Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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Locke’s Bahá’í race relations legacy is not nearly as well known as that of Louis Gregory. As a full-time Bahá’í teacher and administrator, Gregory publicly and fully identified himself with the Bahá’í Faith. As his spiritual older brother, Gregory took Locke under his wing. The two made a great team together in their tour of the Deep South in 1925–1926. The two served on several race amity committees together. Throughout Locke’s career, Gregory kept in touch, never giving up on Locke. Gregory had certitude of faith, whereas Locke was “one of the devout, saddled with doubt,” as will become increasingly evident further in this book.

These observations should in no wise minimize the significance of Locke’s contributions to Bahá’í race amity initiatives. Locke was one of few “people of capacity” to embrace the Faith. He also had many demands on him from a wide variety of interests. As a Bahá’í, Locke was more effective outside of Bahá’í circles. Whether consciously or not, Locke transposed Bahá’í principles into both his professional and extracurricular life, making him particularly successful in what Bahá’ís term, “indirect teaching.”

According to Gayle Morrison, “the Bahá’í Faith was not only the first religion to initiate racial amity activities in America but the first to elicit interfaith support.”550 As Leonard Harris notes: “The Bahá’í belief in the unity of humanity was expressed in practical terms by inter-racial meetings (then a fairly unusual situation in Christian America)” (PAL 5). The full extent of Locke’s contributions to Bahá’í race relations initiatives may never be known. But the historian is justified in reaching this conclusion: Locke lent his prestige, wisdom and eloquence in the service of Bahá’í race relations endeavors. In so doing, he made a qualitative difference. Locke was unique—a fact that Bahá’í leaders appreciated.

Chapter Eight

Estrangement and Rededication
Over the years, Locke had periods of active involvement in the Bahá’í community, punctuated by spans of inactivity. Although his levels of Bahá’í-related activity fluctuated over time, the nature of that interaction was as much virtual as it was personal. Locke’s major contributions were in two spheres of activity: (1) race amity work—accomplished as much through correspondence as by meetings; and (2) literary contributions, also done at “long distance.” There were occasions, of course, when Locke made appearances as a speaker at Bahá’í-sponsored public events, as well as Bahá’ís-only meetings. Locke’s presence, far beyond the interracial solidarity it represented, lent prestige and elegance to such occasions. Locke dignified an event wherever he went, and this was no less true for the Bahá’í venues which he graced as it was wherever he was invited to speak elsewhere.

Yes, there were occasions Locke publicly identified himself as a Bahá’í, whether at a race relations event or in print, as in his several Bahá’í essays. But he maintained a wall of separation between his religious life and his professional life. Had Locke crossed over into the academic world, with a reputation as being an avowed Bahá’í, would this have compromised his national standing as a “race man”? Would it have jeopardized his professional advancement? Or was Locke reluctant to do so for other reasons? These are questions the reader should keep in mind throughout the rest of this book. The fact that Locke’s pilgrimage lasted for only one day is somewhat emblematic of the diminished value of his Bahá’í experience. Far more disappointing was his not having had the chance to see Shoghi Effendi this time. That lack of direct access to the leader of the Bahá’í world presaged Locke’s increasing distance from the very Bahá’ís who served as his exemplars and motivators.

Imagine how discouraging must have been the downswing of Bahá’í race relations efforts, or his perception of their lack of momentum. One dismaying development for Locke may have been the appointment of a predominantly white amity committee for the 1933–1934 Bahá’í year—an appointment that excluded Locke himself.551 It was around this time that the race amity initiatives went into decline, as chronicled by Gayle Morrison.552 The last race amity committee was appointed in 1935–1936. In July 1936, the committee, in the words of Morrison, “unknowingly wrote its own epitaph” in stating: “The National Assembly has appointed no race amity committee this year. Its view is that race unity activities have sometimes resulted in emphasizing race differences rather than their unity and reconciliation within the Cause.”553 With the demise of the race amity committees, it would seem that Locke’s special services were no longer needed. To put all this in a broader perspective, in a letter dated 29 Feb. 1936 to Charlotte Mason, Locke speaks cynically of all lectures and committee work: “I am not as keen as I used to be about this sort of thing—committees and lectures on America’s pet delusions—I may come to life for a paragraph or two—but on the whole, what comes of it!”554

