Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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Article in Ebony Magazine: Louis Gregory’s enduring wish for Locke was that the latter might fully identify himself with the Bahá’í Faith. This would have lent considerable prestige to the Faith. While Locke was a public intellectual, was he a public Bahá’í? The answer depends on how you look at it. Locke certainly had ample opportunity in his professional life to refer to his religious affiliation. So far as we know, he never did so. He chose not to. Should he have been expected to? In his day, wasn’t religion considered a personal matter? And what about any repercussions that might have flowed from any appearance on his part of having ulterior (parochial) motives?

When Locke did take a public stand, it was at a Bahá’í-sponsored event. Only a relatively few people would be present hear Locke make such a testimonial of faith. So that type of public statement was a relatively “safe” one to make. One could argue that Locke’s four essays published in several volumes of The Bahá’í World was a public avowal of his faith as a Bahá’í. The Bahá’í World was a public record, and an international publication at that. However, this was a public association—not necessarily full identification—with the Bahá’í Faith. To be fair, the competent reader would presume that Locke was writing as a Bahá’í. This does come closer to what Louis Gregory was prevailing on Locke to do. But since Gregory was already well aware of Locke’s Bahá’í World essays, his encouragement of Locke to “go public,” as it were, must have had a different goal in mind.

Alain Locke, at last, fulfilled Louis Gregory’s wish. Perhaps not in quite the way that he had anticipated, but in a very public way nonetheless. While Locke opted for the indirect method of teaching, Bahá’í’s were at liberty to capitalize on Locke’s prestige both before and after his death in 1954. In October 1952, Ebony magazine published an article, “Bahá’í Faith: Only church in world that does not discriminate.”711 On the first page of the article, it featured a photograph of Alain Locke alongside that of Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender. The caption under Abbott states that he was the most famous African American Bahá’í. If so (and that is certainly debatable), would that have implied that Locke next in renown as the most well known African American Bahá’í? The caption beneath Locke’s photograph, interestingly enough, reads: “Alain Locke, Howard professor, joined movement in 1915, wrote for the Baha’i Magazine.” While this contradicts his “Bahá’í Historical Record” card in which he states that he embraced the Faith in 1918, the year 1915 is probably when Locke went to his first Bahá’í meeting. Especially because he kept a copy of this article on file, the presumption must be that Locke consented to the use of his photograph in the article. (Robert Abbott had already died years earlier.) At last, the name and fame of Alain Locke was publicly identified with the Bahá’í Faith. This would have made Louis Gregory, Locke’s stalwart friend, very happy indeed. This, combined with the Ebony article itself and the national exposure that went along with it, signals Locke’s crossing over from estrangement to reconciliation with his Bahá’í community and personal identification with the Faith.


Locke’s Last Active Year: In a letter dated 18 Feb. 1953 to Horace Kallen, Locke reports a clean bill of health: “A recent check up with Dr. Wolfee [sic] was favorable.”712 That prognosis would not be favorable for long. 1953 would be Locke’s last active year as a public intellectual. A few highlights of this year deserve mention. On 14 March 1953, Locke presented a paper, “The Social Responsibility of the Scholar,” at a conference on “Academic Freedom in the United States” held at the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel on the Howard University campus. His followed a paper, “The Social Responsibility of the Administrator,” by Mordecai W. Johnson, president of Howard University (program, ALP). Little did Johnson know that, in just over a year from then, he would speak as one of several distinguished orators at Locke’s funeral. On 8 April 1953, Locke chaired a public session, “On the Occasion of the Installation of the Gamma Chapter, District of Columbia, Phi Beta Kappa,” also held in Rankin Chapel (program, ALP). This event featured a “Commemoration Address” by Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, Director of Trusteeship of the United Nations. In a little over a year from then, Dr. Bunche would be one of the orators at Locke’s funeral.

