Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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This chapter is based, in part, on Locke’s autobiographical note that prefaced his first formal philosophical essay, “Values and Imperatives,”25 published when he was fifty years old (1935). Locke refers to this self-narrative as his “psychograph.” In it, Locke does not directly mention the fact that he was a Bahá’í. But he does allude to it, calling himself a “universalist in religion.”26 As a methodological control and anchor of authenticity, periodic references to Locke’s psychograph will be made throughout this essay.

Locke begins his psychograph so: “I should like to claim as life-motto the good Greek principle,— ‘Nothing in excess,’ but I have probably worn instead as the badge of circumstance,—‘All things with a reservation.’”27 While a Bahá’í for most of his adult life, Locke had some reservations about ways in which the Bahá’í Faith was understood and applied by some of his fellow Bahá’ís. His reservations may contribute to a richer understanding of Bahá’í principles as he interpreted them through his unique perspective as both a race leader (“perforce an advocate of cultural racialism”) as well as a “cultural cosmopolitan” steeped in the “philosophy of value,” allied with “cultural pluralism and value relativism.”28 Cultural pluralism is a commitment that “accords basic respect and recognition to culturally diverse groups.”29 It differs from cultural diversity, which is simply a social fact. This study will thus situate Locke within the context of those intellectual formations—value theory, pragmatism, Boasian anthropology, and cultural pluralism, as well as Bahá’í principles—that deeply influenced him.

Early life: An African American (“Negro”) child of Northern Reconstruction with an enlightened upbringing, Locke was the only son of Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary (Hawkins) Locke, who had been engaged for sixteen years before they married.30 Alain LeRoy Locke was born on 13 September 1885 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not in 1886, as commonly thought.31 For reasons that have eluded historians, Locke always represented his year of birth as 1886—not 1885.32 At birth, although his name was recorded as “Arthur,” his parents may have actually named him “Alan.” In the Alain Locke Papers, there is a note in Locke’s handwriting that reads:
Alain Leroy Locke[:] Alan registered as Arthur (white Phila Vital Statistics owing prejudice of Quaker physician Isaac Smedley to answering question of race. [B]orn 13 So. 19th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Sunday between 10 and 11 A.M. September 13, 1885. Called Roy as a child[.] Alain from 16 on. [illegible] First born son. 2nd brother born 1889—lived 2 months[.] [N]amed Arthur first selected for me.33
A city hall note by the chief clerk of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and Charities in 1909 (?) confirms the 1885 year of his birth.34 Thus young “Roy” became “Alan” from the age of sixteen, but with the French spelling, “Alain” (close to the American pronunciation of “Allen”), and “Roy” transposed as the middle name “LeRoy.” Although, in later years, he typically signed his middle name as “Leroy,” on his Howard University letterhead, “LeRoy” was preferred, at least in the earlier years.35 He also signed his middle name “LeRoy” when he first taught at Howard.36 As to why he represented his year of birth as 1886 rather than 1885, Locke may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having future biographers discover that he was registered as white on his birth certificate.

In his psychograph, Locke reflects on his childhood: “Philadelphia, with her birthright of provincialism flavoured by urbanity and her petty bourgeois psyche with the Tory slant, at the start set the key of paradox; circumstance compounded it by decreeing me as a Negro a dubious and doubting sort of American and by reason of racial inheritance making me more of a pagan than a Puritan, more of a humanist than a pragmatist.”37 While Locke himself did not explicate what he meant by the “key of paradox,” further in his psychograph, “paradox” appears to be a reference to twists of fate and to tensions as well as harmonics between his cultural nationalism and integrationist universalism—perhaps never fully resolving the ideological paradox. In Philadelphia, Locke led a privileged (relative to the lives of the vast majority of other black Americans at the turn of the last century) and somewhat sheltered life.38 A biographer notes that Locke was a “child of privilege in a black household whose ancestors on both sides had been free before 1865.”39