From various letters, Locke typically cites lack of time and energy—due to professional commitments and to health problems—as the reasons for his inactivity. True, his health was not robust. Therefore these were legitimate reasons and not simply excuses. However, a growing cynicism over just how effective Bahá’í race amity efforts really were seems to have jaded his original optimism. It is difficult to balance the relative proportions of health issues and professional commitments on the one hand, and a critical stance towards the Washington Bahá’í community itself on the other. To complicate matters further, Locke reacted to what he saw as stagnation in these efforts due to the stultifying influence of dominant Bahá’í personalities. His service on national race amity committees having come to an end, Locke’s services were not as greatly in demand as they were before. Throughout the rest of his Bahá’í career, Locke’s contributions would continue, to be sure, but not without some personal difficulties in his relationship to the Bahá’í community. The polarities of alternating cynicism and love for the Faith he embraced in 1918 can perhaps best be characterized as “estrangement and rededication.”


While his formal training in philosophy was followed by a long and distinguished teaching career as an academic, with numerous publications to his credit, Locke did not publish a single article on philosophy until he was fifty years old,555 seventeen years after he had become a Bahá’í. This significant fact accords with Locke’s psychograph in which he disclaims having ever been “a professional philosopher.”556 Notwithstanding, his work during this later period articulates his mature thinking as both a professor of philosophy as well as a philosopher by training. Locke’s first formal philosophical essay, “Values and Imperatives,” appeared in 1935. This marked the year that saw his “reentry into the doing of philosophy directly” (Harris, PAL 9) and thus back into the world of grand theory.

What role did philosophy play in Locke’s life? What was its purpose? What had Locke hoped to accomplish through the vehicle of philosophy? In a retrospective look at his career in Howard University, Locke wrote that his “main objectives” had 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 organize an advance guard of creative talent for cultural inspiration and prestige.” Moreover, he wanted to link “the discussion of colonial problems with the American race situation, toward the internationalization of American Negro thought and action.”557 Indeed, as Michael Winston observes: “With the dramatic rise of racial consciousness in the former European colonies, Locke’s influence became internationalized.”558

Ripening into a Mature Philosopher: This year would see the pendulum shift from Locke’s religious to his philosophical commitments. Locke had already contributed much to the Bahá’í race relations work. It was now time for him to focus more on his professional development as a philosopher. As one instance of this new direction, Locke sponsored a conference on “Problems, Programs and Philosophies of Minority Groups” at Howard University, to which he invited several leftist scholars—most notably, W. E. B. Du Bois.559 In his invitation, dated 5 March 1935, Locke, after stating that no honorarium would be available for the proposed speaking engagement scheduled for April 5th, asked Du Bois to accept the invitation notwithstanding: “However, we are presuming to ask your participation in the discussion of one of the most important topics[:] ‘Minority Tactics as illustrated by Negro Experience.”560 Du Bois agreed to speak on April 6th.561

A tumultuous year in American history, 1935 was the scene of the Harlem race riots. Despite how heavily this must have weighed on Locke’s mind, “his interest in writing philosophy revived,” according to Leonard Harris.562 That year, when he turned fifty, Locke’s formal philosophical essay, “Values and Imperatives,” marked Locke’s debut as a serious philosopher within the field of philosophy itself.563 This was a brilliant piece of work—an invaluable treatise on values. One might see this activity in another light: as the secularization of his Bahá’í universalism. But since his “Values and Imperatives” essay was based on his dissertation, which he wrote prior to becoming a Bahá’í, one must be cautious not to explain everything he did through a Bahá’í lens of interpretation. This historian has to sift and interpret data with a sense of proportion and relative weight. Certainly Locke’s faith and philosophy intersected later. Even if one were to argue that these existed in two separate spheres that were tangential at best, we can still say that Locke’s own grounding in values theory was not incompatible with his Bahá’í worldview. Rather, the former may have prepared him for the latter.