Retirement: s previously mentioned, Locke was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters upon his retirement on 5 June 1953. In his acceptance speech, which was also his parting speech, Locke reflected on “these forty-one years of close professional and personal association.” Reflecting on a family tradition of education practiced by his parents and his grandfather, Ishmael Locke, Locke noted that “teaching is a family calling.” But beyond this personal heritage, what was Locke’s reason—his idealistic motivation—for becoming a philosopher in the first place? Locke said:
In coming to Howard in 1912, I was fortunate, I think, in bringing a philosophy of the market place not of the cloister. For, however much a luxury philosophy may be in our general American culture, for a minority situation and a trained minority leadership, it is a crucial necessity. This, because free, independent and unimposed thinking is the root source of all other emancipations. […] A minority is only safe and sound in terms of its social intelligence.”713
In reference to the pending Supreme Court case, Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education (decided in 1954), Locke commented that, “now that educational and other forms of official segregation are facing the Supreme Court[,] what we hope is their final judicial doomsday, that such special emphasis can and should lapse along with the situations of enforced separatism, and then be merged in one overall program of progressive and democratic social education.”714 Although Locke did not live to see it, this was his prediction: “Even should this crucial legal turning point be further postponed, it is only too evident that in American race relations a new age of progressive integration is well upon us.”715 In reflecting on his involvement in the New Negro movement, and what it represented, Locke said:
When I began my teaching career, forty years back, in matters racial a sorry age of appeal and appeasement was just coming to an end. There was slowly beginning the era of the New Negro, in which it was a joy and privilege to participate. That phase we can now see as an important and inevitable age of transition, although at the time it seemed decidedly millenial [sic]. It was an age of racialist self-assertion and protest, involving much needed recovery of self respect and compensative self reliance. Fortunately, with a few exceptions like Garveyism, this inevitable period of self-assertion did not lead the Negro into a dead end of racial chauvinism and an impasse of voluntary separatism.”716
He then quoted a passage from his immortal manifesto in The New Negro, prefacing the citation: “For the record, may I now quote how it seemed from a philosopher’s viewpoint twenty-seven years ago.” That passage states, in part:
The Negro mind reaches out as yet to nothing but American wants, American ideas. But this forced attempt to build his Americanism on race values is a unique social experiment, and its ultimate success is impossible except through the fullest sharing of American cultures and institutions. […] Democracy itself is obstructed and stagnated to the extent that any of its channels are closed. […] So the choice is not between one way for the Negro and another way for the rest, but between American institutions frustrated on the one hand and American ideals progressively fulfilled and realized on the other.”717

Despite his own criticism of the movement (described above as a “unique social experiment”) some years ago, Locke could now look back and appreciate, at aesthetic and social distance, “the logic of the intervening social development.” He added: “In taking his case and cause consistently on the basic values and ideals of the American culture, the Negro strategy and tactic has been signally vindicated.”718 Locke himself was a prominent symbol of African American self-respect and he succeeded in gaining the respect of that segment of white America that knew about him. Locke is now an American icon. But instead of being a relic of the past, in his twilight years, Locke looked forward:

Somewhat swiftly and courageously, however, the strategies of protest and racialist compensation must be changed over to new ones of ready collaboration and positive acceptance of common causes. As Dr. Bunche so forcefully pointed out in his Phi Beta Kappa address here recently, we must stand ready to liquidate promptly and cheerfully all our vested interests in a segregated social order, and willingly renounce and reconstruct the separate church, the separate school, and whatever else was once a justifiable countershield against discrimination and ostracism. Nor should we assume the gradualism which on the other side has drawn our constant and vehement criticism. If the age of integration is on us,—and it seems to be[—], the time is now, without hesitation or regret. We must now face a new era reasonably free from self-contradiction, and in obvious harmony with the basic principles or which we have so long appealed. Although a comparatively sudden change, and one of course not fully established, this is the present challenge.719

Locke closed his speech with these moving words: “One who is old must pause for a blinking moment, and then hasten to salute the fortunate generation that stands on the threshold of such new opportunities. Nor is it envy that prompts a sobering reminder that these very fresh enlargements of life bring reciprocally new and arduous responsibilities. It is good to have lived to see even this much realization of the rich potentials of American democracy.”720 Throughout his life, Locke presented the race problem as fundamentally a question of democracy. Indeed, race is the litmus test of the integrity of any democracy.

In July, he moved to New York (Harlem), which was really his second home and his first love. According to critic Steve Watson, Locke’s “wispy figure could be seen briskly strolling through Harlem in perfectly tailored suits, with a tightly wound umbrella as his stick (and in later years as a form of protection), delivering erudite pronouncements in high pitched rapid-fire sentences.”721

Centenary of Universal Religion: In advance preparation for the event, Locke was invited to submit ideas for the “Centenary of Universal Religion.”722 In 1952, he was sent a press release issued by Nina Matthisen, Secretary of the Bahá’í Centenary News Service, announcing the special observance on 16 October 1952 of the “Centenary of Universal Religion.” This international event was marked by a series of four international conferences: Kampala, Uganda (Feb. 1953); Wilmette, Illinois (May 1953), Stockholm (July 1953); and New Delhi (October 1953). The Bahá’í House of Worship was formally dedicated at the Wilmette event. It is not known whether Locke contributed in any way to this event. Furthermore, there is no record of his involvement with the New York Bahá’í community at this late stage in his life.