Locke’s family background shows how nature and nurture combined to provide him with rare educational advantages. Locke’s paternal grandfather, Ishmael Locke (1820–1852), attended Cambridge University with support from the Society of Friends. Ishmael was employed as a teacher in Salem, New Jersey, and, over four years, established schools in Liberia, where he met and married Alain Locke’s paternal grandmother, Sarah Shorter Hawkins, who was from Kentucky. Ishmael Locke later served as principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, following his tenure as headmaster of a school in Providence, Rhode Island.40

Locke’s father, Pliny Ishmael Locke (b. 27 April 1850—d. 23 Aug. 1892) married Locke’s mother, Mary Jane Hawkins on 20 Aug. 1879. His mother, Mathilda Saunders, born in Liberia, had a German father. Pliny (called “Dick”) graduated from the Institute in 1867, and taught mathematics there for two years, after which he taught freedmen in North Carolina during the early years of Reconstruction. He also held a position as an accountant in the Freedman’s Bureau and the Freedman’s Bank, and was private secretary to General O. O. Howard. He was accepted to the Howard University Law Department (later called the School of Law), and graduated in 1874, one of only seven graduates at the time.41 That year, Pliny returned to Philadelphia as a clerk in the U.S. Post Office. He died in 1892,42 of “consumption and aftermath of African fear.”43

Locke’s mother, Mary (Hawkins) Locke, was from a family of free blacks, among whom were soldiers who had fought with valor during the Civil War and missionaries to Africa under the Society of Friends. Mary Hawkins was a descendant of Charles Shorter, a free Negro who had fought in the War of 1812.44 She was educated at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. Mary Locke supported herself and her family as a teacher in Camden and Camden County. She was a disciple of the humanist and rabbi, Felix Adler (d. 1933), who believed that all religions had a common ethical basis, and who proposed the First Universal Races Congress held in 1911, to the American section of which he and W. E. B. Du Bois were elected co-secretaries.45 She joined the Society for Ethical Culture, which Adler founded in 1876. It was liberal on racial matters. Adler invited Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois to lecture at the Society, and encouraged black students to enroll in his own school.46 His mother’s role as both a teacher and a humanist likely left its imprint on Locke, who, in his psychograph, described himself as “more of a humanist than a pragmatist.”47

Locke had an Episcopal upbringing, and during his youth, he was enamored of Greek philosophy.48 Later he found, as Leonard Harris puts it, a “spiritual home” in the Bahá’í Faith.49 Stricken at 3:10 p.m. with “Apoplexy,” Mary Locke died at 8:15 p.m. on 23 April 1922,50 “at 71, when I was thirty-six.”51 Locke would always remember her death as “the Sunday after Easter,” and faithfully spoke of her for years after.52 Locke described his mother as “Mulatto” and 1/8 English, with “medium brown” skin and “Medium hair soft,” her nose “slightly equiline” [sic].53

In a letter dated 28 June 1922 to Agnes Parsons, Locke disclosed that his mother had been favorably disposed to the Bahá’í Faith: “Mother’s feeling toward the cause [the Bahá’í Faith], and the friends [Bahá’ís] who exemplify it, was unusually receptive and cordial for one who had reached conservative years,—it was her wish that I identify myself more closely with it.” At the end of the letter, Locke speaks of the Bahá’í Faith as “this movement for human brotherhood.”54 To the best of his ability—given the extraordinary demands placed upon him as an academic, lecturer, cultural critic, and educator—Locke lived up to his mother’s wish over the next two decades.

University Education: Locke had a black middle class upbringing, but with an unusual education. In his infancy, Locke was stricken with rheumatic fever, which permanently damaged his heart (an inhibitive factor in Locke’s later activities as a Bahá’í). After the episode of rheumatic fever, Locke dealt with his “rheumatic heart” by seeking “compensatory satisfactions” in books, piano, and violin.55 Only six years old when his father died, Locke was sent by his mother to one of the Ethical Culture schools, which was a pioneer, experimental program of Froebelian pedagogy (after Friedrich Froebel [d. 1852], who opened the first kindergarten). By the time he enrolled in Central High School of Philadelphia (1898–1902), Locke was already an accomplished pianist and violinist. From 1902 to 1904, Locke attended the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy.56 Locke graduated second in his class in 1904. That year, Locke entered Harvard College as an honor student, where he was one of only a few African American undergraduates.

