more than a footnote. That’s over and done with as a closed chapter in American history. There is plenty of debate regarding Locke’s theories of art, of course. And he did have his eccentricities that either annoy or endear us to him in retrospect. Yet Locke lives on in American thought. In his critique of “scientific” racism, “Locke’s rejection of the idea that biological races exist and were biological[ly] caused to express cultural traits went beyond the most progressive scholar during his life in the new field of anthropology — Franz Boas.”903 In his advocacy of a healthy balance between pride in one’s African American heritage and one’s wider identity as an American citizen and world–citizen, Locke went well beyond Du Bois and other leaders in championing racial harmony. In this, he was inspired by his Bahá’í ideals. History may look back on that fledgling community as really being quite far in advance of its time. The American Bahá’í community was the most progressive advocate of racial harmony. And so was Locke. History should remember Locke for more than his role in the Harlem Renaissance. Locke was the renaissance man of American democracy. Today, Locke is of far greater importance as a cultural pluralist. Synergistically intensified by his Bahá’í commitment to “race amity,” Locke’s philosophy of democracy remains a living legacy. Locke is a key to unity.


Christopher Buck

17 July 2002

(Revised 31 January 2003)

(Revised 31 August 2003)

(Revised 29 September 2003)

(Revised 22 December 2004)

Lansing, Michigan
Appendix
Newly Discovered Letters by Shoghi Effendi to Alain Locke
These letters are dated 15 February 1930 and 5 July 1930. The first begins:
Persian Colony, Haifa

15-II-30 [sic]

Dear Dr. Locke:
Shoghi Effendi has been lately spending his leisure hours translating the Book of Iqan for he considers it to be the key to a true understanding of the Holy Scriptures, & [sic] can easily rank as one of the most, if not the most, important thing that Baha’u’llah revealed explaining the basic beliefs of the Cause. He who fully grasps the purport of that Book can claim to have understood the Cause.

Yet, Shoghi Effendi believes that mere translation into English phrases is not sufficient. It is essential to make the idioms & expressions lively English, a thing which he alone cannot possibly achieve. Thinking, therefore, that you will be the best fitted to render him an assistance along that line, he is sending you the part that he has already completed. He would be most appreciative if you go over it carefully, studying every sentence— its structure as well as choice of words— & giving him your criticism as well as constructive suggestions that would make it more lucid, English [sic] & forceful. As it is a Holy Scripture, Shoghi Effendi has tried to put it in the English of the Bible, preferring its ways of expression better than any other. What he sends you now is half of the book, the rest he will mail as it is translated.

The form that it is in at present is far from being the last one. Yet he wishes to have all the possible suggestions before he puts it in its final form.

Shoghi Effendi is fully aware of the many duties you have & how pressing your time is, & had he known of an equally fitting person he would surely have saved you the trouble. Yet he finds himself to be compelled. He hopes, therefore, that you will give this work your close attention.

If the book is completed & rendered into a lucid & forceful language, the service it will render to the Cause will surely repay all your endeavours. In many places you will see the same idea expressed in other words & inserted in paranthesis [sic]. You can chose [sic] any of the two. In case you have any suggestions just mention in what page & line it is. You need not send him back the copy after going over it, for he may desire to refer to them later. He has enough copies here. Though he wishes you to give it all

your attention he will be much obliged if you take it up immediately.


With deepest appreciation

Yours ever sincerely


Ruhi Afnan
The second letter (5 July 1930) was sent to Locke to acknowledge his editorial assistance:
49 Persian Colony

Haifa, Palestine

5-7-30
Dear Prof. Locke:

Shoghi Effendi wishes me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter as well as the mss. of the Iqan which you had so kindly gone over. Though they were not so many, he found the suggestions you gave most helpful. In translation work the greatest difficulty is to give the thought a lively English expression. This is most difficult for the person who gets absorbed into the original form & is charmed with its beauty. Shoghi Effendi has already incorporated your suggestions & sent his manuscript to the National Assembly for publication. It naturally depends upon that body & the reviewing & publishing committees to decide whether it should come out immediately or not.

The most important service that can now be rendered to the Cause is to put the writings of Baha’u’llah in a form that would be presentable to the intellectual minds of the west. Shoghi Effendi’s hope in this work has been to encourage others along this line.

In closing may I express Shoghi Effendi’s best wishes for your health as well as for the services you are rendering to the Cause.


Yours ever sincerely
Ruhi Afnan.
[Postscript in the Guardian’s own hand:]
My dear co-worker:
I wish to add a few words expressing my deep appreciation of your valued suggestions in connexion with the translation of the Iqan. I wish also to express the hope that you may be able to lend increasing assistance to the work of the Cause, as I have always greatly admired your exceptional abilities & capacity to render distinguished services to the Faith. I grieve to hear of the weakness of your heart which I trust may through treatment be completely restored. I often remember you in my prayers and ever cherish the hope of welcoming you again in the Master’s home.
Your true brother,
Shoghi


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Index


1Endnotes

David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Penguin, 1998), xxviii.



2 “Perhaps our first national book.” Houston A. Baker, Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), cited (but with no page ref.) by Mark Helbling, The Harlem Renaissance: The One and the Many (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 46.

3 Christopher Buck, “Alain Locke.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement XIV. Edited by Jay Parini. Farmington Hills, MI: Scribner’s Reference/The Gale Group, 2004): 109–219. See also Buck, “Alain Locke and Cultural Pluralism.” Search for Values: Ethics in Baha’i Thought. Edited by Seena Fazel and John Danesh. Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2004. Pp. 94–158; and Buck, “Alain Locke: Bahá’í Philosopher.” Baha’i Studies Review 10 (2001/2002): 7–49.

4 Although dates for the Harlem Renaissance rarely agree, Lewis, writes: “From its authentic beginnings in 1919, with soldiers returning from the Great War, to its sputtering end in 1934, with the Great Depression deaths of two principals, the racial goals of the Harlem Renaissance remained constant.” Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, xxviii.

5 From youth, Locke was enamored of classical and European culture. Although he wrote poetry, which he privately circulated, and had once attempted a novel, Locke remained a frustrated artist, but a brilliant promoter of African American (and African) art. See Jeffrey Conrad Stewart, A Biography of Alain Locke: Philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance, 1886–1930. Ph.D. Dissertation: Yale University, 1979, 59.

6 Columbus Salley, The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African–Americans, Past and Present. Revised and updated (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1999 [1993]), 137.

7 George Hutchison, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1995), 390.

8 Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, xxviii.

9 Winston Napier, “Affirming Critical Conceptualism: Harlem Renaissance Aesthetics and the Formation of Alain Locke’s Social Philosophy,” The Massachusetts Review 39.1 (Spring 1998): 94.

10 Eric King Watts, “African American Ethos and Hermeneutical Rhetoric: An Exploration of Alain Locke’s The New Negro.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88.1 (Feb. 2002): 19–32, citing Houston Baker, Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 85.

11 Alain Locke, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” Survey Graphic 6.6 (March 1925). Online at
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