Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy


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(1) Inner Ecstasy Religious Holy—Unholy Holiness Sin

(2) Religious Zeal Good—Evil Salvation Damnation

(1) Conscience Ethical/ Good—Bad Conscience Temptation

(2) Duty Moral Right—Wrong Right Crime
ACCEPTANCE or AGREEMENT —(Curiosity—Intellectual Satisfaction)

(1) Thought Logical/ Correct—Incorrect Consistency Contradiction

(2) Experience Scientific True—False Certainty Error

(1) Contemplation Aesthetic/ Beautiful—Ugly Satisfaction Disgust

(2) Creativity Artistic Fine—Unsatisfactory Joy Distress

(PAL 43)

To simplify Locke’s system, Religion and Ethics, Science and Art represent the four primary “value provinces” (PAL 45). These are both the battlefields of cultural conflicts as well as the available common ground of mutual respect through value transposition. In order to understand, appreciate and “translate” values from one culture to another, The beauty and utility of Locke’s paradigm is that it provides a key for decoding and drawing functional equivalences among the diversity of value systems that are part and parcel of cultures throughout history in times past and across the world in the present. To accomplish this, Locke favored a “historical-comparative approach” as “the only proper […] way of understanding values, including particularly those of one’s own culture and way of life” (PAL 272).

In 1918, Locke was awarded his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. That same year, Locke became a Bahá’í. In fine, Locke was “perhaps the most deeply and exquisitely educated African American of his generation.”103 This assessment is brought into even sharper relief in the sobering knowledge that, as late as 1935—a full generation after Locke—three-fourths of all blacks had not gone beyond a fourth-grade education.104 His “exquisite” education had prepared Locke for his greatest historical role, which was—to cite his psychograph—to become “a philosophical mid-wife to a generation of younger Negro poets, writers, artists.”105

Harvard: Locke as Philosopher: Locke was deeply influenced by pragmatism, a contemporary philosophical movement that countered both idealism and realism. The word itself, “pragmatism,” actually dates back to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who opposed it to egoism. But the American usage of it originated with Charles S. Peirce. Pragmatism correlates truth and experience, self and world. “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think,” according to Menand, “the way they come up with ideas, form beliefs, and reach decisions.”106 Experience is real. It is no mere mental phenomenon. It is a dynamic interaction between self and world. Knowledge derives from experience. Truth is transformed by experience.

Pragmatism is process. It advocates a method. Ideas are relative to time and place. The truth of a proposition depends on its practical value, not on any intrinsic meaning. Like the scientific method, knowledge can be tested. How? Ideas must be tested by experience. This has profound cultural implications. Truth is judged by its consequences. It cannot be divorced from the practical and moral. America, it follows, is accountable to itself.

The originators of pragmatism include the trinity of Charles Sanders Peirce (d. 1914), who claimed to have “invented” pragmatism and expounded its theory of meaning; William James (d. 1910) who developed pragmatism’s theory of truth, and John Dewey (d. 1952), who contributed his notion of “instrumentalism” to the movement.107 The renowned W. E. B. Du Bois had been a student of James.108 Locke had a passion for William James,109 although he rejected James’ radical empiricism. Both Du Bois and Locke read James’ Oxford lectures, A Pluralistic Universe (1909), as a philosophical allegory for making a “vital connection between pluralism and democracy.”110

Pragmatists put a premium on “experience.” They sought to test the truth of ideas in actual experience as a “pragmatic” indicator. They also felt that their philosophical ideas had ethical and political consequences.111 Moreover, John Dewey felt that pragmatism provided a philosophical basis for democracy, which he viewed as an ethical principle that extended beyond politics to economics and social interactions as well.112 Despite his influences, Locke pursued an independent course by deforming the master code of symbols that dominated the world of American philosophy and reforming them by means of what Houston Baker, Jr. called a “radical marronage113 or reorientation, in order that philosophy might have something meaningful to say about race relations.

Pragmatism gave birth to cultural pluralism, which Locke helped originate, develop, and espouse with almost religious zeal. During the 1920s, the question as to what constitutes American identity was “a national preoccupation.”114 Posnock states that “pragmatism’s answer” was “cultural pluralism,” as opposed to the coercions of assimilation—the pressure to conform—in the American paradigm of the “melting pot.”115 “Cultural pluralism” (coined by Horace Kallen in conversation with Locke and known now as multiculturalism) was Locke’s philosophical faith—“a new Americanism” as he called it (lecture, 8 Nov. 1950, Howard University). Compensating for liberalism’s fixation on freedom, cultural pluralism provides a philosophical foundation for unity in diversity by extending the idea of democracy beyond individuals and individual rights to the equal recognition of cultural, racial and other group rights.

