Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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Alain Locke:

Faith and Philosophy
Christopher Buck

31 March 2003

Revised 2 September 2003.

(With minor revisions: 29 December 2003

& 22 December 2004)

© 2002 by Christopher Buck


Foreword (by Leonard Harris)
Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

The Early Washington, D.C. Bahá’í Community
Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Race Amity
Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Harlem Renaissance and Bahá’í Service
Chapter Eight

Estrangement and Rededication
Chapter Nine

Bahá’í Essays
Chapter Ten

Alain Locke’s Philosophy of Democracy:

America, Race, and World Peace
Chapter Eleven
Concluding Observations
Newly Discovered Letters by Shoghi Effendi to Alain Locke

Archival sources cited in this book were obtained primarily from the Alain Locke Papers, Manuscript Division, Moorland–Spingarn Research Center (MSRC), Howard University, provided courtesy of Dr. Ida Jones, manuscript librarian, whose assistance is gratefully acknowledged; from the National Bahá’í Archives (NBA), U.S. Bahá’í National Center, provided courtesy of Roger M. Dahl, archivist, whose assistance is also gratefully acknowledged; and from the International Bahá’í Archives at the Bahá’í World Centre on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, provided courtesy of the Research Department on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, which has given invaluable assistance not only for this project, but for the research in my previous books, Symbol and Secret (1995) and Paradise and Paradigm (1999), as well as for some of my other publications.

Funding for my research visit to Howard University in summer 2000 was provided in large part by Anthony Lee on behalf of Kalimát Press, which has also underwritten most of the research costs incurred in requesting various documents from other archival collections as well. The Michigan State University Library interlibrary loan staff have enabled me to access some relatively rare publications. I am also indebted to Gayle Morrison, editor-in-chief of the Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project, for her careful reading and critical comments on a previous version of this manuscript, as well as to Dr. Robert Stockman, Research Director at the Bahá’í National Center, for the detailed feedback that he has provided. Any and all errors remain my own.

I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Dr. Seena Fazel, former co-editor of the Bahá’í Studies Review (the premier academic Bahá’í studies journal), for inviting me to contribute an original article on Alain Locke for publication (2002). This was the genesis of my research on Locke. Dr. Fazel later reprinted a slightly abridged revision of that article in the multi-author volume that he and John Danesh co-edited, Search for Values (2004). I also wish to thank Jay Parini, editor of the American Writers series, for soliciting my biographical and literary essay, “Alain Locke” (2004) which presented, for the first time in scholarship, a coherent view of Locke’s philosophy of democracy and of his vision of America. Noteworthy for his interest as well, Dr. Richard W. Thomas, professor of history at Michigan State University, will anthologize the earlier Locke article in a volume on illustrious African American Bahá’ís (forthcoming). All this professional interest in Locke and the resulting publications have given this book project an immense impetus in crystallizing my thinking on Locke and sharpening my thesis.

Dr. Michael Rochester, former member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada and Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Physics at Memorial University of Newfoundland, sent me invaluable, hitherto-unknown information on Locke’s Bahá’í “fireside” in Toronto in 1952—new data that attested Locke’s Bahá’í commitment in the twilight of his life. And I owe a further debt of gratitude to Dr. Leonard Harris, professor of philosophy at Purdue University, for contributing the Foreword to this book. This is a great honor, considering the fact that Professor Harris is the leading authority on Alain Locke.

For all her support and encouragement, I am deeply grateful to my loyal wife of twenty years, Nahzy Abadi Buck who, among many other things, is currently my study partner in law school, in the adventure of our earning “Juris Doctor” degrees together. (I hope to teach constitutional law and to publish in the area of law and religion in the near future.) I thank my two excellent sons, Takur and Taraz, for their taking pride in my work and for reminding me that it is, in some ways, significant, even to today’s youth. As my weightlifting partner, Takur has reinforced the moral strength I’ve needed in completing this project—whenever it was at its ebb and not moving forward—in addition to helping me finally bench press 225 lbs. Taraz, from time to time, has helped troubleshoot the stressful, technical difficulties I’ve encountered while computing, and he continues to radiate much of the goodwill that keeps me going in moments of discouragement.