Locke lived on 12 Grove Street in New York. Not much is known of his activities at this time. From silence, one could surmise that Locke’s heart condition was seriously deteriorating. He did review Ralph Barton Perry’s The Realms of Value723 and published a couple of other minor pieces. (The reader will recall that Perry was Locke’s Ph.D. supervisor at Harvard.) While Locke himself had hoped that his career as a scholar was not at an end, it really was. Up until the end, Locke had been working on a project that was perforce left unfinished. After his death, colleague Margaret Just Butcher published The Negro in American Culture (1956).724 However, although based on his materials, it is not considered a genuine reflection of Locke’s approach to culture.

Assuming that his death was not sudden, the several months leading up to his death must have been preoccupied with his heart condition. According to one obituary (found in the Alain Locke Papers!), Locke “died after a six-week illness.”

His heart of gold had already given much to the world. The reader has no doubt noticed an underlying tone of profound respect for Locke throughout this narrative. While it is not the province of scholarship to make value judgments (this is generally left to the reader), the present writer, while careful not to comment negatively or positively on Locke, has to exercise even greater restraint at this point in the narrative, in not telling the reader that Locke was a great American and, more significantly, a world statesman in his own right. Either way, such a determination cannot be conclusively made until more of his unpublished work is published. Locke was not without honor in his own country, as the illustrious orators at his funeral have eloquently testified.

Bahá’í Prayers at Funeral: Locke died on 9 June 1954, in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. On June 11th at Bent’s Chapel, Brooklyn, Locke’s memorial was presided over by Dr. Channing Tobias, with cremation following at Fresh Pond Crematory in Little Village, Long Island.725 Arthur Fauset assumed the responsibilities of making all the necessary arrangements. From a will that Locke wrote on 1 April 1943, it appears that Arthur Huff Fauset had a “half-interest” in Locke’s properties at 2324 North Nineteenth Street, Philadelphia, as well as the apartment house on 1921 Dimond Street and the house on 1611 Pine Street—all in Philadelphia—. Fauset’s address is given as 1611 Pine, where he evidently resided.726 The brief notice that appeared in the Baha’i News in 1954 (No. 282, p. 11) states that: “Quotations from the Baha’i Writings and Baha’i Prayers were read at Dr. Locke’s funeral.” This shows that Locke remained a committed Bahá’í to the end of his life.

Two days later, a memorial service, presided over by Dr. Channing Tobias, was held at Benta’s Chapel, Brooklyn. His earthly remains were then with cremated at Fresh Pond Crematory in Little Village, Long Island.727 The Baha’i News published a brief notice, which stated: “Quotations from the Baha’i Writings and Baha’i Prayers were read at Dr. Locke’s funeral.”728 Assuming this is true (even without independent attestation), this shows that Locke remained a committed Bahá’í to the end of his life.

Orations in honor of Locke were given by William Stanley Braithwaite, Ralph Bunche, C. Glenn Carrington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Karpman, Yervant Krikorian, William Stuart Nelson.729 “[H]is contributions,” remarked Karpman, reflecting on Locke’s legacy, “go beyond race; they belong to all humanity.” “He had all but emancipated himself from the consciousness of color,” Karpman continued to say, adding that: “In his presence, one did not feel that he was speaking to a Negro or to a particular human known as American, but to an urbane cosmopolitan.” Of the difference he made in this world, Karpman said of Locke that “his influence has penetrated millions of human souls,” explaining that:
He gave the Negro an individuality to a greater degree than the race had ever known before. He gave him reasons to dream, visions that could be attained; he gave him a sense of belonging, a cause to struggle for. More than anyone else, he contributed to removing from the Negro the stigma of inferiority and gave him a social and human dignity as Emerson and Thoreau a century before gave it to the American. He gave the Negro a consciousness of being a part of mankind in general, a partner in man’s creative progress. Many a Negro today walks with a straighter gait, holding his head high in any company, because of Alain Locke.730
After Locke’s death, the Alain Locke Memorial Committee was formed and William S. Braithwaite was authorized to write an official biography on Locke. Evidently, this biography never came to fruition. In an undated letter to Arthur Huff Fauset, chair of the Alain Locke Memorial Committee, Horace Kallen wrote: “I cannot think of a writer better fitted by his knowledge, sympathetic understanding and literary skill to deal with this theme in its relation to the life-problems of the American Negro in the material and spiritual economy of our country. Kallen added this claim to his tribute to Locke: “What Booker T. Washington had been to the Negro and the American idea in the field of material skills and material achievement, Alain Locke was in the field of the spirit.”731 What keener assessment of Locke’s contribution to American history than these words written by Kallen on 19 November 1959: “I believe that the role of Alain Locke in turning the cultural attitudes of American negroes in new and creative directions forms an important part of the cultural history of the United States with ongoing consequences.”732