Locke’s philosophy is really a fusion of pluralism and relativism, as seen in the synonyms he uses for it. “Cultural pluralism” is variously referred to in Locke’s writings as “cultural relativism,” “critical relativism” as well as “value relativism.”116 In a speech entitled, “Cultural Relativism,” presented to the “Gentlemen of the Harvard Philosophical Club” on 7 February 1930, Locke developed his own notion of what cultural relativism means and the purpose behind it. He begins his speech by making a vital connection between philosophy and human values:

I feel it quite an opportunity to read before you this paper on cultural relativism. As a topic[,] it is far off the traditional middle of the philosophers’ road […]

In my humble judgment[,] the new highway of philosophy will proceed in the direction of the philosophy of society in general, and a philosophy of culture in particular. Social values,—today treated either so formalistically or else so unphilosophically, are the crux of this issue. […] In some respects[,] the greatest intellectual service remaining to be done is to establish[,] from some source[,] a criterion of culture—a world scale of social values. And whatever question [?] furnishes that will be the true orient of the contemporary mind. One of the chief factors in the making of a new world must be the remaking of our minds, not in the sense of new content, but in the sense of new attitudes, new and practical criteria of basic human values.117 […]

Occasionally a glimpse of objective relativity in the flash wisdom of an aphorism—Man is one, civilizations are many— the scientist has a country, but science has no country […]118
Later in the speech, Locke states that progressive “thinkers of constructive purpose” are all “willing to judge social values by the standard of equivalence” and are also “willing to judge social ideals and customs on a functional basis.” Locke then proceeds to his own definition of cultural relativism:
I am anxious at this point to define this cultural relativism more closely; lest it be confused on the one hand with vague sentimental cosmopolitanism or on the other with exotic neutrality. It is not cultural neutrality, though it does involve the interpretation of culture and all cultural values on the basis of functional constants and relatively equivalent variants. Such a[n] attitude should bring us in view of basic common denominators which would scientifically correlate our values for truer comparison and scaling. It is a relativism that should be possible without losing belief in or loyalty to the common symbols and mind-sets of a particular culture. For, I take it, the scientific view,[—]far from minimizing—actually reinforces the vital functional importance of these loyalties and their social patterns serving to unify and focus our group life. But such loyalties and attachments are compatible if founded on the more objective view that my patriotism and your patriotism, my sectarianisms and yours, though differing and often opposing one another, are functionally equivalent—and objectively identical.119
Locke’s use of technical terms is not, however, always consistent. As Winston Napier points out, Locke’s “semantic inconsistency clouds his argument.”120 Strictly speaking, pluralism is a distinctive concept, while relativism is a normative one.121 As Mason observes: “It is precisely the separation between pluralism and relativism that explains much of America’s intolerance. For a plurality of ethnic groups simply cannot exist within a society that refuses to recognize the relative and functional nature of values and institutions.” 122

Locke’s critique of democracy centers around democracy’s need to develop a relativistic perspective to fit its pluralistic society.”123 Cultural pluralism has since evolved into what is now known as “multiculturalism.”124 As stated above, Locke has recently been acknowledged as “the father of multiculturalism.”125

As previously stated, Locke embraced the Bahá’í Faith in 1918, the same year that he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. Rather than interpreting this as a coincidence, it makes more sense to see these two milestones as a convergence. This book, accordingly, privileges that part of Locke’s self-portrait in which he characterizes himself as a “universalist in religion.”126 Although the details remain sketchy, it is necessary, at this point, to reflect on the circumstances of his conversion. In reflecting on his thinking and training leading up to this signal event, one might ask if Locke’s investigation of the Bahá’í Faith, which evidently occurred between the years 1915 and 1918, had any impact on his graduate work? And even if this is not in evidence, the question of Bahá’í influence remains. May Locke be regarded as a “Bahá’í philosopher”? To what extent is Bahá’í influence in evidence throughout Locke’s career, as reflected in his published as well as unpublished work? Was there reciprocal influence as well—a synergy between the two? This is a question that requires archival research as a complement to a proper study of Locke’s public legacy.
Chapter Three

The Early Washington, D.C. Bahá’í Community
One can appreciate the deep-seated desire and the ever-recurrent but Utopian dream of the idealist that somehow a single faith, a common culture, an all-embracing institutional life and its confraternity should some day unite man by merging all his loyalties and culture values. But even with almost complete intercommunication within practical grasp, that day seems distant, especially since we have as great need for cultural pluralism in a single unit of society as in a nation as large and as composite as our own. […] The pluralist way to unity seems by far the most practicable.

