Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

Race Amity Convention at Green Acre

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Race Amity Convention at Green Acre: Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of maintaining a functional committee, a “Convention for Amity Between the Colored and White Races” took place on 22–23 July 1927 at Green Acre in Eliot, Maine. Notwithstanding the fact that he did not speak at this event, Locke’s name appeared on the program anyway. A two-sided, three-panel brochure of the event lists the members of the “National Inter-racial Amity Committee” as: Mrs. A. S. Parsons, Chairman, Mrs. Coralie F. Cook, Vice Chairman, Louis G. Gregory, Executive Secretary, Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi, Dr. Alain L. Locke, Miss Elizabeth G. Hopper, Miss Isabel Ives.481 On the program are two lectures of note, as they both evoke Alain Locke’s concept of the “New Negro.” (This term may have been coined by W. E. B. Du Bois, but it was Locke who popularized it.) The first is an address, “The New White Man,” presented by Mr. Devere Allen, editor of The World Tomorrow, and “The New Negro,” by Prof. Leslie Pinckney Hill. This speaks eloquently of the positive reception Locke’s anthology, The New Negro, enjoyed in the Bahá’í community at that time.

Friction Between National and Local Race Amity Committees: The Green Acre amity convention was seen by some Bahá’ís as a model to follow. There were certain problems in adopting such an approach, however. This can be seen in the relationship of local committees to a national one. One of the roles of the National Race Amity Committee was to encourage local Bahá’í communities to further the race relations work at the grassroots level. Naturally this necessitated the formation of local amity committees. At times, there was an overlap in spheres of responsibility. In certain cases, this created some tensions, especially if there was any perception of an unwarranted, controlling influence from above. Louis Gregory discloses one instance of this. In a letter dated 1 October 1927 to Agnes Parsons, Gregory writes:
Miss Hopper’s letter which you enclosed and which is herewith returned gives me the first direct information that the friends of Washington have organized a local inter-racial amity committee. In doing this they are entirely within their rights as the function of the national committee, according to my understanding, is to stimulate activities of this nature all over the country and to cooperate as far as possible with local committees who need and want help. As this particular matter was placed in your hands by the Master Himself and His wish to have this an annual affair given to you, it would seem that your separation from this work to any extent would be calamitous and likely to result in confusion and loss.

With this servant the case is entirely different. Miss Hopper intimates a desire on our part to conduct the coming Washington amity conferences as we did those at Green Acre. Green Acre is an N. S. A. activity pure and simple and the arrangement for the amity convention here were made by the N. S. A. thru [sic] its committee appointed for that purpose. We happen to be members of that said committee. We did our best. I was by the committee itself authorized to arrange the program. But now I fear that there is a little under-current of bad feeling. This I do not feel at present physically strong enough to endure along with other hard work. Under the circumstances it seems wise to remain away from Washington until this special effort is over and this I shall do unless called there by invitation of the local committee.482

This letter may provide indirect evidence that Locke, whose already ambiguous relationship with his local Washington Bahá’í community would become problematic later on, represented part of this largely artificial problem, for which the wisest solution was to remain aloof from it. Practically speaking, local committees function best when granted their own autonomy. Since the Washington Bahá’í community had a past history of alternating enthusiasm and apathy for race relations efforts, the best course of action was for the national amity committee to adopt a policy of noninterference with local amity committees.

