Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

Harlem: Locke as a “Cultural Racialist”

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Harlem: Locke as a “Cultural Racialist”: As “philosophical mid-wife to a generation of younger Negro poets, writers, [and] artists,”360 Alain Locke was the ideological mastermind behind the Harlem Renaissance (1919–1934),361 “an artistic explosion in the decade following World War I.”362 In 1911, fourteen years prior to the Harlem Renaissance, Locke resolved to promote the interests of African Americans—and thereby all Americans—as a result of his direct experience with racism in the South. In an unpublished autobiographical note, Locke reflected on the circumstances that led to this momentous decision in his life and career:
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 inspiration and morale and as an external weapon of recognition and prestige.

So, while teaching philosophy at Howard University from 1912 to the present, I have devoted most of my literary effort and time to this avocational interest of [sic] Negro culture, with occasional excursions into the sociological side of the race question. My connection with the literary and art movement, styled in 1925 the ‘New Negro’ renaissance, was thus a logical outcome of this artistic creed and viewpoint.363

In its mythic and utopian sense, Harlem was the “race capital” and the largest “Negro American” community in the world. The Harlem Renaissance, consequently, presented itself as a microcosm or “self-portraiture” of black culture to America and to the world. The movement was an effusion of art borne of the experience of “even ordinary living” that has “epic depth and lyric intensity.”364 As editor of the anthology known as The New Negro, published in December 1925,365 Locke contributed the title essay, which served as a manifesto.

For Locke, art ought to contribute to the improvement of life—a pragmatist aesthetic principle Richard Shusterman calls “meliorism.”366 The Harlem Renaissance—known also as the “New Negro Movement”—sought to advance freedom and equality for blacks through art. It was “not just a great creative outburst in the stimulating atmosphere of the 1920s,” it was “actually a highly self-conscious modern artistic movement.”367 Locke himself spoke of a “race pride,” “race genius” and the “race-gift.”368 This “race pride” was to be cultivated through developing a distinctive culture, a hybrid of African and African American elements.369 Locke had hoped the Harlem Renaissance would provide “an emancipating vision to America” and would advance “a new democracy in American culture.”370 But the Harlem Renaissance was more of an “aristocratic” than democratic approach to culture.371 In principle, Locke was an avowed supporter of W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of a cultural elite (the “Talented Tenth”372), but differed from Du Bois’s insistence that art serve as propaganda.373

In a broader perspective, David Levering Lewis states that the Harlem Renaissance “evolved through three phases”: (1) the first phase, ending with the publication of Jean Toomer’s Cane in 1923, was deeply influenced by white writers and artists who were fascinated by black life and culture (which Lewis characterizes as “this new wave of white discovery”374) and sought to promote it; (2) the second phase (early 1924 to mid-1926) saw the collaboration of the “Talented Tenth” and “Negrotarian” whites, within the orbit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League, which were the twin pillars of the civil rights establishment; and the last phase (mid-1926 to the Harlem Riot of March 1925), which was presided over by African American artists and writers themselves.”375 Thus there is a slight inconsistency in Lewis’s dates for the demise of the Harlem Renaissance, whether it be the “its sputtering end in 1934”376 or the Harlem Riot of March 1925. Although spanning the years 1919–1934 or 1935, the actual birth of the Harlem Renaissance occurred in 1925, as Lewis notes: “Nineteen Twenty-five—Year I of the Harlem Renaissance—ended with Albert and Charles Boni’s publication of Locke’s book The New Negro, an expanded and much polished publication of poetry and prose spun off by the Opportunity contest and Survey Graphic.”377

But if the official birth or launch of the Harlem Renaissance was in 1925 with the publication of the special issue of the Survey Graphic (which Locke guest-edited), then the conception and gestation of it took place during the previous year. According to Valerie Boyd, the Harlem Renaissance “had its formal genesis on March 21, 1924.”378 The Harlem Renaissance was conceived at a dinner party of the Writers Guild held in the Civic Club, a restaurant on 14 West Twelfth Street near Fifth Avenue in Harlem. The new literary movement was actually christened a week later when the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Harlem was “on the edge of, if not already in the midst of, what might properly be called a Negro renaissance.”379 However, according to Jeffrey Stewart, who is currently writing a biography of Locke, it was Locke himself who originally used the term “Renaissance” to describe the Harlem cultural movement.380

