Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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In March 1910, Washington Bahá’ís began to hold integrated meetings. These meetings were hosted in the homes of Joseph and Pauline Hannen and Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Dyer. This was proudly announced in the first issue of the new national journal, Bahai News:

On the evening of March 6th, an important gathering assembled at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hannen, representing the joining in one meeting of the white and the colored Bahá’ís and friends of this city. Considerable work is being done among the latter, and a regular weekly meeting is held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Dyer, 1937 13th Street, N.W., on Wednesdays. In February of last year, Abdul-Baha commanded that to prove the validity of our Teachings and as a means of removing existing prejudices between the races, a Spiritual Assembly or meeting be held, preferably at the home of one of the white Bahai’s, in which both races should join. This is the first meeting of that character, and is to be repeated monthly. There were present about 35 persons, one-third of whom were colored, and nearly all believers. It is also planned that every fourth Unity Feast [forerunner of the Nineteen-Day Feast],149 beginning April 9, should be held in such manner that both races can join. This is a radical step in this section of the country, and is in reality making history.150

It is no exaggeration to say how extraordinary this was. After all, Washington, D.C. was a thoroughly segregated city. True, there were some exceptions that proved this rule, in that some churches may have held racially mixed meetings. But “very few if any,” as Robert Stockman points out, “were committed to creating a single religious community out of blacks and whites.”151 (At the same time, it should be added that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá eventually prohibited the restriction to every fourth feast, sending clear instructions that every feast should be open to all Bahá’ís.)152 The Bahá’ís of Washington, D.C. were the first racially integrated Bahá’í community, a fact that had far-reaching consequences for the future development of the North American Bahá’í community, as Stockman also observes:

The fact that the first Bahá’í community in the United States to reach out to black Americans did not establish a separate community for black Bahá’ís was an act of enormous significance for the future course of racial integration in the Bahá’í Faith. It presaged efforts which by the end of the twentieth century had so increased the religion’s black American membership that perhaps thirty percent of the American Bahá’í community was of African descent.153

Prior to March 1910, the Washington Bahá’í community had racially separate meetings, thus adding greater significance to the signal event of March 1910. Once people of color entered the faith, white Bahá’ís—particularly the conservative ones—gave intellectual assent to Bahá’í egalitarian principles, but were simply unaccustomed to mixing with blacks during the Jim Crow era. To some, such integration was moving too fast, too soon. These individuals favored a gradual implementation of Bahá’í teachings on interracial unity. Some early Bahá’ís, particularly within the Washington, D.C. community, wanted to maintain racially separate meetings. Because of the enormous social pressures the Bahá’ís were under, it took considerable time and effort to completely extirpate this problem from the Bahá’í community. These were growing pains, pure and simple. It should be said that erstwhile, Bahá’í leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844–1921), strenuously objected to such practices. He himself was aware of the situation, and, as early as February 1909, had directed the Bahá’ís to hold interracial meetings, as indicated by the report published in the Bahai News.154 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá strained every nerve to root out prejudice within the American Bahá’í community.

Louis Gregory, who had become a Bahá’í in June 1909 and wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that same year, was the first to directly raise this problem to the context of an issue. While enjoying complete acceptance in the home of the Hannens, Gregory encountered the practice of holding racially separate Bahá’í meetings in the community at large. An attorney by profession, Gregory brought this problem to the attention of the local executive body, known as the “Working Committee,” for consultation.155 As the first black Bahá’í from the “Talented Tenth” (W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of the black élite, responsible for the advancement of black citizens, primarily through education), Louis Gregory became an agent of change within the Bahá’í community. What made this social transformation possible were the Bahá’í principles themselves, which were energized and exemplified by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself. By expressing those very principles in poetic language, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá inspired the fledgling American Bahá’í community to take a leadership role in race relations. For the most part, the Bahá’ís successfully overcame the prevailing social norms, and emerged, like a butterfly from its chrysalis, in the vivid colors of racial harmony. A close look at this imagery will show how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá used ennobling language to augment the sense of self-worth in every African American who would take these words to heart.