Second 1927 Race Amity Convention in Washington, D.C.: In light of the foregoing discussion, the second Washington amity event in 1927 would be planned by the local Washington committee rather than by the national one. Although Locke belonged to the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community, he had no formal involvement in planning this second event. Both conventions would take place in the same venue: the Mt. Pleasant Congregational Church and the Auditorium of the Playhouse.483 As to Washington’s second convention, held 10–11 November 1927, Locke published “A Bahá’í Inter-Racial Conference,” a report highlighting the event, the first and last paragraphs of which read as follows:
Washington, which the penetrating vision of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in 1912, saw as the crux of the race problem, and therefore of practical democracy in America, was for that reason selected as the place for the first convention under Bahá’í auspices for amity in inter-racial relations. On November 10 and 11 another of these conventions was held in Washington, this time at the Mt. Pleasant Congregational Church and the auditorium of The Playhouse, under the now formally organized Inter-racial Committee of the Bahá’ís of Washington. In many respects this convention was the most successful of any yet held, above all in that its discussion of the issues, without losing any of that universality of treatment which is a cardinal principle with the Bahá’í approach, came to more practical grips with the problems of race relationships than ever before. A mere assertion of human unity will never unite us; the root causes of disunion and antagonism have to be faced and considered and some counter-moves and compensatory interests discovered and brought forward. […]

As with every Amity convention, a feature of importance was the atmosphere of understanding and unity fostered by the meeting of many of the most representative elements of the white and Negro community, and the emphasis of understanding in terms of the universal language of music, which at this convention was generously furnished by Dr. C. Sumner Wormley, Mr. Claude Robeson, and Miss Virginia Williams.484

In a letter dated 1 Oct. 1927, Gregory made an interesting comment that provides further insight into Locke’s relationship with the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community: “I have not written Dr. Locke about the Washington meeting. I am sure that he is available, however, if the Washington friends want him. His heart is deeply attached” [end of p. 2; rest of letter missing].485 This statement gives pause for thought. Locke was not on the program. Although one cannot know for sure, Locke was probably available, but not invited to appear on the program. The fact that the Washington community did not seek Locke’s participation to the extent that it probably should have did not escape Louis Gregory’s notice. He was quite aware of the situation, although he was puzzled by it. Years later, the reverse situation would reflect a deteriorating relationship between Locke and his local Bahá’í community.

Suggestion for Separate Feasts?: What degree of integration was achieved by the Washington Bahá’í community? To what extent did black Bahá’ís feel the warmth of genuine acceptance? And what of the worship culture? Traditionally, African Americans are accustomed to a far more emotive worship experience, compared to the staid and studied reserve that characterizes worship in the majority of white Protestant churches. Today, the Bahá’í community represents a similar multiracial and ethnic demographic to the country at large, but with a higher proportion of black members whose music and worship style are having more influence over time. Certainly within the last decade, the influence of gospel music on Bahá’í choral music and worship has led to a transformation of Bahá’í worship culture. In many locales Bahá’ís sing all kinds of music, and even the whites tend to gravitate to the gospel style. Yet, in Locke’s day, and within his own Bahá’í community of Washington, D.C., the reserved white Protestant style predominated. As an apocryphal note, in an interview with veteran Baltimore Bahá’í Eugene Byrd, author Deb Clark recorded the following information:
It was around this time [1927] that Aleen Lock [sic], in Washington, D.C., made it known that she [sic] thought black Bahá’ís would be happier if they organized their own separate Nineteen-Day Feasts. There were some blacks who either withdrew from the Faith or hesitated to join it because of this. The repercussions were felt years later in Baltimore. In the 1950s, the president of Morgan College, which had been established as a school for blacks, told a friend who was investigating the Bahá’í teachings that his wife had been interested during the 1920s, but had changed her mind when she heard about these remarks in the Washington community.486
There is no independent attestation of the veracity of this statement. While the facts are garbled (“Aleen Lock” for Alain Locke, and “she” instead of “he”), there seems to be an element of certainty about the suggestion of what might be termed “self-segregation.” Locke was an avowed cultural pluralist. This was not the same thing as being an integrationist, which all too often equated with a one-directional assimilationism. It implied that blacks ought to see their culture dissolve into a white melting pot.