Opportunity editor, sociologist Charles S. Johnson, had invited a group of young writers and artists to what was then “the only uppercrust New York club without color or sex restrictions.”381 The occasion was in celebration of the publication of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s first novel, There is Confusion.382 Around 110 people attended, although Langston Hughes was away in Paris and Zora Neale Hurston had not been invited.

Alain Locke was the master of ceremonies on that “magic evening.”383 At the Writers Guild dinner over which he presided, Locke was recorded as saying: “They sense within their group—meaning the Negro group—a spiritual wealth which if they can properly expound will be ample for a new judgment and reappraisal of the race.”384 After the great W. E. B. Du Bois spoke, Locke presented Carl Van Doren, white editor of Century magazine, who proclaimed: “What American literature decidedly needs at this moment is color, music, gusto, the free expression of gay or desperate moods. if the Negroes are not in a position to contribute these items, I do not know what Americans are.”385 After the dinner ended, Paul Kellog, editor of the Survey Graphic (a national reform journal), approached Charles Johnson and made an “unprecedented offer” to “devote an entire issue to the subjects as treated by representatives of this group.”386 After the deal was struck, Johnson asked Alain Locke to solicit and edit manuscripts for that very project. A deadline was set: March 1925.

Scholars agree that the official birth of the Harlem Renaissance had everything to do with Alain Locke’s editing and publication of Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, a special issue of the Survey Graphic, published on 1 March 1925, and Locke’s subsequent publication of an expanded version of Harlem in book form entitled, The New Negro, which, as I stated in the “Introduction,” has been called the first national book of African America. A showpiece for gifted young African American writers and artists (the “Talented Tenth”) drawn to the cultural Mecca of Harlem, The New Negro defined the Harlem Renaissance. Connecting the Renaissance idea and Black life in Harlem,387 Locke wrote the movement’s manifesto, and awakened America at large to the richness and beauty of African and African American culture. Never before had Black art received such recognition. This was more than art appreciation, however. It was a strategy for creating a new respect and admiration for Black culture as a part of the wider American culture. Locke had faith in “art and letters as a bridge across the chasm between the races” and that, according to Mark Helbling, “art signified accomplishment and the artist symbolized and expressed the conscience of his race.”388 Although decidedly elitist, artists are ambassadors and cultural leaders. In Locke’s view, artists and writers might gain the respect of “foreign” (white) power brokers under a Jim Crow apartheid America, and win over a white. For these reasons, I have called Locke “the Martin Luther King of African American culture”389 insofar as the Harlem Renaissance functioned as “Civil Rights by Copyright”390 and established a racial pride and group consciousness among African Americans that was a necessary precondition for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

The Harlem Renaissance introduced the poetry of Langston Hughes (occasionally referred to as the “poet laureate of the Negro race”), Countee Cullen, and Charles McKay and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, the music of jazz musician Duke Ellington and blues singer Bessie Smith, the performances of dancer Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, and the visual art of painter Aaron Douglas, and Richmond Barthe and Winold Reiss. It should also be remembered that whites were involved in the movement as well, although it was the white patrons like Charlotte Mason whom history remembers most.