Blacks as the “Pupil of the Eye”: While there are several passages in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh (1817–1992), prophet–founder of the Bahá’í Faith, that speak to issues of race unity, it was Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844–1921), who drew out the implications of these teachings and prioritized America’s racial crisis as the most urgent task at hand. This can be seen in his talks and “tablets” (letters) to various Bahá’ís within Washington, D.C. and across America. At the level of principle, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá propounded the simple yet profound message of interracial unity. Within his discourse itself, however, he encoded these principles within paradisiac imagery that imparted a new vision of America. The following Tablet from “the Master” (as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was called by Bahá’u’lláh himself), was “revealed” (written) to one Mrs. Pocohontas in Washington. The recipient of the tablet, according to Fá∂il Mázandarání, was a black woman.156 As mentioned earlier, it was through Pauline Hannen that Mrs. Pope learned of the Bahá’í Faith. This is what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to Pocohontas Pope:
Render thanks to the Lord that among that race thou art the first believer, that thou hast engaged in spreading sweet-scented breezes, and hast arisen to guide others. It is my hope that through the bounties and favours of the ‘Abhá Beauty thy countenance may be illumined, thy disposition pleasing, and thy fragrance diffused, that thine eyes may be seeing, thine ears attentive, thy tongue eloquent, thy heart filled with supreme glad-tidings, and thy soul refreshed by divine fragrances, so that thou mayest arise among that race and occupy thyself with the edification of the people, and become filled with light. Although the pupil of the eye is black, it is the source of light. Thou shalt likewise be. The disposition should be bright, not the appearance. Therefore, with supreme confidence and certitude, say: “O God! Make me a radiant light, a shining lamp, and a brilliant star, so that I may illumine the hearts with an effulgent ray from Thy Kingdom of ‘Abha. […].157
The reader is struck by the profusion of light imagery in this densely ornate passage. The Tablet concludes with a prayer both to receive enlightenment and for the power to enlighten others as well. The individual conduit for this spiritual and social illumination is, obviously, Pocohontas Pope herself. Yet there is also a collective application to all people of African descent.

As said, the “pupil of the eye” was a potent, transformative metaphor. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in fact, employed this image in a number of Tablets. The origin of this metaphor is ascribed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to Bahá’u’lláh himself, although there has been no independent attestation of this. The idea, which is more or less self-evident, is that it is the pupil itself that admits light into the eye. In comparing blacks to the pupil of the eye, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appears to be saying that African Americans and people of African descent can, in a sense, illuminate the rest of the human race, by serving as the aperture of light whereby the “eye” or consciousness of the rest of humanity can “see.” A couple of more examples should suffice to show how this efficacious metaphor gained currency within the early Bahá’í community. In a letter (“Tablet”) to Alan A. Anderson (the second African American convert to the Faith in Washington, D.C.), ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

O thou who hast an illumined heart! Thou art even as the pupil of the eye (mardúmak-i chasm), the very wellspring of the light, for God’s love hath cast its rays upon thine in most being and thou hast turned thy face toward the Kingdom of thy Lord.

Intense is the hatred, in America, between black and white, but my hope is that the power of the Kingdom will bind these two in friendship, and serve them as a healing balm.

Let them look not upon a man’s colour but upon his heart. If the heart be filled with light, that man is nigh unto the threshold of his Lord; but if not, that man is careless of his Lord, be he white or be he black.158
In contrast to prevailing social habits, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá emphasizes character over characteristics. That is, one should not focus on another’s extrinsic racial characteristics (“color”), but rather on that person’s intrinsic character (“heart”) as a determinant of moral worth. That one should “not judge a book by its cover,” as the saying goes, is not to say that one should judge others at all (i.e., “Judge not, lest ye be judged”). This is easier said than done, because even some of the Bahá’ís who gave intellectual assent to the elimination of prejudice had to struggle to overcome the subtler, insidious elements of social conditioning. Another example of this rhetoric of stressing character over characteristics may be cited here. In a letter sent through Phoebe Hearst (wife of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), to her servant, Robert Turner, the first African American Bahá’í, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:
O thou who art pure in heart, sanctified in spirit, peerless in character, beauteous in face! Thy photograph hath been received revealing thy physical frame in the utmost grace and the best appearance. Thou art dark in countenance and bright in character. Thou art like unto the pupil of the eye (insán al-‘ayn) which is dark in colour, yet it is the fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.

