The Sociologist, the Philanthropist, [and] the Race-leader are not unaware of the New Negro, but they are at a loss to account for him... for the younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life.”
Those stirring words from the opening paragraph of The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925) were written by author, educator, philosopher and cultural critic Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954), who, although he was a shade under five feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds, became a cultural and literary giant after editing that groundbreaking book. As a result of Locke’s work on The New Negro, he has been called the godfather of the Harlem Renaissance, that legendary explosion of black American artistic and social achievement during the 1920s.
The New Negro featured the visual artistry of painter-educator Aaron Douglas and Winold Reiss, a German-American artist, as well as influential essays, journalism, social science, and fiction from such well-known Harlem Renaissance literary figures as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer. However, there have been few biographical works about Locke. The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford Univ., Feb. 2018), a nearly-1,000-page opus by UC Santa Barbara black studies professor Jeffrey C. Stewart, is the most definitive biography of Locke to date.
“I have been carrying this book around with me for a while,” says the Chicago-born, California-raised Stewart. Reflecting on his first encounter with Locke’s work at Yale, where Stewart earned his M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in American studies, he adds: “I worked on Locke’s life in my 1979 dissertation. What drew me to Locke was his philosophy of cultural pluralism. I had studied William James, and the idea of pluralism—that said that the American character is multiple things—that was very attractive to me.”
Stewart has edited two earlier books on Locke: The Critical Temper of Alain Locke (1984), a collection of Locke’s essays on art and culture, and Race Contacts and Interracial Relations (1992), a compendium of Locke’s Howard University lectures from 1916. But writing a biography on Locke, who had a commanding grasp of history, aesthetics, philosophy, music and anthropology, would prove to be a daunting challenge.
“One of the things I confronted after I’d done my initial work on him was that Locke’s education and his perspective were so much richer and broader than mine that, in order to really understand how he thought about things, I had to expand my own education,” Stewart says. “One of my struggles was to find the right literary form. When you do life writing, it’s different from doing other forms of historical or scholarly writing: it’s more literary, more imaginative. It is almost a fictive type of language.”
Noted historian David Levering Lewis, Stewart says, suggested reading George Painter’s biography of Marcel Proust. “In Lewis’s book, When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981), he called Locke the Marcel Proust of the Harlem Renaissance. Proust was a literary person who was gay and in love with the literary aesthetic,” Stewart explained. “So I picked up Painter’s book, and I saw how he developed his prose—where he moved in and out of the personal and the public. And that gave me a model, from a stylistic standpoint.”
Stewart’s book covers the major signposts in Locke’s life from his black bourgeois upbringing in Philadelphia to his success at Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy. Locke became the first African-American Rhodes scholar in 1907, studied at Oxford and the University of Berlin, and had long career as a philosophy teacher at Howard University. Stewart also chronicles how The New Negro evolved from a Harlem gathering in 1924, where many of the neighborhood’s finest writers were introduced to influential white literary patrons.
In 1925, at the behest of Survey Graphic magazine, Locke compiled a special edition of the magazine entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, which was later expanded into book form.“Locke had a new concept of the black city, which is what Harlem was,” Stewart says. “Locke says that Harlem is not a ghetto; it’s a crucible, where different elements of the black community have been brought in and mixed up, and something creative comes out of it. He believed that our creativity, our art, our music, and our culture can be a way to revive the inner city. He believed that the art is in the people. And what we have to do is find a way to create the conditions for the art to come out of the people.”
Nevertheless, while Locke championed the artistic souls of black folk, he may have had a difficult time actually identifying with them. As Stewart writes in the book, “Locke took black Victorianism and turned it into an art of performance on the streets of Cambridge.... His dress defined him as cosmopolitan, even worldly, and not ‘niggerish.’ ” In one memorable letter to his mother, chafing at the racial expectations of being the first black Rhodes scholar, Locke wrote: “I am not a race problem. I am Alain Leroy Locke.”
Locke was gay and his sexual orientation added multiple layers of complexity. Stewart thinks “he probably had a secret emotional empathy with blackness that was kind of a rebellion against the black bourgeoisie.” He adds: “Being gay meant that he would never be accepted in the bourgeois formation of the black community, because that foundation is profoundly heteronormative and patriarchal.”
Locke also had tense relationships with some of his peers. His colleagues at Howard, notably art historian James Porter, resented the fact that Locke produced critically acclaimed art exhibitions. Locke changed the title of Claude McKay’s incendiary poem “White House” to “White Houses” so as to not offend white readers. And he publicly belittled Jessie Fauset’s novels and Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore.
Stewart guesses this may have had something to do with Locke’s emotional life. Though Locke had a number of love interests, including sculptor Richmond Barthe and poet Langston Hughes, “he felt largely unloved,” Stewart says. “He was mean to people, especially women. Locke felt that he was in competition with them in a way that I think was self-defeating.”
Locke helped to pave the way for those who would come after him. Stewart writes, “His praise for [such black writers such as] Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, and Nella Larsen... gave the New Negro a freedom to explore sexuality in all of its variety, such that later artists, such as Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, and Prince could make sexual ambiguity as much an attraction as race.”
For Stewart, another aspect of Locke’s genius was his ability to produce books for general readerships, as evidenced by one of his major accomplishments, the Bronze Booklets—a series of pamphlets he edited on black music, race, literature, the Caribbean, and economics. “He got Ralph Bunche, Sterling Brown, and Eric Williams to write those books,” Stewart says. “The black tradition always meant that intellectuals write in a language that people can understand.”.
Stewart stresses that Locke’s work is just as relevant today as it was in the 1920s. “The New Negro can update and change, depending on the context,” Stewart says. “We have the possibility of reinventing ourselves in the 21st century, through arts and culture, just as we’ve done all along. The New Negro always comes from the younger generation, who make a move that the older generation hasn’t thought of. Black Lives Matter has reinvented the civil rights movement, and that’s the New Negro impulse to reinvention.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer who contributes often to Publishers Weekly.