While a graduate student at Oxford, Locke had studied the Italian Renaissance and was inspired by Jakob Burckhardt's notion of the Renaissance as a period in which European civilization was reborn and flourished, freeing people from the constraints on self-expression imposed by the church through Europe’s Dark Ages. Stewart says that Locke used the term “Renaissance” in two ways. First, he drew parallels between the Italian and the Harlem Renaissances, even though he conceded that the art produced by the Italian Renaissance was superior to what was produced in Harlem.391 Even so, Stewart draws two phenomenological parallels between the two.
[T]here were some startling parallels, from a sociological perspective. Both movements were urban rather than rural. Both rebelled against the power of the church, which was a particularly strong institution in both Italy and the African American community. Like Renaissance Humanists, Locke recommended that African American artists look back to African art for inspiration, just as the Renaissance artists had looked back to classical Greek sculpture for their models. Like Jakob Burckhardt, Locke saw the Renaissance as the birth of individuality for the first time for African Americans, who had been thought of en masse as “them” for hundreds of years.392
Stewart points out that Locke had created a new myth of national proportions. Black civilization had been in a “deep sleep” ever since the dislocation and culture shock prompted by slavery. The Harlem Renaissance emerged from these “Middle Ages” through a rediscovery of the collective ancestral roots and cultural heritage of African Americans, of their “classical past,” as it were. Elsewhere, Stewart gives this assessment of the impact of the Harlem Renaissance: “For the first time in American culture, for better or worse, African American creative artists could claim that there was something distinctive about the Black experience, while at the same time arguing that it was an integral part of the American experience.”393 The Harlem Renaissance began the process of forming an open-ended black nationalism, in which African American artists (with whom several white artists collaborated) began the process of reconstructing their identity and enriching their heritage. Stewart observes:
For Locke, I believe, the Renaissance was more than simply a historical period. The Renaissance was a way of thinking, a way of looking at one's past as part of a rebirth in pride in one's people in the present. Renaissance thinking was primarily idealistic thinking, a view of the world as something one can construct and reconstruct through the agency of one's artistic creativity. A renaissance was a period of national awakening and pride; but it was also a commitment to Universalism, to expressing the travail and struggle of one's life and times in forms that transcended the particular circumstances of their creation, and spoke to generations that came afterwards. And in that sense, I believe the Harlem and Irish and Indian Renaissance are all part of the Renaissance idea that we more normally associated with Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. For the renaissance idea is not unique to 15th century Italy, but perhaps a kind of universal metaphor of how a society renews itself.394
Much criticized by other African Americans, Locke himself came to regret the Harlem Renaissance’s excesses of exhibitionism, after it had dissolved just a few years later.395 While the dazzling success of the movement was short-lived, it is said to have had a more subtle, yet enduring influence. According to Johnny Washington, the civil rights movement actually had its roots, in a subterranean way, in the Harlem Renaissance: “Locke was to the Harlem Renaissance what Martin Luther King, Jr., was to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”396 In the end, however, the efflorescence of Black culture failed to lead to civil and political rights for African Americans. It would take a Martin Luther King, Jr. to spearhead a movement that would achieve that goal.397 Eventually, as Posnock points out, “Locke enunciated his theory of cosmopolitanism post facto, after the Harlem Renaissance, his principal site of engagement, had largely run its course.”398 As Locke matured in his philosophical thinking, he favored open identities over closed social identities.

There was a certain synchronicity and synergy between Locke’s cultural nationalism and Bahá’í universalism. In his ongoing affiliation with the Bahá’í Faith, Locke appeared on the “Official List of Believers of Washington, D.C. As passed by the Spiritual Assembly. September 1925.”399 A significant development was the fact that, in 1925, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada was officially recognized by Shoghi Effendi.400 As the American Bahá’í community moved forward in its administrative development and teaching work, Locke continued to act in concert. So long as the Faith maintained race relations as its top priority, Locke was ready, willing and able, as needed. Throughout his career as a Bahá’í, there is almost a formulaic correlation between Locke’s Bahá’í activities and requests made of him. (This is truer in his early years than in his later years.)

