Alain L. Locke:
The Biography of a Philosopher
pages 151, 357, 384
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008
Locke kept remarkably busy throughout his early years at Howard, fostering his status and sense of himself as a race leader by giving lectures outside of the academy. In the early 1920s his speaking engagements grew in frequency as his reputation took on a national scope. In 1921 he spoke on “The Problem of Race and Culture” in front of the Negro Academy in Washington, which had been founded by Alexander Crummel and now had Arthur Schomburg as president; Locke himself was on the Executive Committee. His relationship with Schomburg, both personal and professional, would continue for many years. Locke returned to the Negro Academy in 1922 to speak on “The American Literary Tradition and the Negro,” and in the following year on “Notes Made at Luxor, Egypt.” In early 1924 the Society for Ethical Culture sponsored a three-day public conference on “Interracial Harmony and Peace.” Locke chaired a session there, and Boas spoke, as did James Weldon Johnson and Jane Addams. Later that year Locke spoke at the Fifteenth Annual Conference of the NAACP in Philadelphia, addressing the question of educational theory as applied to the race problem. In October 1924, he addressed a “Convention for Amity” under the auspices of the Bahá’í movement, in Philadelphia, on the subject of “Negro Art and Culture.”8
Perhaps the most impressive of Locke’s public appearances was one at a conference that paradoxically amounted to very little in the long run. This was a gathering of many black notables in Chicago during the second week of February 1924; it was called the Sanhedrin, named after the ancient Jewish group of judges. Locke served as the secretary of the conference, which had been largely organized by Kelly Miller, who wanted to create a coordinating movement that would bring together various black organizations for the purpose of increasing their political effectiveness. Sixty or so organizations were present at the conference, and they agreed on a list of topics and goals that included education, religion, fraternal organizations, the women’s movement, labor, culture, and so forth. There were three main points of consensus: (1) the conference should be made permanent, (2) a Commission of Public Information would be set up in Washington, D.C., and (3) the conference would only act to coordinate and it would not infringe on any organization’s right to define its own purpose. Kelly Miller was charged with editing the proceedings, but it appears that no such publication ever appeared. At a session where Jessie Fauset spoke on “The Importance of Race Literature,” Locke’s presentation was on “The Afro-American Relation to World Wide Race Movements.” Only a portion of his speech survives in typescript. It says in part: “The problem that confronts us then is that of the utilization and development of our spiritual assets in this enterprise of group success and group salvation. Our chief wealth and resources, our primary natural endowment is after all spiritual . . . we compete at great odds in the most materialistic civilization of all time.”9
Notes [p. 401-402]:
8. Locke was drawn to the Bahá’í with the encouragement of his mother. “Mother’s feeling toward the [Bahá’í] cause, and the friends who exemplify it, was unusually receptive and cordial for one who had reached her conservative years,—it was her wish that I identify myself more closely with it,” wrote Locke to Agnes Parsons, June 28, 1922. (The letter to Parsons is in the Agnes Parsons Papers, Biographical Information Collection, National Bahá’í Archives, Illinois.) The Bahá’í offered a wide array of spiritual comfort, such as a belief in the co-fraternity of humanity across lines. Their acceptance of all racial groups, their consideration of racism as a religious sin, their integration of cultures as ‘reciprocal’ sources of value, and their democratic governance all were a welcome reprieve from the racially segregated world of black–white Christianity and its accompanying chauvinism and bigotry. Throughout the last three decades of his life, Locke would attend Bahá’í firesides, meeting members of the faith and friends, to discuss their experiences and promote the faith. He also participated in lectures, traveled to its center in Haifa, and communicated with Shogi Effendi, grandson of Abdull Baha, founder of the Bahá’í. Twice two brief essays of his appeared in the Bahá’í World. At the January 1927 National Spiritual Assembly, Locke, along with Agnes Parsons, Louis Gregory, and others, were appointed to the membership committee; he published annual reports of this committee in the Bahá’í News Letter until late in his life. Gregory himself published The Advancement of Racial Unity in America (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1982). Although not a doctrinaire believer, he considered himself a fellow spirit among the Bahá’í. One way Locke differed from other pragmatists was in his inclination toward this cultural and religious influence — it provided a lived experience of other than narrow American racial religious and cultural sensibilities and ideas. Locke consistently considered it an example of metaphysical absolutism to think there is only “one way” to religious peace, rather than the Bahá’í sense that all religions have a contribution to make to the appreciation of spirituality. For a full account of Locke’s relations with the Bahá’í, see Christopher Buck, Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy (California: Kalimat Press, 2005).
9. The documents related to the Sanhedrin conference are in ALPHU 164-127/20.
Locke’s schedule seemed to grow fuller as he approached retirement. The pattern of weekend trips to New York City was more than supplemented by his participation in conferences, and these in turn were added to by frequent attendance at concerts and plays. At the start of 1945, for example, perhaps as a result of having been a contributor to the magazine, he was at an awards dinner sponsored by The New Masses, along with Lena Horne, Lillian Hellman, and Carl Van Doren. At the end of January he spoke on “The New Import of Africa,” at the Bahá’í Center on West 57th Street. In May he attended a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for the American Association for the United Nations. In June he had an invitation from Louis Finkelstein and Talcott Parsons, both of whom were clearly impressed with his work at previous conferences, to be the opening speaker on the subject of “Racial Threats” at the Institute for Religious Studies in Boston. A month later Finkelstein asked him to speak on Booker T. Washington as a religious leader, but it turned out that Locke chose to speak on George Washington Carver instead. There was the sixth Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, for four days in August. This was not at all above average for his roster of social and professional meetings.
Suburban college students were not the only extraterritorial audience Locke addressed in the 1940s, all as part of his effort to see that the war would end with an enriched sense of democracy throughout the world. On May 28, 1942, for a radio program titled America’s Town Meetings of the Air, Locke discussed spirituality and democracy, a talk that was eventually published under the title “Is There a Spiritual Basis for World Unity” in the Bahá’í World. The Bahá’í were a marginalized sect in America, especially because of their promotion of racial amity and their approval of interracial marriage. Locke did not wear his affiliation openly nor practice as a doctrinaire Bahá’í, but he did serve on the group’s National Committee on Racial Amity. Encouraging cross-racial dialogues, Locke reportedly said, prior to attending a fireside with a group of educators in New York: “How surprised they will be to know me as a Bahá’í.” In the basement archives of the Bahá’í Temple in Wilmette, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, records for the National Committee on Racial Amity are assiduously maintained, and they show how Locke guided a generation of Bahá’í Committee members in encouraging cross-racial dialogue, as chronicled in the report of their annual meetings. An issue of the group’s publication, Bahá’í World, was dedicated to Locke in 2006.8
Note [pp. 415-416]
8. “How surprised they will be...”: Louise Boyle, undated letter (late 1925) to Mrs. El Fleda Spaulding, Chairman, Teaching Committee, Offi ce of the Secretary Records, National Teaching Committee Files, National Bahá’í Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.
p. 419 [Index]
Bahá’í, 151; AL’s involvement with, 401n8; AL’s records at national temple of, 384; AL’s talk on “The New Import of Africa,” 357; AL’s talk on world unity, 384; issue of Bahá’í World devoted to AL, 384; National Committee on Racial Amity, 384