Among the many other individuals who provided moral support, I would like to recognize Mr. Kiser Barnes (member of the Universal House of Justice), who referred to Alain Locke as “my personal hero” at a private luncheon during my family’s Bahá’í pilgrimage to Israel in January 2003; and to Dr. Robert Henderson, Secretary–General of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, for his effective encouragement. Thanks also to my friend and colleague, Dr. Vibert White, Director of Public History, University of Central Florida; to my brother, Carter Buck, who is always there for me; and to all those in cyberspace and elsewhere who have provided virtual, moral support for this project at a close distance. I also thank Anthony Lee of Kalimát Press for editing this book, and Judy Liggett for her professional page layout, cover design and the rest of production. I might add that scholars have universally acclaimed Studies in the Bábí and Bahá’í Religions—of which Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy is the latest volume—as the premier monograph series in academic Bahá’í studies. This is an enduring legacy of Kalimát Press.

And to all my readers—especially those who see Alain Locke as one of our greatest Americans—I want to personally thank each and every one of you for reading this book, as each of us takes the moral opportunity to help bridge the racial divide that continues to abridge the quality of our American democracy. This book is dedicated to all those who agree with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s delight at the racial harmony he observed at a Bahá’í gathering in the home of Andrew J. Dyer in Washington, D.C. on 24 April 1912, when he exclaimed: “[A]t 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).
Christopher Buck

22 December 2004

Lansing, Michigan

Secular philosophies are often compared and contrasted with sacred doctrines. The comparison and contrast is especially revealing when the author of a philosophy has a personal history within the culture of the religion compatible with his philosophy. The psychology of a philosopher is then easily described as the result of influences from his religious background. The philosopher’s arguments and beliefs, consequently, may be considered an epiphenomenon of his religious heritage, whether the philosopher was a member of the religion as a youth later to be disaffected or formally joining in adulthood. However, when a secular philosophy is developed in a completely different culture from the sacred doctrines with which the philosophy finds its closest association, then assessing the philosopher’s psychology purely as an epiphenomenon of his religious heritage is not revealing, or at least not so clearly revealing of cultural influences.

We are warranted to pause and consider the arguments the author offers for his philosophy that make it compatible with a sacred tradition rather than assume that it is an epiphenomenon of his religious heritage. This is so especially when the philosopher has a personal history significantly alien to the country, culture, and language community with which his philosophical treatises are so deeply associated. What is revealed, at the very least, when we compare and contrast such a philosopher’s secular views and associated sacred doctrines, is an independence of mind. An independent mind is a prerequisite for developing a philosophy in ways antithetical to an author’s personal history and religious heritage. Herein we find Alain Locke.

The same independence of mind that was required for Locke to develop a philosophy deeply comparable with a sacred tradition antithetical to his personal history and religious heritage is the same sort of independence of mind that makes it possible for any individual to join the Bahá’í Faith. It is at least an independence of mind that is needed to stand against racial and ethnic hatreds, vehement nationalisms masking meta-narratives of racial purity and historical exceptionalism. Locke evinces a cosmopolitanism.

The masterful uncovering of Locke’s affiliation with the Bahá’í religion is arguably far more intriguing than if he had been raised from birth as a member of the Bahá’í faith. It is far more intriguing because Locke maintains a relationship within the Bahá’í community in the face of interminable odds, although failing to follow standard sacred protocols, while simultaneously developing his philosophy. This required, at the very least, a fierce independence of mind and a strong determination to retain his Bahá’í affiliation.