Bahá’í Congress, Green Acre: From 4–9 July 1925, the Seventeenth Annual Convention and Bahá’í Congress were held at Green Acre, “rustic in scenes, beautiful in location, famous for its universal spirit.”401 Evidently, these were two concurrent but distinct events. The Bahá’í Congress opened on Sunday afternoon, July 5th. While its purpose was to promote Bahá’í teaching efforts, the conference theme was “The Dawn of Peace.” Howard McNutt presided. The first speaker was Dr. Alain Locke, whose address was on the topic of “Universal Peace,” 5 July 1925. The following is a published summary of what Locke said:
Dr. Alain LeRoy Locke of Washington, D.C., delivered a polished address, portraying the great part which America can play in the establishment of world peace, if alive to its opportunity. The working out of social democracy can be accomplished here. To this end we should not think in little arcs of experience, but in the big, comprehensive way. Let our country reform its own heart and life. Needed reforms cannot be worked out by the action of any one group, but a fine sense of cooperation must secure universal fellowship. He praised Green Acre, which he declared to be an oasis in the desert of materiality. He urged all who were favored by this glorious experience to carry forth its glorious message and thus awaken humanity. In final analysis, peace cannot exist anywhere without existing everywhere.402

Here, as in his Bahá’í essays, Locke mixes secular with Bahá’í forms of discourse. Bahá’ís were not accustomed to hearing the technical term, “social democracy.” This reflects a mind gifted with synthetic powers. Already an articulate speaker, Locke naturally and seamlessly merges Bahá’í ideals with social science discourse, which informs his philosophical orientation, cultural pluralism. Locke’s thesis that “[n]eeded reforms cannot be worked out by the action of any one group” is a clear reference to those Bahá’ís who would hold that not only are all the cures for humanity’s ills to be found in Bahá’í principles, but their practical application as well. In urging that “a fine sense of fellowship must secure universal fellowship,” Locke anticipated a development that would take place in the twenty-first century Bahá’í world. In 2002, the Universal House of Justice issued its message “To the Religious Leaders of the World,” in which interfaith cooperation is singled out as a proven and fertile method for the promotion of universal Bahá’í values.

Speeches by Bahá’í artist Juliet Thompson of New York and William H. Randall rounded out the Congress. Juliet Thompson represented Mme. D’Arcis, President of the World Union of Women for International Concord, in which she read a prepared statement by the latter as part of her talk. William Randall’s concluding speech, “The Dawn of Peace,” was focused exclusively on the Bahá’í perspective. Since the election of the National Spiritual Assembly by the assembled delegates followed this event, it is conceivable that Locke, because of his high visibility and prestige in the non-Bahá’í world, could have been elected. Without access to the election results, it is impossible to tell how many votes, if any, Locke received. However, Locke was reappointed to the National Race Amity Committee.

Reappointment to Amity Committee: In April 1925, following the election of the National Spiritual Assembly at Green Acre, Locke was reappointed to the Racial Amity Committee for the 1925–1926 Bahá’í year. This was his second committee appointment. With the exception of Philip R. Seville, the National Spiritual Assembly reappointed these previous committee members: Agnes Parsons, Chair; Mariam Haney, Secretary; Elizabeth Greenleaf, Alain Locke, Mabel Ives, Louise Waite, Louise Boyle, Roy Williams, and Mrs. Atwater.403

In December 1924, the previous amity committee had planned for a convention to be held in April 1925.404 Perhaps due to a timing conflict with the aforementioned Seventeenth Annual Convention and Bahá’í Congress held at Green Acre, no race amity convention was held. It is too bad that such an important public event had to compete with an event for Bahá’ís only. In fact, there were no race amity conventions in 1925 or 1926.405 According to Morrison: “The failure to hold amity conventions in 1925 or 1926 was at least partly attributable to lack of enthusiasm in Washington, D.C., where the committee was centered.406 Nationally, this problem was exacerbated by a serious shortfall of funds combined with an overall stagnation in growth.