I have not forgotten nor will I forget thee. I beseech God that He may graciously make thee the sign of His bounty amidst mankind, illumine thy face with the light of such blessings as are vouchsafed by the merciful Lord, single thee out for His love in this age which is distinguished among all the past ages and centuries.159

On first sight, this might appear to be a racial characterization of African Americans. Again, the pattern of stressing character over characteristics obtains here. In this instance, the “character” of all people of African descent as the “pupil of the eye” (Arabic: insán al-‘ayn) is “corporate” or collective. The Persian counterpart for the Arabic term insán is mardúmak. Both terms also refer to a “man” or “human being.” Therefore there appears to be a word-play here, which may have governed the choice of this ennobling and empowering metaphor, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ascribes to Bahá’u’lláh himself: “Bahá’u’lláh once compared the colored people to the black pupil of the eye surrounded by the white. In this black pupil is seen the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the spirit shineth forth.”160

This is obviously an idealized depiction. For, as Richard Thomas observes, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá “transformed the traditional racist color symbolism and imagery into the symbolism and imagery of racial unity.” By so doing, “‘Abdu’l-Bahá enabled them to counter and transcend the racist cultural tendencies so ingrained in the American national character.”161 This same rhetorical strategy of racial upliftment (with a lesser emphasis on integration) was employed by Alain Locke in the essays he personally wrote for his celebrated edited anthology, The New Negro (1925).

There is probably no intrinsic superiority in any race with regard to spiritual endowments as well as physical characteristics. Locke would agree. An ardent admirer of anthropologist Franz Boas, Locke, in his 1916 lectures on race relations, elaborated on Boas’s arguments, effectively demolishing the ideological foundations of scientific racism. But did Locke validate the unique social and cultural bases of “race” in general and recognized the distinctive collective experience of African Americans in particular. By virtue of their long history of oppression in America, African Americans, as a people having a shared experience and thus a common sense of it. And so it is that it can be said that African Americans, generally speaking, do have a collectively deeper and more acute sense of the need for harmony between blacks and whites and, by extension, among all races and ethnicities around the world. This is not essentialism. It is idealism.

The year 1911 was a watershed year in the history of race relations at the international level, because of the First Universal Races Congress held on 26–29 July 1911 at the University of London. Evidently, Locke participated in the event. The Universal Races Congress provided an opportunity for Locke to hear about the Bahá’í Faith through a message that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent to the congress, and which was read and later published in its proceedings.

The two primary organizers of the conference were Dr. Felix Adler (d. 1933), founder of the Ethical Culture Society (whose motto was “Deed not creed”), and Gustav Spiller, who established the London Ethical Culture Movement. Locke’s mother, Mary Locke, was a disciple of Adler, who was a Jewish rabbi. The purpose of this congress was to promote greater understanding between East and West. While British Bahá'ís participated in the event, of far greater moment was the invitation the organizers sent to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, to speak before the congress. Declining to do so because of unmitigated circumstances, the Bahá’í leader did send a message to be read to the conference participants. It said, in part:
When travelling around the world we observe an air of prosperity in any country, we find it due to the existence of love and friendship among the people. If, on the contrary, all seems depressed and poverty-stricken, we may feel assured that this is the effect of animosity, and of the absence of union among the inhabitants. […]

Rivalry between the different races of mankind was first caused by the struggle for existence among the wild animals. This struggle is no longer necessary: nay, rather! Interdependence and co-operation are seen to produce the highest welfare in nations. The struggle that now continues is caused by prejudice and bigotry.162

