Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy


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of Washington, D.C.

1763 Columbia Road

January 27, 1941

Dr. Alain Locke

1326 R Street N W

Washington, D.C.
Dear Dr. Locke,
The Spiritual Assembly of this City has been requested by the National Spiritual Assembly to make any necessary revisions in the Membership List of our Baha’i community so that we can send an official list to enable them to determine the number of delegates to be assigned to this community for the coming Baha’i Convention.

Therefore, in line with duty, the Local Assembly is trying to function to the best of its ability, and would appreciate it to the fullest extent if you will advise us as soon as possible whether you wish to have your name retained on our membership list.

With cordial Baha’i greetings,

In the service of the Cause,

(Signed) Mariam Haney

Corresponding Secretary610

Finally, Locke was asked, point blank, about his Bahá’í status. Did he still consider himself a member of the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community? There was possibly a more basic question in the letter’s subtext: Did Locke still consider himself a Bahá’í? It took him over two months to reply, possibly taking time to formulate his response after some soul-searching. Consequently, while his name does reappear on the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í membership list for 1941 (“No telephone”),611 Locke requested that the Local Spiritual Assembly henceforth regard him as an “isolated believer”:
March 30, 1941
Mrs[.] Mariam Haney

Corresponding Secretary

The Spiritual Assembly of

the Bahais of Washington,

Dear Mrs. Haney:
I hope my long delay in answering your inquiry of January 27th hasn[’]t seemed discourteous. I have been very busy, with frequent out of town engagements, including a series of visiting lectures at Talladega College.

I naturally am reluctant to sever a spiritual bond with the Bahai community, for I still hold to a firm belief in the truth of the Bahai principles. However, I am not in a position, and haven[’]t been for years, to participate very practically or even with the fullest enthusiasm, in the collective activities of the local friends. One of my reservations is, of course, the seeming impossibility of any real crusading attack on the practises [sic] of racial prejudice in spite of the good will and fair principles of the local believers. They are not to blame perhaps for their ineffectualness any more than we, who are in more practical movements[,] are for our absorption of the time and energy in what we regard as more immediately important. Some time ago, I expressed to Mr[.] Remey a desire to retire formally from the community and to be regarded as an “isolated believer[.]” In view of your direct inquirt[y] as to membership status, I respectfully and regretfully renew that request.

Very sincerely yours,

Alain Locke.612

Locke was asked whether he should be retained on the Washington Bahá’í membership list. Was this a request to explain whether he was a Bahá’í, or whether he was a Washingtonian? The answer is probably both, because Locke responds to both. Why else would he need to reaffirm his personal belief as a Bahá’í? In his reply, Locke further requests that he be regarded as an isolated believer due to “frequent out of town engagements” and that he has “reservations” as to whether the Bahá’í approach to racial prejudice is working. Does Locke’s reply show an alienation from the local Bahá'í community? Perhaps “alienation” is too strong a word. Clearly there is some degree of estrangement. Locke was very circumspect. In as polite a way as possible, he indicates that he does not have the “fullest enthusiasm” for participation in local Bahá’í activities. Locke’s request to be an “isolated believer” was not administratively meaningful, as an “isolated believer” is a Bahá’í who lives in a locality where no other Bahá’ís reside. Typically, an isolated believer lives some distance from other Bahá'ís, which Locke did not. Locke used the term “isolated believer” to express his wish that he not be regarded as part of the community, while yet remaining a Bahá’í. In Bahá’í parlance, Locke was simply saying that he preferred to remain an inactive believer.

His reply implies that Locke had made much the same request earlier. The letter simply formalized an apparently long-standing reality. Locke’s avowal that “I still hold to a firm belief in the truth of the Bahai principles” allows for a distinction between his core belief as a Bahá’í and his estrangement from the local community. While these appear to be poles apart—even antithetical—what is important to bear in mind that Locke’s faith, up to this point, was unwavering at its deepest level—that of his should itself, as it were—although his confidence in the local community itself was lacking. It should also be noted that Locke’s status as a public figure created the attendant difficulties associated with fame and success. Because such people are bombarded by all sorts of requests for advice or financial assistance, privacy can because all the more a precious commodity. Lest the reader read too much importance into Locke’s withdrawal from active participation in the Bahá’í community, bear in mind that Locke was preparing to take the national stage as a public champion of democracy.