In 1955, Howard University received the estate of Alain Locke, whose personal art collection of 365 pieces became the core of the Gallery of Art’s classical African Art Collection. On 1 December 1973, in the Alain Locke Symposium, sponsored by The Harvard Advocate, Nathan Higgins explained Locke’s interest in African art, and why he attached such great significance to it:

But Locke’s thinking had a special import and that was to serve the refinement of Afro-American culture. We can now understand why African art as such has a special meaning for Locke. Here, after all, was an art created out of the religious and community experiences of a non-white people that exhibited the discipline and purity of form that could be called classic. In every sense African art demonstrated the intrinsic value that was possible to derive from refined generalized experience. African art not only supported his theory, but it represented the promise for Afro-American art. He did not expect that Afro-American art should imitate African art; he did not expect that Afro-American art should imitate African form. But he hoped that the existence of African art would suggest to the black Americans the possibilities of their own expressions.733
Certainly African art offered a new paradigm for African American artists. The Harlem Renaissance artists themselves had rejected European classicism as effete, as emblematic of white middle-class bourgeois values, and as wholly unrepresentative of African American values. Race, as Locke had argued in his 1915–1916 lectures, was significant primarily as a social construct. Although reified as a consequence of bad science, race was here to stay and was expressive of cultural values and traditions. Locke’s interest in African art was a practical application of the manifesto he published in The New Negro (1925). Locke willed his extensive collection of African art to Howard University. In the process, Locke’s estate later became the subject matter of a legal battle, with Howard University as a litigant. On 17 Jan. 1958, the New York County “Supreme Court” (an anomalous term for New York’s lower courts) heard the case of “Marie A. Doughney, Plaintiff, v. Arthur H. Fauset, Howard University, and the Estate of Alain L. Locke, Defendants (9 Misc.2d 759, 170 N.Y.S.2d 419). Remaining at Howard University, the African Art Collection was a philanthropic, far-sighted gift from Locke that augmented his legacy.

Conclusions: The fact that Locke was a Bahá’í has been long known (yet not well known) in the American Bahá’í community, which largely forgot him. Over the past five decades, Locke has been of far greater importance outside the Bahá’í community than within it. This asymmetry of interest has led to an information gap. Locke’s Bahá’í identity was simply not known as a matter of historical fact, at least insofar as non-Bahá’ís historians were concerned. The documentation provided in this study, therefore, explodes the secular myth that Locke had never formally become a Bahá’í. In his otherwise authoritative entry on Locke in the American National Biography, Leonard Harris, who is the leading authority on Locke (and author of the Foreword to this volume), writes:
Locke also became interested in the Baha’i faith, finding particularly attractive its emphasis on racial harmony and the interrelatedness of all religious faiths. Locke attended the 1921 Inter-Racial Amity Conference on 19–21 May in Washington, D.C., and as late as 1932 published short editorials in the Baha’i World. Although he did not formally join the Baha’i faith, he remained respectful of its practices.734
This statement was based on the documentation then available. History is revised when new documents come to light, provided those documents contain new information. Proving Locke’s Bahá’í identity is one thing; reconstructing his Bahá’í life is quite another. In so doing, one question that had to be asked (because other Bahá’ís were asking it of Locke directly) was whether or not Locke fully identified himself with the Bahá’í Faith. Apart from his Bahá’í essays, speeches and articles, Locke never once mentioned the Bahá’í Faith in any of his secular books, articles or lectures, let alone his affiliation with it. Because of his rather uneven relationship with the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community, there was all the more reason to investigate Locke’s Bahá’í life more deeply.