Membership and Community Records: One would have expected, in the year following his second pilgrimage, that Locke would somehow have been energized and his efforts to promote ideal race relations redoubled. Quite the contrary. This is the year in which Locke drew some boundaries with respect to his Bahá’í commitments.

In the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í Archives, the present writer discovered a voting list for the election of delegates that took place on 14 March 1935. Locke was absent and did not send in an absentee ballot. In other words, he did not vote, nor did others vote for him. Yet, in another voting list, Locke received a total of eleven votes.564 This tally may have been for the voting that took place on 21 April 1935, in which Locke is marked as having mailed his ballot to the temporary Recording Secretary.565 A paradox begins to develop here. At long last, the local community seems to have gained a greater appreciation for Locke. But he did not reciprocate in kind.

Bahá’í Historical Record Card: Until research for this book had begun in earnest, no scholar had produced conclusive data on Locke’s formal acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith. Therefore a debt of gratitude is owed to Roger Dahl, archivist at the Bahá’í National Archives, U.S. Bahá’í National Center for bringing the definitive document to light. The story of how this information was obtained is that, in 1935, the National Spiritual Assembly (National Spiritual Assembly) of the Bahá’ís of the United States had decided to conduct a census of the American Bahá’í community. The information was to be collected at the grassroots level. Consequently, in the case of the Washington, D.C. community, the census was administered by the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) of the Bahá’ís of Washington. As is typical for a census generally, information was generated through the distribution of questionnaires. These particular questionnaires were called “Bahá’í Historical Record” cards, which were roughly half the size of a regular sheet of paper. The National Spiritual Assembly directed each LSA to oversee the process.

Locke had been sent one of these cards to complete, but evidently had taken some time to do so, and not without some encouragement. In a note to Locke written on an announcement sent out by the LSA, Joseph Harley III wrote: “Your Bahá’í record cards have not been received– Bring them Monday, please.”566 Out of a total of 1,813 respondents, ninety-nine—thirty-seven men and sixty-two women—had identified themselves in some way as being black.567 There were seven blacks respondents from the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community.568 This was by no means an overwhelming number. The small proportion certainly did not reflect the enormity of effort that the champions of racial harmony, like Locke, had invested in bridging the chasm of the racial divide.

While he did get around to answering the questionnaire, Locke did not fill out the card completely. But he did identify the date of his conversion as the year 1918. Bahá’í historians, of course, always knew that Locke was a Bahá’í, or had at least assumed as much. But leading Locke scholars were not always inclined to follow this assumption without proper documentation. The Bahá’í historians themselves had documents, such as Washington LSA community membership lists. But the earliest membership list on which Locke’s name appears is 1921. If that were the decisive document, it would have resulted in a historical error of three or four years’ difference. This record that Dahl has rediscovered is therefore significant in two ways: First, not only did this card provide a historical record of the date of Locke’s conversion (1918), but indicates, obviously yet nevertheless significantly, that Locke continued to identify himself as a Bahá’í in 1935.

Why is this important? Precisely because it reinforces information on his religious self-identity, the Bahá’í Historical Record card permits the historian to say that Locke maintained his Bahá’í identity continuously for seventeen years, and that this was his primary, if not only, religious affiliation. Considering the fact that Locke belonged to quite an array of organizations, this would hardly be worth noting, much less justifying an entire book on the topic. But the Bahá’í Faith does not belong within that orbit of civic organizations. Religion is an intensely personal matter, and dual or multiple religious identities, while typical of the Far East, is not normally so open-ended in the West. Rather, religious identity is usually closed—and exclusively so. One may raise issues as to why Locke was not as public as he could have been about his affiliation. But this does not alter the fact of that affiliation.