Locke was called to a broader purpose. During the crisis precipitated by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the nation’s entry into World War II, the exigencies of that moment in history and a sense of national purpose steeled Locke in his resolve to draw the American public’s attention to the “unfinished business of democracy.” For America’s world role would inextricably be bound to its own moral authority, compromised as it was by the “equal but separate” fiction of legal segregation that transmogrified America into a social apartheid. To exercise her influence for democracy abroad, America had to resolve issues of democracy at home.

As a writer and editor, this was an extraordinary year for Locke. One of Locke’s finest philosophical essays, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy,” was published in the proceedings volume of the Second Symposium of the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion.613 This was also the year Locke published When Peoples Meet: A Study of Race and Culture, a multi-author work that he co-edited with Bernhard J. Stern, lecturer in anthropology at Columbia University in the 1930s and 1940s, who had a special interest in race relations. According to Leonard Harris, the idea for this volume emerged from presentations at the American Council on Education Conference in Chicago the previous year.614 Publication of this book was made possible by a subvention by the Progressive Education Association. This anthology was international in scope, promoting interracial and ethnic contacts through intercultural rapport. Correspondence between the two is archived as the “Bernhard Stern/Alain Locke Collection, 1931–1955” in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division of the New York Public Library (Sc MG 176 Box 1). In November 1942, Locke served as guest editor for a special edition of the Survey Graphic, a volume entitled, Color: Unfinished Business of Democracy.

While Locke appears not to have publicly identified with the Bahá’ís at this time, he did so privately. Respecting his written request not to be removed from the roster, Locke’s name appears on the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í membership list for 1942.615 Locke continued to discourse on spiritual topics, but without any direct reference to the Faith. A close study of his essays and speeches during this time reveals not a hint of lapsing back into his Episcopalian past, although he did speak in churches from time to time and enjoyed their worship services. At this point in his life, Locke’s spiritual orientation transcended affiliation (“provincialisms,” as he would say), and may be characterized as a “transconfessional affinity” with the followers of all religions. To all people of goodwill he spoke universally.

Speaks on Spirituality Without Reference to Faith: Here is an example of this: On 28 May, 1942, on a show called “Town Meeting,” Locke, in with panel of other speakers (Mordecai W. Johnson, Doxey Alphonso Wilkerson, Leon A. Ransom) spoke on the topic, “Is There A Spiritual Basis for World Unity?” This is precisely the kind of question that would interest a Bahá’í, not to mention the more progressive members of the listening audience. A transcript of the show was printed shortly after, in the June issue of “Town Meeting: Bulletin of America’s Town Meeting on the Air.”616 All four guest speakers—Locke, Mordecai Johnson, Doxey Wilkerson, and Leon Ransom—were professors at Howard University, with the exception of Johnson, who was president of Howard. The moderator was George V. Denny, Jr., and the show was broadcast from the campus in Washington, D.C.

In his introduction, Denny said that each of the presenters “hold diametrically opposed views on the question we’ve posed: ‘Is There a Basis for Spiritual Unity in the World Today?’” With regard to Locke and Johnson, there seems to have not only been a divergence in viewpoint, but personal friction as well, as they may have locked antlers on university-related issues. Johnson, who was the first to speak, began by saying, “Man is an animal.” He hastened to add: “But man is a religious animal.”617 After idealizing Christianity and the civilizing role it should play, Locke opened his remarks by responding: “One of the troubles of today’s world tragedy is the fact that this same religion, of which Dr. Johnson has spoken with his grand idealisms, has, when institutionalized, been linked with politics and the flag and empire, with the official church and sectarianism.” Speaking of the “brotherhood of man” as an ancient, venerable principle, Locke remarks: “We must consider very carefully why such notions have for so long wandered disembodied in the world—witness the dismembered League of Nations and Geneva’s sad, deserted nest.”618 With characteristic, extemporaneous eloquence, Locke added, trenchantly:

The fact is, the idealistic exponents of world unity and human brotherhood have throughout the ages and even today expected their figs to grow from thistles. We cannot expect to get international bread from sociological stone whether it be the granite of national self-sufficiency, the flint of racial antagonisms, or the adamant of religious partisanship. […] The question pivots, therefore, not on the desirability of world unity, but upon the more realistic issue of its practicability.619
True to his philosophical bent, Locke delivered more on problems than solutions, conveying to the immediate audience the misimpression that he, in fact, saw no spiritual basis for world unity at all. During the question–answer period that followed, a lady asked: “Dr. Locke. As a teacher of philosophy, what do you offer your students as a substitute for the spiritual ideas that you claim do not exist?” (Applause.) To which Locke replied: “Well, that’s a poser, and I can’t give any of my lectures, some of them dealing with some of the greatest advocates of spiritual ideals that the world has known. One of the tragic things which show our present limited horizons is that there are very few institutions where, let us say, the great philosophies of the East are studied; and when they are and as they are, we will be a little nearer to that spiritual unity, I think, that you think I don’t believe in.”620 The moderator would not let Locke answer a subsequent question from a man in the audience, who asked: “Dr. Locke. If you consider spiritual unity desirable, what do you offer in lieu of the major religions of the world?”621

This was a question as excellent as it was leading, and it points to one of Locke’s weaknesses: While keen on framing problems, and articulate at the level of principle, he sometimes lacked the “practicability” that he himself said the world so desperately needed. Had he been allowed to answer this last question, would he have mentioned the Bahá’í Faith? While Louis Gregory would have seized the opportunity, Locke had already distanced himself from his own, chosen religion. As a result, he came across to the audience as somewhat critical of Christianity, and vaguely favorable to Eastern philosophy. But he had no real answers for the audience. This may have been a tragic flaw, as it were, in Locke’s activism for a broader concept of democracy, whose interests could be better served by directly mobilizing the vast, spiritual resources that the world’s religions had to offer. Sadly, Locke quasi-recanting his Bahá’í commitment, while free to do so, seemed to create a spiritual vacuum in his life. Frankly, he missed this golden opportunity to be a spiritual leader before a national audience.

The publication in November of the special of the Survey GraphicColor: The Unfinished Business of Democracy—would succeed where he had largely failed. His keynote article, “The Unfinished Business of Democracy,” is perhaps his finest article on the subject.622 In 1944, Locke would be interviewed about the special issue in a later radio broadcast. During part of the intervening year, Locke would serve as America’s cultural ambassador to Haiti.

Locke’s role as cultural ambassador actually began early in 1943. Along with jazz orchestra leader Benny Goodman and composer Deems Taylor, in January 1943 Locke was named to a special advisory committee to brief the State Department’s Division of Cultural Relations “regarding the stimulation of musical interchange among the American republics.”623 This was an event leading up to his experience in Haiti. In the meantime, on February 19th, Locke spoke on “Negro Painting” at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.624

One major event for Locke this year was Institute for Religious Studies conference, sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. At the session, “Group Relations and Group Antagonisms,” Locke, presented a lecture on “The Negro Group.” This talk was later published.625 Also this year, Locke produced an annotated bibliography, World View on Race and Democracy: A Study Guide in Human Group Relations.626

Locke’s academic distinctions were matched by his dignity in appearance. Beyond the many photographs, several portraits were made. An oil-on-canvas portrait of Alain Locke was painted by Betsy Graves Reyneau, circa 1943–1944. Although Reyneau had met with Locke on several occasions, her portrait was based on a photograph. Now housed in the National Portrait Gallery, Locke was depicted in his “Oxford jacket” to distinguish him as a quiet, dignified scholar.627 The portrait was exhibited 2–28 May 1944 in the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts, “Special Exhibition of Portraits of Leading Negro Citizens” (ALP). Curiously, although immortalized in this fashion, Locke was always aware of the fragility of life and of his own mortality. He therefore wrote a will and testament on 1 April 1943.628

Although a public figure, Locke at this time continued, for the most, to be a private Bahá’í. In addition to being unavailable to the Washington Bahá’í community, Locke would be out of town for a while. He was bound for Haiti. The extent of his contact with the Bahá’ís there remains a mystery. On his return, however, his attitude towards the Faith would take a turn for the better.