If there is a kernel of truth to this apocryphal anecdote, it could be interpreted as a suggestion that Bahá’ís ought to accommodate African Americans by offering a more familiar worship culture. To this day, the independent black churches provide an emotionally fulfilling experience that has become the measure, among African American as well as white evangelicals, of spirituality. In Eurocentric Christian environments, the “Spirit” resides in the sacred text. But in the vast majority of black churches, the Spirit is actually a “person” who is invited into the sanctuary. Emotional (“spiritual”) expressions are a type of conjury, in the sense that the Holy Spirit is “summoned.” The manifestation of the Spirit’s presence is therefore charismatic. Members of the congregation, moved by the Spirit, would speak in tongues, enter into ecstatic frenzies, spontaneously shout, etc. Of course, the Spirit was interpreted to be a male person, co-equal with God, where God was, in effect, a single-parent Father, whereas, in Judaism the Spirit was feminine (“Sophia”). Black worship culture is thus characterized, generally speaking, by catharsis and renewal. The problem of differences in worship culture has proved to be a barrier to the entrance of African Americans into the Bahá’í Faith en masse. Despite the artful adaptation of Gospel music into Bahá’í worship, especially at Bahá’í conventions—which is a welcome development—the perception of the Bahá’í Faith in North America among African Americans is that the Bahá’í community is still based on a predominantly Eurocentric worship experience, despite the fact that the Bahá’ís have placed racial unity as their paramount social objective (and far more so than any other African American religious organization can claim). In other words, the status quo of self-segregation, combined with the largely “white” worship culture characteristic of most Bahá’í communities throughout the United States, has seriously impeded the growth of the American Bahá’í community. So the substance of the suggestion attributed to Locke, although contrary to the Bahá’í principle of full integration, was not without merit as a temporary strategy for attracting blacks.

Self-segregation, historically, has defined independent black churches. Assuming for the sake of argument that this recollection is true, how could this be reconciled with Locke’s active involvement with race amity initiatives? Was this suggestion simply an attempt to empower black Bahá’ís to develop a worship culture more familiar to them—one that would also attract more African Americans to the faith? Or has the informant simply mistook the name, and confused it with someone else? To what principle was Locke committed when he embraced the Bahá’í teaching of “race amity”? He writes:
Race fusion is in our minds too tainted with the assumptions of White dominance and aggression, too associated with the stigma of inferiority rather than equality, for race amalgamation to be the social ideal and objective of an intelligent and self-respecting race consciousness such as we are no developing. In brief, the progressive Negro of today wants cultural opportunity and cultural recognition, and wants it as a Negro.487
To suggest that there were “some blacks who either withdrew from the Faith or hesitated to join it because of this” is shocking. The reaction makes perfect sense, but not Locke’s putative call for self-segregated Bahá’í Feasts.488 My own conclusion is that Locke saw racial fusion as inevitable, but as a distant outcome—rather than a goal—of the Bahá’í principle of cultural pluralism as he understood it.

In the summertime Locke, as usual, was away. This time, instead of spending more time at art festivals, health resorts and the like, Locke spent his summer in Geneva, researching the League of Nations’ mandate system. He also studied the Foreign Policy Association (founded in 1918), and the problem of forced African labor under its auspices.489


This was the year that saw Locke’s long-awaited return to Howard, under its first black president, Mordecai W. Johnson. Happily, Locke was subsequently promoted to chair of the philosophy department. Locke is credited with having first introduced the study of anthropology, along with philosophy and aesthetics, into the curriculum at Howard.490 He also lobbied for an African Studies program at Howard, although one was not established there until 1954, the year of his death.

With respect to his Bahá’í activities, 1927 was a hard act to follow. By any standard, Locke was quite active and continued to be nationally prominent within the Bahá’í community, even though such was not the case in his local community. Locke’s “Impressions of Haifa” was again reprinted in the international publication, The Bahá’í World, for 1926–1928.491 His name does appear on the 1928–1929 “Washington, D.C.” Bahá’í membership list, as a member in good standing and eligible to vote.492 Service on a national committee had its challenges and vicissitudes. Documents from this year provide some further insight into the internal functioning of the committee.