The most honest appraisal one can make is that Locke held to a true belief in Bahá’í principles, was fully committed to its race amity agenda, and, by the ink of his erudite pen, contributed several Bahá’í essays that were substantially more than mere “editorials.” Moreover, Locke was particularly active and effective at both national and international levels of the Faith. For reasons that he did not disclose, Locke never testified to his faith in his professional life. For reasons that he certainly did disclose, Locke experienced a growing estrangement with the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community, distancing himself from it until at last he formally all but resigned from it. Yet, through high-level contacts, Locke did maintain his Bahá’í connections. Locke made several significant contributions to the Faith, in speeches and essays, during this period of “estrangement.” This is paradoxical, admittedly. The term “estrangement” is used advisedly. Its justification is based on periods of inactivity flowing from his wish to remain “an isolated believer” (letter dated 30 March 1941). This period of distance from the Faith apparently coincides with a growing cynicism towards “the white man” and towards life generally. Yet a real verve and inspiration is evident during the years of World War II, when Locke championed democracy.

Although there was some initial resistance to having fully integrated meetings, the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community was open to African Americans. But, except for several outstanding Bahá’ís who truly exemplified Bahá’í values, the community was not as open and welcome as it could have been. But Washington was a Bahá’í environment where future Universal House of Justice member Amos Gibson was raised. As to Locke himself, Tahmineh Parsons, a long-time Washington, D.C. Bahá’í, in a personal interview on 9 Aug. 2001, stated that she had heard Locke’s name on occasion, and that “I just took it for granted he was a Bahá’í.” “I can’t remember,” she added, “ever going to a meeting in the Bahá’í Center where he spoke.” One can see that the Bahá’í worship culture in Washington was not so attractive to African Americans generally, as Parsons remarked: “Mother [Dr. Louise Shuman] sang church music. There was no Bahá’í music.” This “church music” was likely reserved and lacked the emotive spirit of “Gospel music” so central to the independent Black denominations. She added: “There wasn’t a whole lot of black people.”735 Consistent with this but unfortunately nevertheless, there wasn’t a whole lot of Locke in the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community, either.

In the course of my research, I cannot escape the nagging suspicion that Locke’s white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason (whom Locke affectionately—with a devotion that bordered on being obsequious—addressed as “Godmother”), was just as strong an influence against Locke’s identification with the Bahá’í faith as Locke’s own mother was a proponent of it. Since Jeffrey Stewart’s dissertation references to Locke’s mention of the Faith in his correspondence with Mason has yet to be corrected, further research is required to locate Locke’s references to the Faith and analyze how Mason’s responses to it may have temporarily influenced her protege one way or the other. As with his letters to his mother, Locke’s letters to his “Godmother” read somewhat like a diary. For in these letters, Locke reveals the most personal and sometimes intimate details—including his criticisms of just about everyone and everything, including himself. It also seems that Mason regarded herself as a spiritual teacher endowed with a profound wisdom in all matters, including spiritual concerns—advice to which her beneficiaries were beholden to follow. Indeed, these were the “strings” attached to her generous contributions in support of the development of African and African American arts.

Locke was ostracized at Oxford, tolerated and then befriended by Horace Kallen, but accepted, loved and respected by the Bahá’ís. It was Locke who “rejected” the Bahá’ís (although not Bahá’í principles) in his periods of self-imposed inactivity. Also, Locke had his own personal issues to deal with, some of which ran contrary to Bahá’í values. Of course, with his keenly critical eye, he could easily see the shortfalls in Bahá’í race amity efforts. He clearly resented domineering personalities and their stultifying effect on the race amity efforts. Notwithstanding these failures to completely live up to Locke’s high expectations, the Bahá’ís tried their best. Perhaps Locke should have been more accepting. Acceptance and rejection cut both ways.

Despite Locke’s estrangement, he had a later reconciliation. The brightest moments in Alain Locke’s public Bahá’í life were three: (1) the first Race Amity Conference, in which Locke presided as a session chair on 20 May 1921; (2) his presentation at the Racial Amity Convention in Harlem, 10 December 1932; and (3) his lecture, “Democracy in Human Relations” at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1946. There were other golden moments as well. Locke’s later “reconciliation” with the Faith resulted in his most widely publicized and highly visible identification with it. This was the October 1952 issue of Ebony magazine, in which his photograph and the caption beneath it clearly and quite publicly identified him as a Bahá’í. At that point, nothing more could be asked of Locke, having openly and effectively lent his prestige to the Faith that resonated the most closely with his philosophy of cultural pluralism.

Chapter Nine

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