Locke surmounts the cultural limitations of Christianity, African American suspicions of foreign doctrines, Americans’ staunch classifications of peoples into racial kinds, North American ethnocentricity against any ideas originating in the Middle East, language phobias and the elitism that places Arabic and Persian in a lower category of worthiness than English and Latin. Locke surmounts these barriers as the very first steps to even enter into a dialogue with Bahá’í principles. He does so although he is a child of privilege, one that benefits from the high church status accorded Episcopalians, especially black Episcopalians, and his national status as an American, language privilege as a native English speaker, and his being an educated Harvard graduate, the first black Rhodes scholar, and doctor of philosophy of philosophies—master of the “queen of all sciences.” Locke’s views on democracy offer a unique way of thinking about cultural and religious diversity and its import for democracy, a link that is not often seen because we often fail to note that it takes an independence of mind to appreciate that there are radically different ways—in a democracy—of seeing. Locke walks away from stifling influences under his own power. He walks along with the Bahá’ís.

The reading of Faith and Philosophy consequently is a reading about a marriage at a deeper level than the mere words, “Faith” and “Philosophy.” A single word is burdened with the limitation that it can point to, refer, and symbolize only a narrow range of meanings. The conjunction of two words such as “Faith” and “Philosophy” can suggest a narrow range of relationships between the sacred and the secular. And thinking that one sphere of thought may fertilize the other sphere (and vice versa) can only suggest so many possible cross-fertilizations. But the uncovering of Locke’s sojourn within the worlds of “Faith” and “Philosophy,” especially because it is the world of the Bahá’í faith and the world of a pragmatist philosophy, opens an unbounded set of meanings and relationships which independent minds can explore.

Leonard Harris, Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Philosophy

Purdue University

Chapter One

Alain Locke (d. 1954) democratized American democracy to pave the way for the civil rights movement. During the Jim Crow era of American apartheid, when civil rights were white rights (under Plessy v. Feguson’s “separate-but-equal” doctrine), Locke was the genius behind the Harlem Renaissance, which David Levering Lewis (Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois) aptly characterized as “Civil Rights by Copyright.”1 Locke edited the monumental anthology, The New Negro (1925), hailed as the first national book of African America.2 In so doing, Locke ingeniously used culture as a strategy for ameliorating racism and for winning the respect of powerful white elites as potential agents for social and political transformation. Awakening the black masses to their noble African heritage and instilling pride in their unique contributions to American life, Locke may well be regarded as “the Martin Luther King of African American culture.”3

Why was Alain Locke the Martin Luther King of his day and age? Without Locke, there might not have been a Martin Luther King. This is because the New Negro movement, for which Locke was the chief architect and spokesman, was singularly responsible for inculcating and cultivating the requisite group consciousness and solidarity necessary for the mobilization of African Americans en masse during the Civil Rights era. As Martin Luther King was a man of faith, so was Alain Locke. Based on a newly discovered document establishing his conversion in 1918, we can now say with certainty that Locke was member of the Bahá’í Faith for over three decades. As the youngest independent world religion, the Bahá’í Faith was clearly the leader in advocating racial harmony and full integration during the Jim Crow era. In his service on several national Bahá’í committees, Locke was instrumental in organizing a number of “race amity” events. At various times, Locke lent his prestige to the Bahá’í Faith, having publicly identified himself as a Bahá’í in a 1952 issue of the popular black-oriented magazine, Ebony. By virtue of his being both a race leader and a cultural pluralist, Locke is arguably the most important Western Bahá’í to date in terms of his impact on American history and thought. This book documents and demonstrates the synergy between Locke’s profession as a philosopher, and his confession as a Bahá’í, intensifying his commitment to racial harmony as a necessary prerequisite to world peace.