Alain Locke, “Pluralism and Ideological Peace” (1947).127

In his psychograph, as mentioned, Locke had described himself as a “universalist in religion.”128 In a private communication, one leading authority on Locke recently expressed doubts as to his formal affiliation with the Bahá’í Faith. So, the question has to be asked: What direct proof, beyond circumstantial evidence, establishes Locke’s actual status as a Bahá’í? While he certainly associated with Bahá’ís and participated in Bahá’í-sponsored events—over a number of years, in fact—was Locke ever formally on record as a declared Bahá’í? Moreover, did Locke’s involvement in the Bahá’í Faith influence his vocation as a philosopher? To address these questions, I will discuss Locke’s involvement in the Bahá’í Faith on the basis of archival as well as published documents.

In 1918, Alain Locke was inspired by a vision of race unity and world peace. This was not a mystical vision, but a long-range one. The ideas and ideals of the Faith that fired his imagination gave Locke hope that “the ever-recurrent Utopian dream of the idealist” of “a single faith, a common culture, an all-embracing institutional life and its confraternity” that might one day “unite man by merging all his loyalties and culture values” might, in the distant future, could or would come true. This was the Bahá’í vision, which captured Locke’s imagination and won his allegiance.

Against the backdrop of black Washington, and the pervasive segregation that racialized the city as a whole, Bahá’í initiatives aimed at improving race relations were a light shining in darkness. But the darkness (the benighted white community) comprehended it not. To really understand and appreciate Locke’s inner spirit, and his motivations for becoming a Bahá’í, first a brief historical and social context needs to be sketched.

A Professor’s Life in Black Washington: What was life like for Locke in the nation’s capital? In his chapter, “Secret Sites: Black Washington, D.C. and Howard University,” Jonathan Scott Holloway describes the world in which Locke lived. To state the obvious, black Washington was segregated, from Reconstruction period through World War II. This roughly encompasses Locke’s lifetime (1895–1954).

Segregation was a fact of life. But what is not so obvious to many is the fact that segregation in the District did not actually become government policy until the Wilson administration. During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, black and white employees ate in separate spaces in the Bureau of engraving cafeteria, while separate washrooms had been installed in the Treasury Department. It goes without saying that housing segregation was already in place. Both at work and at home, Wilson’s policies reinforced the wall of segregation, bifurcating Washington into an interior black enclave, surrounded by the white urban area that engulfed it. One black writer called this enclave, the “Secret City.”129 “Black” in this sense is synonymous with “invisible.” Whites ignored blacks as best they could. According to Constance Green: “Whatever the reason, whites chose to build an invisible wall about all colored Washington and then strove to forget about what a contributor to Crisis called the Secret City.”130 As a world traveler, although his horizons were infinitely broader, the Secret City was Locke’s immediate world.

The Secret City combined extremes of wealth and poverty. Race and class went hand-in-hand. The color line was a red line. Black poverty did not “exist,” even though everyone knew it was there. Think of the expression, “glass ceiling.” This refers to the invisible barrier that denies women equal opportunity to advance in male-dominated corridors of corporate management. By analogy, in Locke’s day, Washington had a “class ceiling,” not unlike today’s “glass ceiling.” White and Black Washingtonians could see each other through that glass, darkly. Yet a thriving culture developed in Black Washington of which White Washington, to its detriment, was largely oblivious.

Thus, Black Washington’s rich culture was also “secret.” Locke felt strongly that culture, like language, captured the soul and genius of a people. And, since cultures are composite anyway—always assimilating as well as innovating—America ought not only to appreciate the fact that black culture has its peculiar genius and that this has intrinsic value per se, but that black culture had actually influenced American culture as a whole as well. Sadly, although black culture was distinctively “American,” it was a secret hidden in the Secret City.