Cultural Ambassador to Haiti: From 9 April–10 July 1943, Locke took leave of Howard University to serve as Inter-American Exchange Professor to Haiti for three months under the joint auspices of the American Committee for Inter-American Artistic and Intellectual Relations and the Haitian Ministry of Education, whose director, Maurice Dartique, Locke personally met in March 1941 in Washington, D.C.629 His appointment, which was originally scheduled for the previous academic year, was delayed because of the war situation, which prevented him from getting the necessary priority authorization for his trip to Port-au-Prince. (During that time, no definite plane reservations for travel abroad could be made without a government priority.) His appointment ended up being for the third trimester, which, in Haiti, ran from “the week after Easter to the middle of July.” Locke was on a leave of absence, without pay, from Howard University, although his paychecks were still disbursed through Howard University, after it had received $1,200 from the Committee for Inter-American Artistic and Intellectual Relations, administered by Henry Allen Moe, secretary-general of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York. Locke had to keep a detailed account of his expenses, including a record of all tips and other incidental expenses. In his report of activities, Locke mentions a special committee that planned his “work and entertainment.” The chairman was Dr. Camille Lherisson, who evidently served as Locke’s official translator. Another task force, the Conseil de l’Universite du Haiti, made necessary arrangements for a series of public lectures he was scheduled to give. Locke took a keen interest in the educational situation in Haiti, which was in transition in its effort to modernize. During the latter part of April, Locke “visited most of the schools, public and private, in Port-au-Prince.”

Prior to leaving for Port-au-Prince, Locke had paid Howard colleague Louis T. Achille the sum of $200.00 to translate his series of Haiti lectures into French. On reaching Haiti, however, Locke realized that the intellectual elite there lacked the basic background as to the racial situation in the States. His lectures, as originally written, assumed too much and so he undertook extensive revisions four of his lectures accordingly.630 Dr. Camille Lherisson, who served as Locke’s translator during the former’s visits to various schools and short impromptu talks, then translated these revisions into French. Locke’s public lectures, which were all on the general topic of “The Contribution of the Negro to the Culture of the Americas,” were as follows: Under the patronage of Haitian President Elie Lescot, Locke’s inaugural lecture, “Race, Culture and Democracy,” was given on Sunday, May 9th. The second, “The African Background and its Cultural Significance,” was delivered on Wednesday, May 12th. The next was “The Negro’s Position in North American Culture,” addressed on Friday, May 14th, while the fourth, “The Negro’s Sociological Position in the United States,” was offered on Sunday, May 16th. His penultimate and concluding lectures, “Negro Achievements in the United States” and “The Negro in the Three Americas: His Culture Gifts,” were presented on Wednesday, May 19th and Sunday, May 23rd, respectively. With this advance preparation and translation, Locke, who was fluent in German but “inadequate” in French, succeeded in presenting most of his public lectures in French, particularly his lecture series at the French Seminary at Cap Haitian. (For this, he was awarded the Medal of the L’Alliance Francais.)

As a courtesy, Locke asked Lherisson to present the fifth lecture. “My French delivery,” Locke reports, “was far from perfect, but improved as the series went on.”631 With the exception of the sixth and final lecture, which was held in the University of Haiti’s Rex Theatre, all of Locke’s public lectures were delivered in the Aula of the School of Law. The sixth lecture, “The Negro in the Three Americas,” was published in English the following year. It expresses the underlying thesis of Locke’s talks. Speaking of the historical legacy of slavery and its persistent after-effects, and of the need to resolve these problems in the interests of democracy, Locke writes: “That the Negro’s situation in this hemisphere has this constructive contribution to make to the enlargement of the practise of democracy has been the main conviction and contention of these discussions.”632

