Alain Locke

by James Goldsmith

Appeared: 02/28/2003

Alain Locke is not a well-known figure in the Bahá'í world. Yet according to The Black 100 he is the 36th most influential African American ever. He was a philosopher, still renowned for his ideas on multiculturalism, and was also the key mover behind the Harlem renaissance. He became a Bahá'í in 1918, and contributed much to the community until he died 36 years later.

Locke was born on September 13, 1885 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both his grandfather and father were involved in education, and his mother was a teacher and a humanist from a family of free blacks. In 1904 Locke went to Harvard, majoring in philosophy, and completing his four-year degree in only three years.

Locke's academic skills were soon very apparent, and he received Harvard's most prestigious academic award in 1907. He was also awarded a Rhodes scholarship that year, making him the first and only African American Rhodes scholar until 1960. This took him to Oxford from 1907-1910, although racism from other Rhodes scholars later pushed him to study in Germany instead.

His main interest was in value theory, which has been called the "pivot of Locke's thinking". This led him to be directly involved in the race question, where values were being played out in society. The white governing board of Howard, where he found a teaching position with the help of Booker T. Washington, refused to let him teach a course on the scientific study of race and race relations. So instead he gave a series of public lectures on the theory and practice of race, already much discussed following Franz Boas's ideas that, according to science, there was no such thing as "race".

Locke finished his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1918, the year he became a Bahá'í. It was customary to write to 'Abdu'l-Bahá to declare one's new faith, and Locke received a letter, or "tablet", from 'Abdu'l-Bahá in return, although the contents are at present unknown.

While on pilgrimage in Haifa in 1920, Agnes Parsons, a Washington socialite, was asked by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to organize a racial amity conference. Locke would take part in this first conference in 1921, presiding as session chair, and would speak at many future amity conferences. He was also a member of the Bahá'í Interracial Amity Committee, which promoted such events nationwide.

After 'Abdu'l-Bahá passed away in November 1921, Locke had direct contact with his successor, Shoghi Effendi, when he went to the Holy Land in 1923 or 1924. In his "Impressions of Haifa", which was published several times, he described Shoghi Effendi as the embodiment of Bahá'í virtues, inspiring him to write, "The only enlightened symbol of a religious or moral principle is the figure of a personality endowed to perfection with its qualities", although he also referred to Shoghi Effendi's "refreshingly human" side as well.

Shoghi Effendi maintained direct contact with Locke, and even asked him to review his translation of the Kitáb-i-Iqán (Book of Certitude), Bahá'u'lláh's foremost theological work. Later, Shoghi Effendi would also cable Locke requesting a further contribution for the Bahá'í World publication, probably the only time he made such a direct request to an individual. In that essay, "The Orientation of Hope", Locke refers to the Bahá'í Faith as "a virile and truly prophetic spiritual revelation".

Locke was also known as the ideological force behind the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement in the 1920's and 1930's which gave a formal aesthetic voice to black culture. It was said that he was the "philosophical mid-wife to a generation of younger Negro poets, writers, [and] artists".

Throughout his life, Locke played various prominent roles in academia. He was a regular contributor to various national journals and magazines, and was on the editorial board of the American Scholar He was one of the founders of the prestigious Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, acting as Chair in 1945, and he was awarded the National Order of Honor and Merit by the President of Haiti. One person called him "perhaps the most deeply and exquisitely educated African American of his generation".

Locke's philosophy itself was based around multiculturalism, probably stemming directly from the Bahá'í principle of unity in diversity. He advocated racial integration, and even interracial marriage, perhaps through his links with Louis Gregory, with whom he went on a Bahá'í speaking tour in the southern US in late 1925.

His philosophy always had direct practical application, as did the Bahá'í principles. Locke writes, "The purity of Bahá'í principles must be gauged by their universality on this practical plane." Locke did not seek institutional change directly, but stated that change started with the individual. What was needed, he thought, was "a revolution within the soul".

How much Locke's philosophy was inspired by the Bahá'í writings directly is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt as to the prevalence of Bahá'í concepts in his writings. He has recently been called "the father of multiculturalism", and in 1933 wrote "Unity through Diversity: A Bahá'í Principle" for The Bahá'í World.

Shortly before his death, Locke's photograph appeared in an article entitled "Bahá'í Faith: Only church in world that does not discriminate" in Ebony magazine. Locke passed away in 1954, with Bahá'í prayers being read at his funeral. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to his life and character was paid by Shoghi Effendi, who is reported to have said to Locke, "People as you, Mr. Gregory, Dr. Esslemont and some other dear souls are as rare as diamond."

This article was based solely on the research of Dr. Christopher Buck, which can be found here.

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