Considering Locke’s central role in it, the Harlem Renaissance is actually a misnomer, because there was a profusion of black art, literature and music in Washington as well. Evidence of this can be seen in the literary productions that launched the movement. After the phenomenal success of the special 1 March 1925 issue of The Survey Graphic he edited, Locke expanded that issue into a book, The New Negro, which became the manifesto of the movement. Of the thirty-five contributors in this collection of poetry and essays, nearly half were either born in Washington, lived or worked there, or had attended Howard University.131

Within the Secret City is Howard University, the crown jewel of black higher education. Hailed as the “capstone of Negro education,”132 Howard University is the oldest and most prestigious historically black university in America.133 Founded in 1867 by an act of Congress and opened as a “normal” or teachers college in 1869, Howard University is located on 150 acres overlooking Georgia Avenue. The heart and soul of any university is its faculty. The more outstanding professors served as race leaders within their respective disciplines. According to Holloway, Locke deserves “special mention” for the way in which his work “represented the politically radical edge” and in that he, like other Howard notables, developed “strategies that would prop up black America while simultaneously uniting the nation’s races.” Moreover, “Locke endeavored to bridge the racial gap by demonstrating the cultural worth of blacks to white America.” Thus, Locke’s classic anthology, The New Negro, succeeded in “capturing the new and urgent tone of black America.”134 In the midst of this activity, Locke encountered the “Bahá’í Cause,” as the Bahá’í Faith was then known. This new religion made concerted efforts to cross the color line. In effect, it sacralized cultural pluralism. The new faith had made sacred some of the principles Locke personally held as sacred, in his own secular way.

Many African Americans in Washington enjoyed civil service employment in the federal government, giving rise to a black middle class. Throughout the early twentieth century, however, educators “formed the core of black Washington’s stable middle class.”135 Thus, during the decade of 1910, the so-called “government official set” was counterbalanced by an influx of the “educational set.”136 Howard professors comprised a major segment of these professionals. While they worked in the so-called “Ivory Tower” (a euphemism for the Academy without intended racial overtones), professors at Howard, like everyone else in the community, lived and recreated in the Secret City. What was life outside the Ivory Tower within the Secret City? Howard professors like Locke had favorite haunts in the U district where they could often be seen. For black Washingtonians, the U Street district, situated in the northwest sector, was the leading business center by day and the premier cultural and sporting center by night. U Street itself came to be known as Washington’s “Black Broadway.”137

From Seventh and T Streets to Fourteenth and U, the shopping district ran roughly seven blocks east to west. Professors would patronize Harrison’s Café on 455 Florida Avenue N.W.138 Or they might stop in at Thurston’s for a bite to eat, or Tim’s Hot Dog Stand on-the go, or the Twelfth Street YMCA to enjoy an evening meal. They would typically walk into Greg’s Barber Shop for a hair cut, and go to the shoe shine around the corner. Locke had portraits taken at Scurlock Photographic Studio, the most prominent African-American photography studio in Washington, D.C. and the official photographer for Howard University, at 9th and U.

As new films would debut each Monday, patrons would flock to either the Lincoln or Republic Theater. In 1927, ticket prices for the best seats sold for forty cents each, with admission to a matinee being only ten cents. For the black middle and upper class, life was comfortable. They enjoyed the benefits of the rich social environment. But the harsh realities of racism were never far away.139 Howard professor Sterling Brown described the U Street district of Locke’s day eloquently:
When the outsider stands upon U Street in the early hours of the evening and watches the crowds go by, togged out in finery, with jests upon their lips—this one rushing to the poolroom, this one seeking escape with Hoot Gibson, another to lose herself in Hollywood glamor [sic], another in one of the many dance halls—he is likely to be unaware, as these people momentarily are, of aspects of life in Washington of graver import to the darker one-fourth. […] Around the corner there may be a squalid slum with people jobless and desperate; the alert youngster, capable and well trained, may find on the morrow all employment closed to him. The Negro of Washington has no voice on government, is economically proscribed, and segregated nearly as rigidly as in the southern cities he contemns. He may blind himself with pleasure seeking, with a specious self-sufficiency, he may point with pride to the record of achievement over grave odds. But just as the past was not without its honor, so the present is not without bitterness.140
This was Locke’s immediate world. But there was more to it than that. This was the Bahá’í community that, in its own nonpolitical way, led a quiet revolution against the Jim Crow mind-set. To understand this enclave that crossed the color line between black and white Washington, some background is needed. Sketching a brief background of the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community will help provide an immediate context for Locke’s conversion. Unfortunately, the details of that conversion are sketchy at best. But the racial tensions that led up to the Washington race riots of 1919 must have reinforced Locke’s resolve to dedicate his life to improving race relations.

