Sunday 20 March 2016

Philosophy in Harlem

For centuries societies used the equinoxes and solstices to define seasons of the year. Even though most countries have adopted man-defined numerical calendars to record dates many cultures still use the astronomical equinoxes and solstices to mark the official beginning of their year. Among several faiths celebrating New Year’s Day today, the vernal equinox, is the Bahá’í faith.

The Bahá’í faith originates from 1844. An Iranian Shi’ite Muslim called The Báb proclaimed that Muhammed wasn’t the last Prophet from God, for which belief he was executed. His followers were persecuted and one of them, calling himself Bahá u’lláh, declared he was the next Prophet. His teachings became the basis of Bahá’í.

One of the central beliefs of Bahá’í is the universality of the belief in one God in many religions, making all of them essentially one belief. The idea of universality and an acceptance of differences within that universality – unity in diversity – led to Bahá’í being a very popular belief, and it is one of the most widespread.

The Bahá’í teaching on homosexuality is heavily influenced on that of Islam and Christianity. Basically, there’s nothing wrong with being lgbt, as long as you try to change. Their teaching on marriage restricts it to between man and woman. Understandably, this means there are few openly lgbt Bahá’í worshippers, but there are enough to form support groups online.

It has been possible for prominent lgbt people to use their Bahá’í faith to influence cultural movements. In particular the American writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), often referred to as The Father of the Harlem Renaissance.

Bahá’í historians Christopher Buck and Gayle Morrison have called Alain Locke the outstanding Bahá’í philosopher and intellectual to date. Alain was an American Episcopalian by upbringing though both parents had links to the Quakers. He had a very privileged upbringing for a black American in the late 19th century. He entered Harvard in 1904, one of the few black undergraduates at the time. In 1907 he became the first American (and, until 1960, the only black) Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

It was at Oxford that Alain began to develop his thoughts on cultural pluralism, a term which has been superseded by the multiculturalism. Although he experienced a lot of racism at Oxford Alain joined the progressive Cosmopolitan Club which led to his decision to become a “race leader” and advocate of racial inclusion in society, and of the need to retain a difference. This philosophy has more than a hint of Bahá’í’s “unity in diversity” about it. But it wasn’t until 1915 that Alain had any known contact with Bahá’í.

By 1915 he was an assistant professor of English and instructor in philosophy at Howard University, Washington DC. Washington had become a centre of Bahá’í belief, particularly within the black community. In the national Bahá’í Archives Alain Locke’s registered his “acceptance of the Bahá’í faith”, effectively his conversion, as 1918.

In the year he “converted” Alain received his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard. His faith and philosophy mingles to produce a new slant of Bahá’í’s view on unity in diversity and his own thought on cultural pluralism. Together they produced an idea that appealed to subculture which didn’t feel fully integrated into its nation – black Americans. What Alain Locke believed was that black Americans can use their ethnic and cultural heritage to help redefine what it meant to be an American. What he didn’t support was violent protest by black rights activists (a legacy of his parents’ Quaker links?) or self-segregation. He believed that the acceptance of cultural pluralism by all parts of a community was an essential part of democracy.

In 1921 Alain took part in the Convention for Amity Between Coloured and White Races, an event organised by a leading Bahá’í citizen in Washington with the full backing of the world Bahá’í spiritual leader. Alain was a member of the national Amity committee that was created by the conference for 5 years.

But how much of his Bahá’í faith actually influenced the development of the Harlem Renaissance? It would be a great disservice on those other pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance to claim that Alain Locke was its only “Father”. Many in the black American world of entertainment in the 1920s were also bringing their culture and heritage to the attention of white America. They didn’t hide themselves but proudly exhibited their community to others. By not doing so would have rid the world of so many influential musicians, dancers, writers and entertainers.

In Alain Locke’s writing he “created” a fresh self-examination for black Americans, particularly on the east coast, and he coined the term “New Negro” which was to become synonymous in later years as the Harlem Renaissance. He encouraged other writers to use the concept of the “New Negro” to produce works that didn’t mimic white American literature, thus giving rise to the careers of many successful black writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, amongst others. The “New Negro” was a concept that grew out of Alain Locke’s Bahá’í belief in “unity in diversity”. It became the backbone of the Harlem Renaissance’s quest to explore, expand and display their post-slavery heritage to their own community and to the rest of America.

Alain Locke’s philosophy and faith can be of value to the lgbt community today. Unity in diversity is all about acceptance of differences. We don’t have to be a Bahá’í worshipper to believe in his ideas. As he himself wrote, “Think of reality as a central fact and the white light broken up by the prism of human nature into a spectrum of values.” What better metaphor could there be for any subculture in a modern multicultural world?

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