Logistical Problems: It is a wonder that the National Inter-racial Amity Committee was able to accomplish what it did. The convening of meetings, which evidently was Louis Gregory’s role in his capacity as executive secretary, was problematic if not impossible at times. In a letter dated 28 December 1927, Louis Gregory proposed a meeting date of either 14 or 16 January 1928 for the “National Committee on Inter-racial Amity.” Gregory wrote: “Mrs. Hanen [sic] and Dr. Locke are the other local members to be considered. Presume that Dr. Bagdadi is too far away to attend.” Of the agenda, Gregory states: “I can think of nothing in the way of an agenda but the filling of two vacancies on the committee, which the committee itself has been empowered to do, and the reading of reports.”493 In a subsequent, handwritten letter dated 23 Jan. 1928, Gregory informed Agnes Parsons: “It was found impossible to hold a meeting of the National Inter-racial Amity Committee during my recent stay in Washington as all members save Mrs. Hannen and this servant were away.” And yet, on a local level, Gregory reports success: “Enclosed is program of recent amity effort here [Wilmette] which the local friends think very successful. About 450 people were in attendance approximately one third of whom were colored. All seemed quite happy.” He further reports that “Shoghi Effendi appears greatly pleased with the committee of which you [Agnes Parsons] are chairman.”494

The functioning of the committee that year continued to be hampered by the absences of the majority of its members. In a typed letter dated 29 July 1928, Gregory reported: “From the members of our committee, I have had no responses save from you, Mrs. Haney, Mrs. Boyle, and Dr. Bagdadi. Dr. Locke and Mrs. Matthews are probably abroad. Mesdames Parker and Hannen are silent.”495 Notwithstanding his other commitments and the logistical difficulties they entailed, Locke did find time to contribute to the committee work. One indication of his involvement comes from a handwritten letter dated 15 Nov. 1928, in which Gregory tells Parsons:

Dear Mrs. Parsons:
Many thanks for your three good letters, all of which reached me. I am glad of your approval of the draft of the circular letter. Mrs. Matthews and Dr. Locke have suggested that mention of the youth be made in the final draft. […]

Mrs. Matthews and Dr. Locke are most enthusiastic over their idea that our committee should meet the N.S.A. in conference at their next session to consider the matter of spreading the teachings among the youth. I have conferred with Mesdames Boyle and Haney about the matter and they, too, approve. Mrs. Matthews wants to [end p. 1] come to Washington for this purpose. To my mind, the value of such a conference will lie chiefly in encouraging Mrs. Matthews and Prof. Locke. Mrs. Matthews has been doing some very effective work among the talented people and leaders of the colored race in New York and has her entire family interested in this spiritual endeavor. Prof. Locke seems to be now unreservedly a Baha’i but for some reason which I don’t understand, seems left out of the local activities. He is not a member of the local amity committee, is often out of town.496

This is a very telling statement. Why was Locke “left out of the local activities” and “not a member of the local amity committee”? Was this the fault of the Washington Spiritual Assembly? Or was it Locke’s own choice? Or was this simply due to Locke’s non-involvement, with his unavailability interpreted as disinterest? Or did Locke ask not to be appointed to any committee, despite the fact that there is no record of this?

Reappointment: For the 1928–1929 Bahá’í year, those chosen to serve on the National Inter-Racial Amity Committee were: Louis Gregory, Secretary; Agnes Parsons, Mariam Haney, Louise Boyle, Dr. Zia Bagdadi, Dr. Alain Locke and Mrs. Loulie Matthews, Shelley N. Parker, Pauline Hannen.497 This was Locke’s fifth appointment to a Bahá’í national committee. For a period of time during this Bahá’í administrative year, the National Teaching Committee and the National Inter-Racial Amity Committee were affiliated for budgetary reasons.498

Symposium on Racial Amity: Horace Holley, in a letter dated 26 June 1928 to Louise Boyle, wrote of his plans to publish a volume on race amity: “Please let me know whether there is any chance of getting the article from Alain Locke in time to be published with other articles in a symposium on racial amity. I have some excellent material on hand but his article on Cultural Unity would be a unique addition and I am extremely reluctant to give up hope.”499 If he intended Locke’s written lecture on “Cultural Reciprocity,” this shows Holley’s persistence in trying to obtain this manuscript. Howsoever “excellent” was the material he had on hand, Holley considered Locke’s work “unique” nonetheless. Perhaps Holley had given up on requesting it directly from Locke, as he had done this several times previously.