While his theory of the origin of racism is open to interpretation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s admonition that racism must be actively transmuted into racial harmony is abundantly clear. He concludes his Tablet to the Universal Races Congress so: “This Congress is one of the greatest of events. It will be forever to the glory of England that it was established at her capital. […] Let Brotherhood be felt and seen among you; and carry ye its quickening power throughout the world. It is my prayer that the work of the Congress will bear great fruit.”163 The published Tablet was preceded by a short introduction to the Bahá’í Faith written by Major Wellesley Tudor–Pole,164 who had averted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s threatened execution in Palestine several years earlier.

As if the Master’s wish were fulfilled, Alain Locke was inspired to carry on the work of the Congress at Howard University. “Ladies and Gentlemen: Ever since the possibility of a comparative study of races dawned upon me at the Races Congress in London in 1911,” as Locke began the first of five historic lectures on race relations he delivered at Howard University in 1916, “I have had the courage of a very optimistic and steadfast belief that in the scientific approach to the race question, there was the possibility of a redemption for those false attitudes of mind which have, unfortunately, so complicated the idea and conception of race that there are a great many people who fancy that the best thing that can possibly be done, if possible at all, is to throw race out of the categories of human thinking.”165

No firm conclusions can yet be drawn as to whether or not Locke first heard of the Bahá’í Faith during the Universal Races Congress. Had he been vigilant in attending every session, he surely would have. While the event itself had an immediate impact on the course of his research that came to fruition in his five race relations lectures at Howard in 1916, his first impression of the Bahá’í message—if he had heard it—must have been favorable.

Having returned from Europe in 1911, Locke began his academic career at Howard University on 13 September 1912, as Assistant Professor of the Teaching of English and Instructor in Philosophy and Education under Lewis B. Moore. Locke taught English, literature, ethics and education in the Teachers College at Howard University. On Moore’s retirement in 1912, Locke’s teaching duties expanded to include ethics and logic.166

Earlier, in the spring, Locke had personally traveled with Booker T. Washington through Florida, beginning in Pensacola, from March 1st to March 8th. The opportunity arose when a certain Dr. S. G. Elbert cancelled.167 There is a curious Western Union telegram from sheriff John B. Winston, sent to the “Conductor, Seaboard Air Line Train, between River Junction and Tallahassee, which demands: “Is negro from Pennsylvania, answering to name of Locke or Lacke on train. Supposed to be traveling with B. T. Washington. Answer my expense and if found hold for this place.”168 Beyond this, the extent of Locke’s travels is unclear, but his trip probably lasted through the summer as Jeffrey Stewart seems to indicate.

In securing this position, Locke was indebted to Booker T. Washington, whose intercession was a major influence in the university’s decision to hire him. In a letter dated 10 Aug. 1912, Washington instructed Locke: “In conection [sic] with the Howard University matter I would state that I had a conference with Professor Kelly Miller concerning you a few days ago, and I advise that you see him whenever it is convenient for you to do so.”169 Locke, in an undated letter, expressed his deepest appreciation to Washington. That letter begins with the news: “My dear Dr Washington[:] I was just on the point of writing you when I received your kindly letter of the 12th last, Saturday the 14th I was elected an asst Professor at Howard, in English + Philosophy […].”170 What appears to have been Locke’s actual letter of appointment was signed by George Williams Cook, Secretary and Business Manager, who later became professor and the first dean of the College of Commerce and Finance, whose wife, Coralie Franklin Cook, was a well-known Bahá’í.171 However, it was not Booker T. Washington’s ideology (with which Locke, in part, disagreed) but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s egalitarian principles that would, six years later, provide Locke with his philosophical framework in which both race loyalty and integration (as distinct from the one-directional emphasis of assimilationism) had a place. In one of many commitments to follow throughout his career, Locke served as an assistant organizer of the Emancipation Proclamation Commission (based in Trenton, New Jersey), which seemed to have some connection with Washington.172