In his Foreword, Dr. Leonard Harris, who is the leading authority on Locke today, has provided an orientation to both the historical importance of Alain Locke and his significance for America. The reader should bear in mind that the title of this book, Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy, addresses the synergy between Locke’s Bahá’í-inspired universal value system and his philosophy of democracy as a cultural pluralist. Synergy may be defined as a reciprocal intensification of intellectual or spiritual energies, where the combined effect is greater than the sum of the two forces working separately. My thesis of a synergy of consciousness between the secular (philosophical) and sacred (spiritual) dimensions of Locke’s singular genius posits a dynamic relationship between Locke’s sacral values as a Bahá’í and his secular (and perhaps no less sacred) philosophical commitments as a pragmatist. Professor Harris has underscored the importance of “uncovering” Alain Locke’s “sojourn within the worlds of ‘Faith’ and ‘Philosophy,’ especially because it is the world of the Bahá’í faith and the world of a pragmatist philosophy.” Such a project “opens an unbounded set of meanings and relationships which independent minds can explore.” Cultural pluralism and Bahá’í principles are two primary energies that combine in Locke to produce a laser-like intensification of his ideational light.

Harvard, Harlem, Haifa—Philosophy, Art, Religion—these are keys to unlocking the paradoxes of the life and thought of Alain LeRoy Locke. Harvard prepared Locke for distinction as the first black Rhodes Scholar in 1907, and, in 1918, awarded Locke his Ph.D. in Philosophy, thereby securing his position as chair of the Department of Philosophy at Howard University from 1927 until his retirement in 1953. Harlem became the Mecca for the Harlem Renaissance (1919–1934),4 or the “New Negro Movement,” of which Locke was orchestrator and ideological genius, in turn establishing him as the elder statesman of African American art in later life.5 Haifa is the world center of the Bahá’í Faith, the religion to which Locke converted in 1918, the same year he received his doctorate from Harvard. True, colleagues and students thought him saintly, but not particularly religious. Outside of his professional life, however, Locke was actively involved in Bahá’í efforts to promote ideal race relations, which Bahá’ís termed “race amity.” While Harlem immortalized Locke as a “race man” through the diplomacy of art, and whereas Harvard shaped Locke as a race relations leader through the philosophy of cultural relativism, Haifa—the Bahá’í Faith—deeply influenced Locke as a champion of race unity. These three dimensions—race interests, race relations, and race unity—for which Harvard, Harlem, and Haifa are euphemisms, are facets of the diamond of Locke’s mind. Of these three approaches to understanding and appreciating Locke, the least understood is Locke’s Bahá’í experience. This is the last major puzzle piece needed to complete our picture of him, and this is what this book, Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy, will provide.

In a popular publication, The Black 100, Alain Locke ranks as the 36th most influential African American ever, past or present.6 Distinguished as the first African American Rhodes Scholar, Locke was the philosophical architect—indeed, the “Dean”7—of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural efflorescence connected with the “New Negro” movement from 1919–19348 (not to be confused with the “American Renaissance” just preceding the Civil War). This was a watershed period in African American history for psychological revalorisation and race vindication. “Arguably Locke was the first black American,” writes Winston Napier, “seeking to challenge European cultural imperialism through the formal articulation of a black aesthetics.”9 It has also been claimed that Locke edited the “first national book” of African America, The New Negro (1925): “Only a few claims regarding the Harlem Renaissance are uncontested: that The New Negro stands as the ‘keystone,’ the ‘revolutionary’ advertisement, and the ‘first national book’ of African America is one of them.”10 In 1907, as mentioned above, Locke made history as the first African American Rhodes Scholar. That prepared him for his most significant role in American history and greatest claim to fame, the publication of The New Negro (although Locke’s contribution as a cultural pluralist has not yet been fully appreciated).

Locke’s importance as the ideological architect of the Harlem Renaissance is of great historical moment, immortalized in the Harlem Number of The Survey Graphic 6.6 (1 March 1925), a special issue on race for which Locke served as guest editor.11 That edition was entitled, Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro, which Locke subsequently recast as an anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation of Negro Life, published in December 1925.12 A landmark in black literature, it was an instant success. Locke contributed five essays: the “Foreword,” “The New Negro,” “Negro Youth Speaks,” “The Negro Spirituals,” and “The Legacy of Ancestral Arts.”

