Dr. Alain Locke
The first African American Rhodes Scholar
“We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.” - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), the first black Rhodes Scholar and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, became a Bahá’í in 1918. Locke is arguably the most profound and important western Bahá'í philosopher to date. Gayle Morrison rightly calls him "the outstanding black intellectual" among the early Bahá'ís.
Despite his intellect and clear talent, Locke faced significant barriers as an African American. Though he was selected as the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, Locke was denied admission to several colleges at the University of Oxford because of his race. He finally gained entry into Hertford College, where he studied from 1907 to 1910.
Dr. Locke received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard in 1918. After publishing The New Negro, an anthology of writings by African American authors, he gained national prominence as a spokesman for African-Americans. As a humanist and philosopher, he is heralded as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”. Locke is best known as a theorist, critic, and interpreter of African-American literature and art. He was also a creative and systematic philosopher who developed theories of value, pluralism and cultural relativism that informed and were reinforced by his work on aesthetics. Locke saw black aesthetics quite differently than some of the leading Negro intellectuals of his day; most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, with whom he disagreed about the appropriate social function of Negro artistic pursuits. Du Bois thought it was a role and responsibility of the Negro artist to offer a representation of the Negro and black experience which might help in the quest for social uplift. Locke criticized this as “propaganda” and argued that the primary responsibility and function of the artist is to express his own individuality, and in doing that to communicate something of universal human appeal.
The Harlem Renaissance was started in the 1920s and produced the likes of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Armstrong. Dr. Locke promoted what he called “cultural pluralism,” which contends that cultural groups can maintain their own identity and still be part of a broader culture.
Locke was a distinguished scholar and educator and during his lifetime an important philosopher of race and culture. Principal among his contributions in these areas was the development of the notion of “ethnic race”, Locke's conception of race as primarily a matter of social and cultural, rather than biological, heredity. Locke was in contemporary parlance a racial revisionist, and held the somewhat controversial and paradoxical view that it was often in the interests of groups to think and act as members of a “race” even while they consciously worked for the destruction or alteration of pernicious racial categories.
Racial designations were for Locke incomprehensible apart from an understanding of the specific cultural and historical contexts in which they grew up. A great deal of Locke's philosophical thinking and writing in the areas of pluralism, relativism and democracy are aimed at offering a more lucid understanding of cultural or racial differences and prospects for more functional methods of navigating contacts between different races and cultures.
In the early part of the 20th century, it was common 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. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá died in 1921, Locke enjoyed a close relationship with Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. Shoghi Effendi is reported to have said to Locke, “People as you, Mr. Gregory, Dr. Esslemont and some other dear souls are as rare as diamond.”
In a popular publication, The Black 100, Alain Locke ranks as the 36th most influential African American ever, past or present. Augmented by his fame and prestige in wider American society, his role as a contributor to the first five volumes of the Bahá'í World invites a closer examination of Locke's significance as a Bahá'í writer during the early years of the American Bahá'í community.
Some of his writings, including three essays published for the first time in their entirety, can be found in the 2005 Vol 36. #3 edition of World Order magazine. After becoming a Bahá’í in his early 30s, Dr. Locke focused on the Bahá’í principle of oneness and wrote:
“The intellectual core of the problems of the peace … will be the discovery of the necessary common denominators …involved in a democratic world order or democracy on a world scale.”