1912 was the year that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came to America. He spent 239 days in the United States and Canada, from his arrival on 11 April 1912 to his departure on 5 December 1912. During his historic visit, practically his every word and deed was recorded for posterity, and there was extensive press coverage. His anecdotal legacy was nearly as important as his message. Recalling the so-called “Rhetorical Triangle”—logos (message), pathos (passion), and ethos (credibility)—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in promoting the Bahá’í gospel of racial unity, established his ethos by example. His very presence, in both what he said and did, had an enormous impact on the early North American Bahá’í community. Locke would soon hear about this remarkable man and the message to America that he brought. One of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s entourage, in a letter dated 28 Sept. 1913, observed:
I can never forget the day in Washington, when our Beloved Abdu’l-Baha called on the Ambassador of Turkey. He was sitting near the window, watching the number of men and women passing by. At the time[,] a young negro as black as coal passed by. “Did you see that young black negro?” He asked. “Yes,” I answered. “I declare by Baha’O’llah [sic] that I wish him to become as radiant as the shining sun which is flooding the world with its glorious lights,” He said earnestly.”173

After spending his first days in New York, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came to Washington, D.C. Evidently, at that time, Locke did not have the opportunity to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. From the publicity that his visit generated, it would be hard to imagine missing some report of it. On just his tenth day in America—Saturday, April 20th—‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in Washington, D.C. and stayed until Sunday, April 28. Toward the end of his visit, the Washington Bee, one of the city newspapers, published a story that read, in part: “Its [the Bahá’í Faith’s] white devotees, even in this prejudice-ridden community, refuse to draw the color line. The informal meetings, held frequently in the fashionable mansions of the cultured society in Sheridan Circle, Dupont Circle, Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues, have been open to Negroes on terms of absolute equality.”174 This expression, the “color-line,” is particularly poignant in light W. E. B. Du Bois’ famous statement in 1903: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”175 On Tuesday morning, April 23rd, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke in Rankin Chapel at Howard University. Well over a thousand faculty, administrators, students and guests176 crowded the relatively small space of this modest chapel to hear him speak. This is how he opened his talk:

Today I am most happy, for I see here a gathering of the servants of God. I see white and black sitting together. There are no whites and blacks before God. All colors are one, and that is the color of servitude to God. Scent and color are not important. The heart is important. If the heart is pure, white or black or any color makes no difference. God does not look at colors; He looks at the hearts. He whose heart is pure is better. He whose character is better is more pleasing. He who turns more to the Abha Kingdom is more advanced.

In the realm of existence colors are of no importance. Observe in the mineral kingdom colors are not the cause of discord. In the vegetable kingdom the colors of multicolored flowers are not the cause of discord. Rather, colors are the cause of the adornment of the garden because a single color has no appeal; but when you observe many-colored flowers, there is charm and display.

The world of humanity, too, is like a garden, and humankind are like the many-colored flowers. Therefore, different colors constitute an adornment. In the same way, there are many colors in the realm of animals. Doves are of many colors; nevertheless, they live in utmost harmony. They never look at color; instead, they look at the species. How often white doves fly with black ones. In the same way, other birds and varicolored animals never look at color; they look at the species.

Now ponder this: Animals, despite the fact that they lack reason and understanding, do not make colors the cause of conflict. Why should man, who has reason, create conflict? This is wholly unworthy of him. Especially white and black are the descendants of the same Adam; they belong to one household. In origin they were one; they were the same color. Adam was of one color. Eve had one color. All humanity is descended from them. Therefore, in origin they are one. These colors developed later due to climates and regions; they have no significance whatsoever. Therefore, today I am very happy that white and black have gathered together in this meeting. I hope this coming together and harmony reaches such a degree that no distinctions shall remain between them, and they shall be together in the utmost harmony and love.177

This part of the speech was homiletic. While making the point that, in the natural world, color has no intrinsic value except to enrich human diversity, in the human world color had taken on huge and determinative proportions. All too cognizant of this fact, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued to stress character over characteristic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, moreover, expressed his genuine delight that the meeting itself was interracial. This, in itself, portended a gradual improvement in race relations over time. (Of course, with the 1919 race riots in Washington, D.C. and later crises, things would have to get a lot worse before they would get better.)