In his new Preface to the reissue of The New Negro anthology in 1968, Robert Hayden (a well known Bahá’í and America’s first black poet-laureate, whom I have called “America’s bicentennial poet laureate”13) echoes Locke’s vision of the Harlem Renaissance as rooted in the transracial experience of America: “The Negro Renaissance was clearly an expression of the Zeitgeist, and its writers and artists were open to the same influences that their white counterparts were. What differentiated the New Negroes from other American intellectuals was their race consciousness, their group awareness, their sense of sharing a common purpose.”14

Locke was a self-acknowledged “race man.” “Race men” were African American leaders “who came of age during the era of scientific racism, embraced nineteenth-century middle-class values, and maintained a deep faith in the curative powers of liberalism.”15 At one level, this may be a sufficient description of Locke, but it is not an adequate one. For beyond his work in promoting “cultural racialism,” Locke was an important voice of America in the interworld of race relations.

Again, this is only part of the picture of who this multi-faceted individual really was. Locke’s distinguished career as head of the Philosophy Department at Howard University (1921–1953) is matched by his prominent role in furthering adult education for African Americans. Locke was the first African American president of the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE), a predominantly white, professional society.16 He helped found the prestigious Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, which he chaired in 1945. Locke served on the editorial board of the American Scholar and was a regular contributor to national journals and magazines.17 By universal acclamation, Locke has achieved immortality as both a great African American and a great American for all. There is yet another dimension that deserves mention. Locke was both a quintessential American idealistically and an erstwhile world citizen. His legacy as a cultural relativist, even as an acknowledged “father of multiculturalism,” renews Alain Locke’s relevance for this day and age. A revalorization of his perspective on race relations and democracy, on both a national and a world scale, allows the ghost of Locke to speak to far more receptive audiences today than in his yesteryear. Happily, much of this has already been done.

Recent scholarship on Locke has brought his work “back to influential life.”18 Yet his identity and contributions as a Bahá’í remain relatively obscure by comparison. The present study bridges a gap in scholarship on Locke by examining the Bahá’í orbit of Locke’s life, which, for the most part, has really been a “missing dimension” in the literature so far. In an effort not to overemphasize the importance of this dimension, an honest and even critical assessment of Locke’s relationship to Bahá’í principles and community will serve to constrain any grandiose claims on Locke as a Bahá’í. Indeed, as a public intellectual, Locke was not a public Bahá’í except at Bahá’í-sponsored events. (And even then, Locke’s Bahá’í identity was not always made clear.) Moreover, as Lawrence Durrell once expressed it in another context entirely, one could say that Locke was one of the “devout, saddled in doubt.”

But he is no less valuable for that, for Locke is arguably the most profound and important western Bahá’í philosopher to date. Gayle Morrison rightly calls him “the outstanding black intellectual”19 among the early Bahá’ís. He knew his non-Bahá’í audiences were not ready to accept the teachings of what would strike them as a non-Christian religion. (Originating from within the Abrahamic tradition, the Bahá’í Faith is a post-Christian religion that preserves and enlarges some fundamental Christian values.) Locke himself might have explained this as a “transvaluation” of Bahá’í principles and their promotion in what Bahá’ís commonly refer to as “indirect teaching” (or what some faith-communities today call “leavening”).