According to Locke’s report, the lectures prompted a need for their publication. “After the series was over, in fact before,” he writes, “considerable demand became evident for publication of the full text; large quotation of passages having appeared in the newspapers.”633 On the recommendation of U.S. Ambassador White, the American Haitian Coordination Committee (renamed the Committee on Intercultural Cooperation), underwrote the expenses for a print run of 1,200 copies of Le rôle du Negro dans la culture des Amerique (1943).634 Locke was able to carry the project to near completion before he left Haiti for ten days in Cuba. The rest, including final proofreading, was in the capable hands of Dr. Lherisson, for subsequent publication by the L’Imprimerie d’Etat. Locke dedicated the book to President Lescot.635 These lectures formed the nucleus of grand project that Locke believed would be his magnum opus.636 (That project, The Negro in American Culture, was completed by Margaret Just Butcher, daughter of Howard colleague and close friend, Ernest E. Just. It is not, however, considered to be an authentic work of Locke.)

Bahá’í Contacts in Port-au-Prince?: Locke’s relationship with the Bahá’ís in Haiti remains unknown. American Bahá’ís had already traveled to Haiti as Bahá’í “pioneers.” Louis Gregory and his wife Louise pioneered to Haiti in 1937, with the goal of establishing a Bahá’í community there. The Gregory’s sailed from New York on 14 January 1937, and soon settled in Petion Ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Their projected stay was for three months. The official Haitian government, however, opposed the Bahá’í teaching work. They left on 21 April 1937.

On 4 April 1943, Locke received a letter from another Bahá’í pioneer, Ellsworth Blackwell (1902–1978), who was pioneering in Haiti at the time. Blackwell was a distinguished African American Bahá’í who, after serving on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, pioneered to Haiti from 1940–1943, returning there in 1950, and again in 1960, where he remained until 1975. In the capital, Port-au-Prince, Blackwell helped form the first local Spiritual Assembly of Haiti, and in 1961 was elected to its first National Spiritual Assembly, serving as the first chairman of both of these institutions. He was also appointed Haiti’s first Auxiliary Board Member. In October 1975, the Blackwells pioneered to the island of Madagascar, where he served on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Malagasy Republic, from 1976–1977. Shortly after he died at his new pioneering post in the Republic of Zaire. “A gleaming white monument,” writes Richard Thomas, “marks his resting place which overlooks the rolling green countryside near Kananga.”637 In his letter, Blackwell extended a personal welcome and offer of hospitality to Locke. The letter read as follows:

L’Assemblée Spirituelle Des Bahais

de Port-au-Prince, Haiti


Gerald G. McBean

Ruelle Charles Jeanty

Bas Peu de Chose

Port-au-Prince, Haiti
c/o American Consulate

Port au Prince, Haiti

April 4, 1943

Dear Bahá’í Friend:

It is our understanding that you will soon be in Haiti. Therefore, we are taking this opportunity to welcome you in the name of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Port au Prince.

Anything at all that we can do to make your stay in Haiti pleasant or any other assistance we can render, we will be most happy to do so.

You can reach us at either of the above addresses or you may call Mr. McBean at 3426.

The undersigned are, for your further information, the Bahá’í Pioneers to Haiti.

Hoping to hear from you in the near future, we are,
Faithfully in His Service,

Ellsworth and Ruth Blackwell638

Did Locke respond? The answer is unknown. The culmination of Locke’s experience in Haiti came on June 25th when, at a luncheon held at the royal palace, Haitian President Elie Lescot personally decorated Locke with the National Order of Honor and Merit, grade of Commandeur.639 On route back to the United States, Locke stopped over in Cuba, where he stayed at the Royal Palm Hotel from June 27th to July 5th.640 Among the notables he visited was Dr. Fernandez Ortiz. Evidently, there is no record of a Bahá’í community in Havana, much less of any contacts that Locke might have had. While there is a relative abundance of documentation on the preparations he made for the Haiti experience, and pertinent data on his itinerary and activities, there is simply a dearth of information on what Bahá’í contacts Locke had with Ellsworth Blackwell.

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