The next segment of his speech is significant in that, while well received at the time, may be judged harshly by contemporary standards. Rather than glossing over it, time spent in contextualizing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s remarks will repay the effort. He went on to say:

But I wish to say one thing in order that the blacks may become grateful to the whites and the whites become loving toward the blacks. If you go to Africa and see the blacks of Africa, you will realize how much progress you have made. Praise be to God! You are like the whites; there are no great distinctions left. But the blacks of Africa are treated as servants. The first proclamation of emancipation for the blacks was made by the whites of America. How they fought and sacrificed until they freed the blacks! Then it spread to other places. The blacks of Africa were in complete bondage, but your emancipation led to their freedom also—that is, the European states emulated the Americans, and the emancipation proclamation became universal. It was for your sake that the whites of America made such an effort. Were it not for this effort, universal emancipation would not have been proclaimed.

Therefore, you must be very grateful to the whites of America, and the whites must become very loving toward you so that you may progress in all human grades. Strive jointly to make extraordinary progress and mix together completely. In short, you must be very thankful to the whites who were the cause of your freedom in America. Had you not been freed, other blacks would not have been freed either. Now—praise be to God!—everyone is free and lives in tranquility. I pray that you attain to such a degree of good character and behavior that the names of black and white shall vanish. All shall be called human, just as the name for a flight of doves is dove. They are not called black and white. Likewise with other birds.178

A brief look at history discloses that, while slavery caused the Civil War, initially the war was not fought to end it. Northern Democrats, in fact, had vigorously opposed emancipation. Prior to his decision to issue the Proclamation, Lincoln, as an emigrationist, favored “compensated emancipation” (where slave owners would be paid for their slaves), followed by the colonization of blacks in Central America, until Frederick Douglass accused the president of hypocrisy, saying: “This is our country as much as it is yours, and we will not leave it.”179 While his unwavering purpose for the Civil War was to preserve the Union, mounting pressure from Congress and around the country made Lincoln more sympathetic to abolition.

Abraham Lincoln promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 Jan. 1863, technically freeing slaves in those states still in rebellion. Prior to this, Lincoln had issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 Sept. 1862, which freed no slaves whatsoever. With this advance notice, Lincoln had given the Confederate states one hundred days in which to rejoin the Union. Had they done so, Lincoln’s objective of preserving the Union would have been achieved at the expense of slavery, which he was prepared to tolerate.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation was a sweeping proclamation, it was narrow in its scope. It neither applied to slaves in border states fighting on the Union side nor did it affect slaves in southern areas already under Union control. Few were actually freed by the proclamation. And the proclamation itself did not actually end slavery. This would be achieved by passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on 18 Dec. 1865. Once he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, however, Lincoln made it clear to America and the world that the Civil War was now being fought to end slavery. While the Proclamation had its limits, it was welcomed in principle by Frederick Douglass and by all of the estimated four million African Americans around the country. For them, New Year’s Day had become Emancipation Day. The Proclamation gave moral authority to the Union cause.

In light of these facts, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s observations had their basis in later developments in the Civil War. To have dwelt on the issue of whites having instituted slavery in the first place would have frustrated ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s purpose, which was interracial reconciliation. His admonition that blacks ought to be grateful to whites for their role in emancipation and liberation had the force of rhetoric. It was calculated to reorient entrenched racialized attitudes. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá focused on the consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War, which partly set in motion a chain of events whereby other countries eventually abolished slavery as well. While statements on Africa would not be politically correct by today’s standards, his rhetorical purpose would. To the extent that context interprets text, one can appreciate why the audience gave ‘Abdu’l-Bahá so resounding an ovation.180 Continuing on, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said:

I hope that you attain to such a high degree—and this is impossible except through love. You must try to create love between yourselves; and this love does not come about unless you are grateful to the whites, and the whites are loving toward you, and endeavor to promote your advancement and enhance your honor. This will be the cause of love. Differences between black and white will be completely obliterated; indeed, ethnic and national differences will all disappear.