Considerably less documentation exists for this year. Locke’s name does appear on the “Washington, D.C.” eligible voters list for 1928–1929.500 However, some information on Locke may be gleaned through third-party references to him. In a letter dated 22 February 1929 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to Agnes Parsons, the Guardian, after first acknowledging Parsons’ race amity work, praised Locke’s contributions as well:

Your constant and valued efforts to serve the Cause, are a source of deep satisfaction to him and he fully believes that in your own special fashion there lies a great field before you. He gladly welcomes your co-operation with Dr. Locke in bringing together the higher classes of the coloured people with representatives of the more liberal and sympathetic among your own, and even if it be not under a [sic] publicly-proclaimed Bahá’í auspices, it is sufficient that with your presence you will show that it is inspired by the Bahá’í spirit and teachings.501
Here, the term “liberal” is linked with “sympathetic”—or socially progressive in promoting positive social interaction between the elites of both the black and white communities. While some Bahá’ís may object to the use of these labels in the current context as misleading, one cannot write a history of Bahá’í race relations efforts without reference to conservative and liberal social polarities within the Bahá’í community at that time. The early history of the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community reveals how divisive these differences of opinion really were. Here, Shoghi Effendi appears to accommodate Parsons’ own preference (and possibly Locke’s as well) for the indirect approach, in events that were not under “publicly-proclaimed Bahá’í auspices.”

Reappointed to National InterRacial [sic] Amity Committee: The National InterRacial [sic] Amity Committee for the 1929–1930 Bahá’í year included: Louis Gregory (Chairman), Shelley N. Parker (Secretary), Agnes Parsons, Mariam Haney, Louise D. Boyle, Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi, Dr. Alain Locke, Miss Alice Higginbotham, and Loulie A. Mathews.502 This was Locke’s sixth national committee appointment. The committee’s annual report will be discussed in the next section (1930).

Locke’s Continued Bahá’í Commitment: In a letter dated 23 April 1929 to Agnes Parsons, Locke wishes to reassure her of his continued commitment as a Bahá’í: “I am constantly having to apologize but it seems a chronic condition of overwork.” He closes in saying: “Please rest assured of my continued cooperation and interest, and my deep hopes for the practical realization in Washington of the principles of our Cause.503 There may have been somewhat of an ulterior motive in this, in that Locke looked to Parsons as a prospective patron of African art: “While I know your rather definite interests [are] in purely research projects, as well as realize [realizing] that this project originally proposed [as] to funds is a very sizable [sic] for individual funding, I am, nevertheless, encouraged by Professor Sapir’s suggestion in referring the matter to you for your consideration and possible support.”504 Despite Locke’s gifts as a thinker and writer, this is a very awkward sentence. Soliciting Parsons as a prospective patron of African art might have been equally as awkward. This is not lead to too cynical an interpretation, however. Patronage made the art world turn round. And Agnes Parsons was, after all, wealthy.

Locke served the Bahá’í Faith primarily in two capacities: race relations and publications. The one involved him more as a speaker; the other as a writer. “Impressions of Haifa” was once again reprinted in The Bahá’í World for 1928–1930.505 And, as previously stated, Horace Holley was planning to publish Locke’s “Cultural Reciprocity,” but never received the manuscript. In a letter dated 13 February 1930, Holley exclaims, with patent exasperation: “It has been a continued regret to me that your article on ‘Cultural Reciprocity’ has never turned up!”506 The leader of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi, recognized Locke’s literary abilities, and called on them by inviting Locke to comment on the Guardian’s working translation of Kitáb-i-Íqán.507

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