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God maketh no distinction between the white and the black. If the hearts are pure both are acceptable unto Him. God is no respecter of persons on account of either color or race. All colors are acceptable to Him, be they white, black, or yellow. Inasmuch as all were created in the image of God, we must bring ourselves to realize that all embody divine possibilities. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 112.
When I taught at Michigan State University full-time, and went to law school, I wrote a book on a famous African American philosopher from Pennsylvania. Law school was very stressful, so writing this book gave me some much-needed relief. As a writer, of course, I hoped that this book would be of some interest to others.
The book, titled Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy (2005), is now out-of-print. Available for download here and the last I heard, there are still a few real copies left, too.
At the time, I had no idea that I would eventually move to Pennsylvania in 2006, where I now practice as an attorney. In Pittsburgh, my new home, I’ve asked a number of African American residents if they’ve ever heard of Alain Locke. Hardly any of them had.
Today, even among those who know about Alain Locke, only some of them also know that he was a Baha’i. Locke embraced the Baha’i Faith in 1918, the same year that Harvard University awarded Locke his PhD in Philosophy. Dr. Locke remained a Baha’i until his death in 1954.
Alain Locke led the powerful artistic and intellectual revival movement of African Americans during the early part of the 20th Century. An early Black graduate of Harvard and the first African American Rhodes Scholar, many have called Locke the “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance.
For all its failings, the Harlem Renaissance, originally called the “Negro Renaissance,” was a spectacular success—spectacular because it was, in fact, a spectacle, a public exhibition of African American poetry, prose, drama, art, and music. This was not just “art for art’s sake,” but art to redraw the public image of “colored” people in America. Enjoying a “double audience” of black and white, the Harlem Renaissance was the fairest fruit of the New Negro Movement, whose mission was to bring about racial renewal through cultural diplomacy — and thereby achieve what David Levering Lewis calls “civil rights by copyright.”
The Harlem Renaissance was not only a golden age of African American arts, but a valiant effort to remove the masks of racial stereotypes in order to put a new face on African Americans. To a certain degree, it not only improved race relations somewhat (a nearly impossible task, given the entrenched racial prejudices of the day), but instilled a racial pride and nobility among African Americans whose
lives the Harlem Renaissance touched. The literati of the Harlem Renaissance—Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Wallace Thurman, and others—were the vanguard of the Harlem Renaissance, fulfilling their roles as part of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the talented tenth.”
So let me correct myself: Alain Locke was very famous in his heyday. Sadly no longer well-known among African Americans today, most people don’t know that Alain Locke was a great American. When I learned that, I decided to call Alain Locke, the “Black Plato.”
Who gave me permission to do so? (Honest to God, I did not make this up!) This name goes back to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who proclaimed, in an unpublished speech made on March 19, 1968 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, shortly before his tragic assassination:
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.
Okay, so Dr. King compared both W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke to Plato. What applies to both surely applies to one. That’s how I came up with the sobriquet, “Black Plato,” for Alain Locke.
Now, when I use this name, people immediately appreciate two things: (1) this guy was African American; and (2) he was probably important, if he compares with Plato.
Yes, Alain Locke had an enormous impact on not just American but on world culture. His thinking—that Black people had just as much to contribute to society as anyone else—seemed completely radical at the time. Today most people accept it and even take it for granted. But in Locke’s day such thinking could get you killed, and often did.