I am very happy to see you and thank God that this meeting is composed of people of both races and that both are gathered in perfect love and harmony. I hope this becomes the example of universal harmony and love until no title remains except that of humanity. Such a title demonstrates the perfection of the human world and is the cause of eternal glory and human happiness. I pray that you be with one another in utmost harmony and love and strive to enable each other to live in comfort.181

There is an element of prophecy in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá prediction that racial, ethnic, and national differences would, in the future, altogether disappear. As prophecy requires mechanisms for its fulfillment, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá invites his audience to make history, to begin a new era of racial harmony. When is not known, but certainly Locke must have heard of this talk.

The very next night, on April 24, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew J. Dyer. As one of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá translators, Dr. Zia Mabsut Bagdadi (who would later serve with Alain Locke on Inter-racial Amity Committees), wrote in his diary: “In the evening, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the white and colored believers and their friends at the home of Mrs. Dyer, a member of the colored race.”182 Imagine the impact of the following statement on the racially mixed audience, especially on the African Americans who were present:

This evening is very good. This evening is in reality very good. When a man looks at a meeting like this, he is reminded of the gathering together of pearls and rubies, diamonds and sapphires put together. How beautiful! How delightful! It is most beautiful. It is a source of joy. Whatsoever is conducive to the unity of the world of men is most acceptable and most praiseworthy. And whatsoever is the cause of discord in the world of humanity is saddening.183
According to Dr. Khazeh Fananapazir, the original Persian of this discourse does not exists in Khi†ábát. However, Zarqání, in his diary entry for 24 April 1912, Badá-yi al-Áthár, states:
‘Abdu'l-Bahá remarked: “Before I arrived, I felt too tired to speak at this meeting. But at the sight of such genuine love and attraction between the white and the black friends (ulfat va injizáb ah.ibbá-yi síyáh va sifíd), I was so moved that I spoke with great love and likened (tashbíh. namúdam) this union of different colored races (ittih.ád-i alván-i mukhtalifah) to a string of gleaming pearls and rubies (la’álí va yaqút).184
‘Abdu’l-Bahá used striking imagery in comparing his audience to pearls and rubies, sapphires and diamonds. As Bahá’í authors have quoted them over the decades since this memorable night, these words echo down to this day. On that night in Washington, D.C., ‘Abdu’l-Bahá concluded his address in saying: “When the racial elements of the American nation unite in actual fellowship and accord, the lights of the oneness of humanity will shine, the day of eternal glory and bliss will dawn, the spirit of God encompass and the divine favors descend. […] This is the sign of the ‘Most Great Peace’.”185

In the Dean’s office of Rankin Chapel on the Howard University campus, a “Prayer for Washington” is elegantly famed and presented on the wall. This prayer reads as follows:

O God! Grant Washington happiness and peace. Illuminate that land with the light of the faces of the friends. Make it a paradise of glory. Let it become an envy of the green gardens of the earth. Help the friends. Increase their numbers. Make their hearts sources of inspiration, and their souls dawnings of light. Thus may that city become a beautiful paradise, and fragrant with the fragrance of musk.186
That prayer was revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The circumstances of its revelation have not yet been established. Suffice it to say that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Washington, D.C. and in other major cities across the United States and Canada was a resounding success. These events provide the immediate background to Locke’s attraction to the Bahá’í Faith. While the precise circumstances are not known, much can be surmised from the few facts and pieces of evidence at hand.

A note on Locke’s rank at Howard: Although he was hired as an assistant professor of English, he appeared on the payroll as “NO. 29, A.L. Locke, Instructor in English.”187 The problem was resolved four days later, on 14 Jan. 1913.188

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