One possible explanation for this is that the American was public wholly ignorant of the Bahá’í Faith. Even if the public had some awareness of it, mainstream Americans would have regarded it not only with skepticism, but with suspicion and perhaps, in some localities, with open hostility. Indeed, while the Bahá’í religion presents itself to a Christian audience as somehow the fulfillment of Christianity, evangelical Christians especially have rejected the Bahá’í Faith as antithetical to Christianity. On a personal note, years ago I had met a Bahá’í in Oregon who claims that, in the 1940s, the FBI had kept a file on her—and she herself under surveillance—because the federal agency suspected that the Bahá’í religion was an un-American and possibly “subversive” activity. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to say that Locke would probably have encountered difficulties, possible rejection and even ridicule from his peers and public had he been forthcoming in presenting himself as a Bahá’í.

Letter to National Spiritual Assembly: His Bahá’í self-identity notwithstanding, Locke still had issues and personal reasons for not being fully active within the Washington Bahá’í community at this point in time. In the list of eligible members for the election (presumably of the Local Spiritual Assembly) that took place on 21 April 1935 (using the 80-member 29 Jan. 1935 list), Locke’s name has the code “m” beside it, meaning “ballot mailed to Temp. Rc. Sec.”569 Although he had duly mailed in his absentee ballot to the general recording secretary, Locke had already contemplated writing the National Spiritual Assembly to alert it to what he perceived as the main reason behind the stagnation of the race amity work. In a letter dated 18 April 1935 to Horace Holley, Secretary-General of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, Locke wrote:




Howard University

Washington, D. C.

April 18, 1935

Mr. Horace Holley

New York City

Dear Horace,
Needless to say, I am both looking forward to seeing you next Saturday, and to having a Bahai note injected into our rather materialistic-minded conference. It has been going well so far as interest and attendance are concerned, but the heavy hits have been from the radicals and the materialistic side. There is another matter that I hope I will have time to talk over with you, even though it will be a busily crowded [sic] and I am afraid I will have to entertain at dinner that night.

Therefore, I am writing about it so that you may be prepared to react in what brief time we will probably have for drawing aside to talk the matter over. Since I last saw you, I have had two occasions to meet with the local friends, and have very effectively renewed my contacts with them. This has also given me occasion to make some comparisons between the work as I knew it rather intimately before and as it seems to be going now. I regret to have to call your attention to what seems to me to be something approaching stagnation in the inter-racial work at Washington. This but confirms a feeling that I have had all along now for several years that unfortunate personality influences have crept into the situation and decidedly hampered the development of this very important practical phase of the Cause. For a considerable while I thought this was my own personal bias concerning Mrs. Haney and Mrs. Cook who have pioneered so much in this field and have now for a long while exerted a control in it which threatens to become a monopolistic and hampering one. Their conception, I fear, is limited by their own personal likes and dislikes and a notion that only select groups should be worked with. You will know for a fact that there has not been much enthusiasm or much real progress in this aspect of the work in Washington. While I am not prepared to say that this is the only cause, it seems to me to be one of the main reasons. Several of the friends who have more democratic and more vigorously crusading convictions in this matter have not been able to function because of this almost monopolistic conservatism and jealousy. Much as I dislike to sound a negative note, I feel that I must in order to get positive ones established.

I would like to talk over with you the wisdom of such practical steps as might be necessary, if after consultation it seems that this interpretation of the situation is even approximately correct.570
Mariam Haney (Mary Ida Haney [Parkhurst]) was mother of future Hand of the Cause Paul Haney. She adopted “Mariam” as her name when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed her so in a tablet. Active for many years in the Washington, D.C., Bahá’í community, she served on various national committees and was an editor of The Bahá’í World.571 Locke’s estimate of Mariam Haney was initially positive. After all, she was probably the one who originally invited Locke to his first Bahá’í fireside back in 1915. She remained his primary contact with the Bahá’í community for some years to come.