Why the Failure to Protest Against Lynching?: One would naturally think that Bahá’ís would be unequivocally opposed to lynching. They were. The problem is that this matter possibly never made it to the committee’s agenda. Why was this the case? On 9 August 1925, Holley had written to Parsons to recommend that the amity committee take a public stand against lynching. “The news about another lynching in Missouri in yesterday’s paper filled me with anguish,” he told her, “and I realized our great spiritual responsibility to overcome this terrible injustice.”407 Holley urged the committee to publish a public statement in the Baha’i News Letter, to serve as a model for local committees. It was Holley’s wish that Spiritual Assembly write to its local newspaper “expressing the sorrow of the Baha’is and their hope that the best citizens will combine and prevent such terrible happenings in the future.” His alternative suggestion was that he himself, in his capacity as secretary–general of the National Assembly, could send a general statement to the mayor and town officials, to the governor of the state of Missouri and its senators, as well as black organizations and newspapers. “Will you, as chairman,” Holley asked, “draft the statement for the News Letter? Or if you prefer, I will do it and print it over your name.”408

In her handwritten reply, Parsons confessed that she was at first enthusiastic over the idea of “a protest against lynching.” But she had been unable to write back immediately. She gave voice to her reluctance in her honest admission that she later thought that such “a widespread protest” might stir up “an antagonism toward us by the enemies of the colored people” that could seriously compromise the amity work. “Booker T. Washington,” she pointed out, “could never have accomplished what he did had his method not been a purely constructive one.”409 This “purely constructive” method, of course, refers to Washington’s pragmatic solution to the racial and economic crisis by offering industrial education to young blacks, especially in the rural South, where the majority of African Americans still resided. In a letter dated 19 August 1925, Holley replied that he quite agreed that “anything which would interfere with the great work of the Amity Conventions would be most undesirable.” He went on to say, however, that such was never his idea to begin with. He simply felt that such letters “should express such a universal spirit that they would penetrate at least a little light into the gloom of racial hatred.” Continuing in this vein, Holley added:

I believe that this matter is something which you should take up with your committee as soon as possible and report back your conclusions to the N.S.A. As you know, the racial situation is rapidly approaching a climax and we should do all in our power to bring healing to this mortal world. I question whether one or two Conventions a year, no matter how well conducted and how spiritual in character, are sufficient alone to turn back the flood.

I know that you will consider this in the most sympathetic way and as a means of assisting the Conventions and not interfering with them.410

Parsons responded she did, in fact, present the recommendation to Louis Gregory, Mariam Haney, and Louise Boyle, and that none deemed such action “advisable.”411 (I am skeptical of Parsons’ statement.) This was all the more ironic and lamentable, give that, in the first amity convention back in 1921, the Hon. Martin B. Madden had spoken of anti-lynching legislation in his lecture, “Duties and Responsibilities of Citizenship.” Had Parsons sought Locke’s advice, he surely would have counseled her to take a stand. How can we be sure of this? Throughout his professional career, both in person and in print, Locke took a clear stand against lynching. One might argue that to raise a public hue and cry over lynching was easier said than done, especially for a white person. But how could anyone but the most hard core bigot ever abide the horror and moral repugnance of such torture and murder? And how could white Bahá’ís ever hope to speak from a position of moral authority unless they spoke out against this form of terrorism? This is a question the present writer has struggled with in the course of research. The fact that Horace Holley, presumably on behalf of the National Assembly, advocated doing so, goes far in redeeming Agnes Parsons’ apparent defect on this issue. Had the Bahá’ís favoring adherence to the principle of racial unity prevailed on this decisive issue, which was really a litmus test of moral authenticity, the outcome might have been different. Of course, to take a public position in advocacy of interracial harmony was no easy task, and, in its own way, it really was a public protest against lynching in the guise of promoting interracial accord. By attacking the mentality behind lynching at its root, Bahá’ís sought to extirpate such virulent bigotry at the level of the soul rather than at the level of the law. Both were necessary, and still are.

Possibly this was one of the reasons why the committee had ceased to be effective. It was time that Locke invest his talent, for time and eternity, in another way entirely. If the committee efforts had ground to a standstill, at least he could personally arise to take direct action in trying to improve race relations. In this endeavor, he acted in concert with Louis Gregory, although this was probably at the latter’s initiative. The two would continue to do great work together. In the spiritual shadow of social progress, the two would make spiritual history. And, in so doing, one could not altogether rule out the risk of physical endangerment—even lynching.

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