In what sense, therefore, is Locke a “Bahá’í philosopher”? After all, there is no formal discipline of Bahá’í philosophy as such. While the term “Bahá’í philosophy” may appear to be an oxymoron, Bahá’í philosophy is expected to evolve over time. A close comparison of Locke’s Bahá’í essays with his philosophical essays discloses some striking resonances between the two, from shared vocabulary to parallel concepts. And, if the reader will entertain the sermonic overtones of what all this implies, the present study will serve as a reflection on—and perhaps a prognostication of—race relations in America and in its “destiny” in promoting “world democracy.” By first examining his self-portrait (or “psychograph”), then the circumstances of his conversion to the Bahá’í Faith in 1918 and his two subsequent pilgrimages to Haifa in the Holy Land, this book will chronicle Locke’s “race amity” activities, review his Bahá’í essays and speeches, try to understand and make sense of his estrangement from and rededication to the Bahá’í community, and provide a typology of Locke’s philosophy of democracy, particularly as it applies to America and its world role.

Since religion was, for him, a private matter, the rediscovery of Locke’s embrace of the Bahá’í Faith in 1918 solves some riddles, yet poses questions. While lecturing on race relations at Howard (1915–1916), and immersed in theories of value as a graduate student at Harvard as an Austin Teaching Fellow (1916–1917), Locke was attracted to the Bahá’í value system and its promotion of “race amity”—resulting in his conversion to it (1918). Locke’s faith as a Bahá’í and his philosophy of value ultimately combined to produce a statesman of intergroup relations in later life, as exemplified in his multi-faceted, dimensional view of democracy. For Locke, the function of religion in terms of values, and therefore the function of the Bahá’í Faith personally, was “that of integrating the recognized values of life and reenforcing [sic] them in the direction of a conservation or stabilization of values.”20 Religion, furthermore, was “Ethical […] and Moral valuation cosmically enlarged through ideal presuppositions, and reflectively conditioned attitude.”21

The present study will, as mentioned, fill a void in the literature on Locke, where at best his worldview as a Bahá’í is given passing mention, or, at worst, is altogether ignored. By further developing Ernest Mason’s initial work on Locke’s Bahá’í identity and its presumed interaction with his thinking as a philosopher,22 this study hopes to supply this “missing” dimension of Locke that has all-too-often been glossed over in the literature. While we will never know if Locke himself would have been comfortable with that label, certainly he would have acknowledged the impact of his Bahá’í experience on his life in general and probably on his philosophy in particular. As will be shown, the converse holds true as well, in that much of Locke’s formal philosophical thinking informed his Bahá’í perspective.

Within the Bahá’í context itself, Alain Locke is arguably the most profound and important western Bahá’í philosopher to date. Except for Ernest Mason’s article,23 which exists in splendid isolation, there is a dearth of literature on the topic. Apart from Mason’s work, scholarship on Locke has neither seriously taken into account his Bahá’í identity nor its influence on his work, beyond the mere acknowledgement that Locke had some kind of affinity with Bahá’í thought. The present study, based largely on archival sources, will contribute to research on this “missing” dimension of Locke’s complex life and thought. This study examines Locke’s worldview as a Bahá’í, his secular perspective as a philosopher, and the synergy between his confessional and professional essays. Augmented by his fame and prestige in wider American society, his role as a contributor to the first five volumes of the Bahá’í World invites a closer examination of Locke’s significance as a Bahá’í writer during the early years of the American Bahá’í community. As interest in Locke intensifies and new documents come to light, this essay will complement prior scholarship by taking a closer look at the Bahá’í dimension of Locke’s life and thought, and exploring how the synergy between Locke’s Bahá’í essays and philosophical essays permit one to speak of an inchoate “Bahá’í philosophy” in embryonic form.

This study also argues that Locke had a fluid hierarchy of values—of loyalty, tolerance, reciprocity, cultural relativism and pluralism (the philosophical equivalent of “unity in diversity”)—and that this hierarchy represents a progression and application of quintessential Bahá’í ideals. Locke’s distinction as a “Bahá’í philosopher” may therefore be justified on ideological as well as historical grounds. Locke “translated” Bahá’í ideals “into more secular terms” so that “a greater practical range will be opened up for the application and final vindication of the Bahá’í principles” in order to achieve “a positive multiplication of spiritual power.”24

Chapter Two

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