The Washington, D.C. Bahá’í Community: In 1944, Gunnar Myrdal, in his celebrated book, American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, stated in a footnote that the Bahá’í Faith was “the only white-dominated” religious community “in which there may be said to be absolutely no segregation.”141 Historically, there were exceptions that proved this rule. In fact, what makes Myrdal’s observation so true in 1944 is that the American Bahá’í community had only reached that point after having to deal directly with the issue of racial prejudice in the early period of its development in America, particularly in Washington, D.C.

Historian Robert Stockman has already written the history of the early Washington D.C. Bahá’í community through 1912.142 “Perhaps Washington’s most important contribution to the North American Bahá’í community, ultimately,” writes Stockman, “was its effort to teach the Bahá’í Faith to black Americans.”143 Much of the credit for this must go to Joseph and Pauline Hannen.144 But Pauline had to overcome her own fear of blacks, which she had always had since her childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina. At a time before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had begun to address racial issues in his messages to American believers, and well before Bahá’u’lláh’s specific teachings on this subject were known, one of Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words was destined to transform Pauline’s prejudice into a desire for racial unity. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:


Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.145

One snowy day, during the Thanksgiving season, Pauline came across a black woman trudging through the snow. Pauline noticed that the woman’s shoelaces were untied. Arms full from the bundles she was carrying, the black woman was unable to do anything about it. Inspired by this passage from the Hidden Words, Pauline knelt down in the snow to tie this woman’s shoes for her. “She was astonished,” Pauline recalled, “and those who saw it appeared to think I was crazy.” That event marked a turning point for Pauline: she resolved to bring the Bahá’í message of unity to black people. At first, Pauline and Joseph Hannen would hold Bahá’í meetings in the homes of Pocohontas Pope and Mrs. Carrie York, so that their black friends could hear about the Bahá’í Faith. The Hannens then began to invite blacks to meetings in their own home, which, as Stockman observes, “was a daring thing to do.” By July 1908, fifteen African Americans had embraced the faith in Washington, D.C.146 In a letter dated May 1909, Pauline Hannen wrote:
The work among the colored people was really started by my sainted Mother and Sister Alma [Knobloch,] though I was the one who first gave the Message to Mrs. [Pocahontas] Pope and Mrs. Turner. My Mother and Sister went to their home in this way[,] meeting others[,] giving the Message to quite a number and started Meetings. Then my sister left for Germany where she now teaches,[;] I then took up the work. During the Winter of 1907[,] it became my great pleasure with the help of Rhoda Turner colored [people] who opened her home for me, 424 [?] S. St. N.W. to arrange a number of very large and beautiful Meetings. Mrs. Lua Getsinger spoke to them here several times at Mrs. Pope’s as Mirza Ali Kuli Khan, Mr. [Howard] McNutt and Mr. Hooper Harris spoke in Mrs. Turner’s home. Mr. [Hooper] Harris spoke at Mrs. Pope[’]s [at] 12 N St. N.W. for my sister before his leaving on his trip to Acca and India. Mr. Hannen also spoke several times. My working to being to run around and arrange the meeting. At these Meetings[,] we had from twenty to fourty [sic] colored people of the intellectual class.

Through Mr. [Louis] Gregory, an influential man among the colored race especially among the schools, arrangements were made for Mr. Hannen to address twice the Literary Club of Howard University, this opened a new field and from this time on Jan. 1908 to the present time Mr. Hannen and I work for the colored people at the request [MS. ends here].147 This opened a new field to work in. Now the home [hope] of Abdul Baha, who told us in Acca [that] He hoped we would be the means of bringing about peace between the Blacks and the Whites [sic].148

In his history of the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community, preserved in the U.S. National Bahá’í Archives, Louis Gregory (1874–1951) mentions a black Bahá’í—a Mrs. Pocohontas Pope—in whose home many of these early “firesides” (teaching meetings) took place. In a revision of her narrative, Pauline Hannen gives a more conservative estimate: “But on account of illness in Mrs. Pope[’]s family, Mrs. Turner opened her home for me. Here we had large meetings, from twenty to thirty colored people.” The Hannens would eventually play a key role in Locke’s conversion to the Bahá’í Faith.

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