Locke’s criticism of Mariam Haney is illuminated by archival material that has recently come to light. In the Ali Kuli and Florence Khan Papers, archivist Roger M. Dahl discovered a series of five letters from Louise Boyle, a Washington, D.C. Bahá’í, to Florence (Breed) Khan, wife of Ali Kuli Khan, the Persian consul in Washington, D.C., both of whom were also Bahá’ís. Evidently, there was an “estrangement” between Agnes Parsons and Mariam Haney serious enough to cause “disruption” to the “Unity of Washington,” for which Parsons felt personally commissioned by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to preserve. (Problems created by Parsons’ conservatism on matters of race have been previously discussed.) Speaking of Parsons’ death (1934), Boyle writes: “The fact that Mason [Charles Mason Remey], Alain Locke and I [Louise Boyle] were all ‘brought back’ at the time of her death should prove we could have accomplished nothing under the old condition.”572 This statement seems to imply that Remey, Locke and Boyle were also affected by the estrangement, which appears to have intensified as a conflict between Boyle herself and Haney. It was during Mariam Haney’s absence (probably in August 1935) when Louise Boyle was elected as “chairman” to the local Amity Committee, which included “Locke, Cobb, Lehse, Atkinson, Florence King (whose father says she will not serve), and Miss Armstrong from N.Y.”573 In any event, Mariam Haney was not selected.

Within the committee itself, even with Haney’s absence, unity was fragile. Boyle writes: “I look upon the Race Amity Work as having tremendous possibilities for the future if we can have a little harmony in the Committee.”574 These internal tensions were no doubt exacerbated by external problems. Boyle speaks of an “official investigation”—instigated by a professor emeritus—into charges of Communism at Howard University. “Dr. Locke,” she notes, “is going to Russia this summer, he said, in order to be able to aid on his return, as having studied the conditions.”575 In her next letter, dated 9 Sept. 1935, Boyle remarks on Locke’s intent to ameliorate the situation: “Dr. Locke returns from Europe on the 23rd to strengthen both the teaching and Amity work.”576 If true, this is a significant statement in that it shows that Locke was still an active Bahá’í locally at this time.

As previously mentioned, Coralie Franklin Cook was a Washingtonian Bahá’í. She was Chair of Oratory at Howard University and a member of the District of Columbia Board of Education. Her husband, George William Cook, was also a professor at Howard, having served as Professor of Commercial and International Law and as Dean of the School of Commerce and Finance.577 Coralie Cook “represented the Bahá’í Faith among black intellectuals in Washington, D.C. since about 1910.”578 Recalling that the National Spiritual Assembly invited a group of black and white Bahá’ís for a special consultation on race that took place on 8 January 1927, Mariam Haney and Coralie Cook and were both in that group, as was Alain Locke himself. How and why Locke became disaffected with these two mainstays of the race amity movement is not clear. While Locke’s letter is a testament to his candor in the context of his support for the race amity efforts, yet it is a painful, even tragic document. Why? Because Mariam Haney and Coralie Franklin Cook should have been Locke’s closest allies in the cause of racial harmony. How could that sacred undertaking, as the Bahá’ís viewed it, ever hope to succeed, if vitiated by disharmony among the Bahá’ís themselves?

Locke was critical of other leading Washingtonian Bahá’í figures as well. By 1931, Locke had complained of “the deceptive platitudes of some of our friends, including even Dr. Leslie P. Hill.”579 This is a particularly stunning statement, as “Professor” Leslie Pickney Hill, who was the black principal of the Cheyney Institute (a teacher training school) had spoken at the Philadelphia convention of 22–23 October 1924 and was among those invited by the National Spiritual Assembly in November 1926 to a special consultation on race.580 That having been said, the Bahá’í committee work that Locke had consistently and enthusiastically accepted was in the planning and execution of Bahá’í-sponsored race unity events. Oddly enough, but predictable because of the past history of his relationship to the community, Locke was not on the local “Inter-Racial Committee,” whose members had been appointed in the preceding year Bahá’í administrative year of April 1934–April 1935, and reappointed by the Local Spiritual Assembly of Washington, D.C. sometime prior to 29 June 1935 (presumably in April). Its members included “Mr.” [Dr.] Stanwood Cobb, Mrs. Coralie Cook, Mrs. Mariam Haney, Miss Florence King, and Mrs. Gertrude Mattern.581 Locke’s name is conspicuously absent, and this gives pause for thought. One could argue that the LSA had decided to experiment by placing him on the teaching committee instead. Another possibility is that the Bahá’í council may have been mindful of a growing rift between Locke and other local believers who were prominent (Locke would have said “dominant”) in race relations endeavors.

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