As a philosophy major, Locke studied under George Herbert Palmer, Josiah Royce, Hugo Münsterberg, and Ralph Barton Perry.57 Remarkably, Locke completed his four-year program in only three years. During this time, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1907, Locke won the Bowdoin Prize—Harvard’s most prestigious academic award—for an essay he wrote, “The Literary Heritage of Tennyson.”58 Locke also passed a qualifying examination in Latin, Greek, and mathematics for the Rhodes Scholarship, which had just been established in 1902.59 In his Rhodes Scholarship interview, Locke stated what one of his objectives for studying abroad was: “Besides the further education, I want to see the race problem from the outside. I don’t want to run away from it, but I do want to see it in perspective.”60 At last, Locke made history and headlines in May 1907 as America’s first—and last, until 1960—African American Rhodes Scholar. He graduated magna cum laude with his bachelor’s degree in philosophy that same year.61 On his Rhodes Scholarship, Locke studied at Oxford from 1907 to 1910. “At Oxford,” Locke found himself “once more intrigued by the twilight of aestheticism.”62 An account of Locke’s experiences at Oxford is given by Jeffrey Stewart.63 Rejected by five Oxford colleges, Locke was finally admitted to Hertford College.

As a Harvard senior in 1905, Locke had met Horace Kallen, a German-born Jew who was a graduate teaching assistant in a course on Greek philosophy—taught by George Santayana—in which Locke had enrolled.64 This was the beginning of an association that lasted for many years. Kallen recorded some personal observations about Locke as a young man. Locke was “very sensitive, very easily hurt.” Recalling a conversation at Harvard, Kallen elsewhere recalls that Locke would strenuously insist that, “I am a human being,” that, “We are all alike Americans,” and that his “color ought not to make any difference.”65 This is corroborated by a letter Locke wrote to his mother, Mary Locke, shortly after having been awarded his Rhodes scholarship, in which he insists: “I am not a race problem. I am Alain LeRoy Locke.”66 Unfortunately, in that era, color made all the difference. The prevailing social reality was that Locke’s self-image was really a wish-image. Two years later, on a Sheldon traveling fellowship, Kallen ended up at Oxford at the same time as Locke.

At Oxford, recommencing their earlier conversation at Harvard, Locke asked Kallen, “[W]hat difference does the difference [of race] make?” “In arguing out those questions,” Kallen recounts, “the phrase ‘cultural pluralism’ was born.”67 While the term itself was thus coined by Kallen in this historic conversation with Locke,68 it was really Locke who developed the concept into a full-blown philosophical framework for the melioration of African Americans. Although distancing himself from Kallen’s purist and separatist conception of it, Locke was part of the cultural pluralist movement that flourished between the 1920s and the 1940s.

Kallen describes a racial incident over a Thanksgiving Day dinner hosted at the American Club at Oxford. Locke was not invited, because of “gentlemen from Dixie who could not possibly associate with Negroes.”69 Elsewhere, Kallen is more blunt: “[W]e had a race problem because the Rhodes scholars from the South were bastards. So they had a Thanksgiving dinner which I refused to attend because they refused to have Locke.”70 In fact, even before they left for Oxford, these Southern Rhodes Scholars had “formally appealed to the Rhodes trustees to overturn Locke’s award”71—but to no avail. “What got Kallen particularly upset, however,” according to Louis Menand, “was the insult to Harvard.”72

In support of this, Menand cites a letter to Harvard English professor Barrett Wendell (1855–1921), in which Kallen speaks of overcoming his admitted aversion to blacks through his loyalty to Harvard and by virtue of his personal respect for Locke as well. After having invited Locke, as his guest, to tea in lieu of the Thanksgiving dinner, Kallen writes that, “tho’ it is personally repugnant to me to eat with him […] but then, Locke is a Harvard man and as such he has a definite claim on me.”73 The irony is that Kallen harbored some of the very same prejudices as the Southern Rhodes Scholars who shunned Locke, but not to the same degree. “As you know, I have neither respect nor liking for his race,” Kallen writes, “—but individually they have to be taken, each on his own merits and value, and if ever a Negro was worthy, this boy is.”74 Locke was deeply wounded: “Now, the impact of that kind of experience left scars,” remarks Kallen.75 And it wasn’t just the prejudice of his fellow American peers that so disaffected Locke, for he was almost as critical of British condescension as he was of American racism. In 1909, Locke published a critique of Oxford (“Oxford Contrasts”),76 particularly of its aristocratic pretensions.77

He found social acceptance elsewhere. He belonged to the “Oxford Cosmopolitan Club,” which attracted a number of international students (“colonials”). According to Posnock, “This group soon became Locke’s intimate circle.”78 For years to come, Locke nurtured these contacts through extensive correspondence. While “socially Anglophile” as he says in his psychograph, Locke found himself increasingly drawn to his sense of “race loyalty.”79 As evidence of this, Locke helped establish the African Union Society, and served as its secretary. Its constitution stated the society’s purpose was to cultivate “thought and social intercourse between its members as prospective leaders of the African Race.”80 Indeed, it was at Oxford that a crucial transformation took place: At entrance, Locke saw himself as a cultural cosmopolitan; on exit, Locke resolved to be a race leader.81 Hence, in his psychograph, Locke describes himself as “a cultural cosmopolitan, but perforce an advocate of cultural racialism as a defensive countermove for the American Negro.”82 In a letter to his mother while he was at Oxford, Locke reflected: “Oxford is a training-school for the governing classes, and has taught your son its lesson.”83 The Oxford experience steeled Locke’s sense of destiny as a non-chauvinistic “advocate of cultural racialism”84 and as a race leader.

So acutely did the Thanksgiving Day dinner incident traumatize Locke that he left Oxford without taking a degree, and spent the next academic year studying Kant at the University of Berlin and touring Eastern Europe as well. Locke mentions in his psychograph that, while at Oxford, he became “but dimly aware of the new realism of the Austrian philosophy of value.” During his study at the University of Berlin in 1910–1911, Locke became conversant with the “Austrian school” of anthropology, known as philosophical anthropology, under the tutelage of Franz Brentano, Alexius von Meinong, Christian Freiherr von Ehrenfels, Paul Natorp and others. In an undated letter to Booker T. Washington, Locke announced his intention of “fulfilling some of the preliminary qualifications for a German doctorate should time and money permit.”85 In his reply of 11 Jan. 1911, Washington ended by saying, “I shall follow your work with a great deal of interest, and hope for you the greatest success.”86 To have received such interest from America’s foremost “race man” of the day must have been a source of great encouragement to Locke. They ended up seeing each other a year later in Locke’s home town, Philadelphia, and traveling together two months later in Florida.87 Evidently, they had first met at the Hotel Manhattan in New York on 18 April 1910.88 In a “Biographical Memo,” Locke states: “Returning home in 1911, I spent six months travelling in the South,—my first close-range view of the race problem, and there acquired my life-long avocational interest in encouraging and interpreting the artistic and cultural expression of Negro life, for I became deeply convinced of its efficacy as an internal instrument of group integration and morale and as an external weapon of recognition and prestige.”89

In Paris, he studied under Bergson and others. Locke preferred Europe to America. There were moments when Locke resolved never to return to the United States. Reluctantly, he did so in 1911. In 1912, with the help of Booker T. Washington, Locke joined the faculty of Howard University as an assistant professor of English.90 If this had not happened, Washington had extended an invitation to Locke to work at the Tuskegee Institute.91

The Emergence of Locke the Philosopher: From the chrysalis of his exquisite education, Locke emerged as a philosopher in his own right when he earned his Ph.D. In the 1916\-–1917 academic year, Locke took a sabbatical from Howard University to take his position as an Austin Teaching Fellow at Harvard. Evidently, Locke wrote his dissertation during that academic year, although the basis for his dissertation can be traced to Locke’s work at Oxford. Even prior to this, probably during his undergraduate years at Harvard, it was a Harvard professor of philosophy, Josiah Royce, who originally inspired Locke’s interest in the philosophy of value.92

During his graduate experience at Harvard, Locke explored the ideas of such great thinkers as Hugo Münsterberg and von Ehrenfels, as well as Kant and Hegel.93 In his psychograph, Locke writes: “Verily paradox has followed me the rest of my days: at Harvard [as an undergraduate], clinging to the genteel tradition of Palmer, Royce and Münsterberg, yet attracted by the disillusion of Santayana and the radical protest of James: again I returned [as a graduate student] to work under Royce but was destined to take my doctorate in value theory under Perry.”94 Here, Locke discloses important links in his intellectual pedigree, which included the value theorists of Europe and the pragmatists of America.95 Ralph Barton Perry was Locke’s Ph.D. supervisor.

The essence of Locke’s philosophy is captured in the first sentence of his 1935 essay, “Values and Imperatives,” which states: “All philosophies, it seems to me, are in ultimate derivation philosophies of life and not of abstract, disembodied ‘objective’ reality; products of time, place and situation, and thus systems of timed history rather than timeless eternity” (PAL 34).96 In anchoring philosophy in life, Locke studied the determinative role of values in the human experience. Locke’s ideal-types were what he called “value-types.” Locke’s “psychology of value-types” is based on his 263-page Harvard dissertation, The Problem of Classification in [the] Theory of Values.97 This was an extension of an earlier essay he had written at Oxford.

Indeed, the underlying basis for Locke’s philosophy was values theory. Value theory constituted the “pivot of Locke’s thinking,” which was “his belief that human values are central in determining the course of social life.”98 In a nutshell, Locke’s philosophy consists of values referenced to feelings at the individual level, projected as cultural norms at the societal level. Both among and within societies, conflicts arise. These culture wars with a society and value-conflicts between societies can be understood if they are systematically compared and differences negotiated if they are conceptually “translated.” Some of these differences can be resolved once they are appreciated as functional equivalents. While the form of norms may differ, their function may be similar. In combining form and function, Locke provided a conceptual paradigm for cultural interpretation. This is the epistemological foundation for Locke’s cultural pluralism.

To oversimplify, Locke’s philosophical project is to ground philosophy in values, to anchor values in human experience (“feelings”), and to classify or correlate values with the complementary dimensions of human life. In section III-B-1, “The Criteria of Value-Types,” Locke justifies his systematization on the grounds that “value definition and value classification should be worked out upon the basis of some principle and method of analysis to commensurable terms.”99 Values are not “products of logical arrangement or definition.”100 Rather: “For values cohere in natural groups and psychological kinds, which must be regarded as the underlying basis for any system of classification to which values can legitimately be subjected.”101

In his dissertation, Locke states: “We have therefore taken values classed, rather roughly and tentatively, as Hedonic, Economic, Aesthetic, Ethical and Moral, Religious, and Logical, aiming to discover in terms of the generic distinctions of a value-psychology their type-unity, character, and specific differentiae with respect to other types.”102 This can be represented by the acronym HEALER: (1) Hedonic; (2) Economic; (3) Artistic; (4) Logical; (5) Ethical; (6) Religious. In “Values and Imperatives,” however, Locke reduces his taxonomy to four types of values, which I will represent with the acronym, REAL: (1) Religious; (2) Ethical/Moral; (3) Aesthetic/Artistic; (4) Logical/Scientific. Associated with these “value-types” are “Value-Feelings and Value-Presuppositions” (section III-B-2), which evidently correspond with “Modal Quality” and Value-Predicates” in the chart below:

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