Locke, Alain Leroy

views updated

Locke, Alain Leroy

September 13, 1885
June 9, 1954

Best known for his literary promotion of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, philosopher Alain Locke was a leading spokesman for African-American humanist values during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Born into what he called the "smug gentility" and "frantic respectability" of Philadelphia's black middle class, Locke found himself propelled toward a "mandatory" professional career that led to his becoming the first African-American Rhodes scholar, a Howard University professor for over forty years, a self-confessed "philosophical midwife" to a generation of black artists and writers between the world wars, and the author of a multifaceted array of books, essays, and reviews.

Locke was descended from formally educated free black ancestors on both maternal and paternal sides. Mary and Pliny Locke provided their only child with an extraordinarily cultivated environment, partly to provide "compensatory satisfactions" for the permanently limiting effects imposed by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever. His mother's attraction to the ideas of Felix Adler brought about Locke's entry into one of the early Ethical Culture schools; his early study of the piano and violin complemented the brilliant scholarship that won him entry to Harvard College in 1904 and a magna cum laude citation and election to Phi Beta Kappa upon graduation three years later.

Locke's undergraduate years, during Harvard's "golden age of philosophy," culminated with his being selected a Rhodes scholar from Pennsylvania (the only African American so honored during his lifetime) and studying philosophy, Greek, and humane letters at Oxford and Berlin from 1907 to 1911. There Locke developed his lasting "modernist" interests in the creative and performing arts, and close relationships with African and West Indian students that gave him an international perspective on racial issues. Locke's singular distinction as a black Rhodes scholar kept a national focus on his progress when he returned to the United States in 1912 to begin his long professional career at Howard University. His novitiate there as a teacher of English and philosophy was coupled with an early dedication to fostering Howard's development as an "incubator of Negro intellectuals" and as a center for research on worldwide racial and cultural contacts and colonialism. He managed simultaneously to complete a philosophy dissertation in the field of axiology on "The Problem of Classification in Theory of Value," which brought him a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1918. In 1924 he spent a sabbatical year in Egypt collaborating with the French Oriental Archeological Society for the opening at Luxor of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

On his return in 1925, Locke encountered the cycle of student protests then convulsing African-American colleges and universities, including Hampton, Fisk, and Lincoln, as well as Howard. Subsequently dismissed from Howard because of his allegiances with the protestors, he took advantage of the three-year hiatus in his Howard career to assume a leadership role in the emerging Harlem Renaissance by first editing the March 1925 special "Harlem number" of Survey Graphic magazine. Its immediate success led him to expand it into book form later that year in the stunning anthology The New Negro, whichwith its cornucopia of literature, the arts, and social commentarygave coherent shape to the New Negro movement and gave Locke the role of a primary interpreter.

More than just an interpreter, mediator, or "liaison officer" of the New Negro movement, however, Locke became its leading theoretician and strategist. Over the following fifteen years, and from a staggering diversity of sources in traditional and contemporary philosophy, literature, art, religion, and social thought, he synthesized an optimistic, idealistic cultural credo, a "New Negro formulation" of racial values and imperatives that he insisted was neither a formula nor a program but that confronted the paradoxes of African-American culture, charting what he thought was a unifying strategy for achieving freedom in art and in American life.

Locke's formulation was rooted, like the complex and sometimes competing ideological stances of W. E. B. Du Bois, in the drive to apply the methods of philosophy to the problems of race. It fused Locke's increasingly sophisticated "cultural racialism" with the new cultural pluralism advocated by Jewish-American philosopher Horace Kallen (a colleague during Locke's Harvard and Oxford years) and by Anglo-American literary radicals such as Randolph Bourne and V. F. Calverton. Locke adapted Van Wyck Brooks's and H. L. Mencken's genteel critical revolt against Puritanism and Philistinism to analogous problems facing the emergent but precarious African-American elite; and he incorporated into his outlook the Whitmanesque folk ideology of the 1930s and 1940s "new regionalism." Finally, Locke's credo attempted to turn the primitivist fascination with the art and culture of Africa to aesthetic and political advantage by discovering in it a "useable past" or "ancestral legacy" that was both classical and modern, and by urging an African-American cultural mission "apropos of Africa" that would combine the strengths of both Garveyism and Du Bois's Pan-African congresses.

In the course of doing so, Alain Locke became a leading American collector and critic of African art, clarifying both its dramatic influence on modernist aesthetics in the West and its import as "perhaps the ultimate key for the interpretation of the African mind." In conjunction with the Harmon Foundation, he organized a series of African-American art exhibitions; in conjunction with Montgomery Gregory and Marie Moore-Forrest, he played a pioneering role in the developing national black theater movement by promoting the Howard University Players and by coediting with Gregory the 1927 watershed volume Plays of Negro Life: A Source-Book of Native American Drama. From the late 1920s to mid-century, Locke published annual Opportunity magazine reviews of scholarship and creative expression that constitute in microcosm an intellectual history of the New Negro era.

With the onset of the worldwide depression in 1929 and the end of the 1920s "vogue for things Negro," Locke viewed the New Negro movement to be shifting, in lockstep, from a "Renaissance" phase to a "Reformation." His commitment to adult-education programs led him to publish, for the Associates in Negro Folk Education, The Negro and His Music and Negro Art: Past and Present in 1936 and a lavish art-history volume, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artists and the Negro Theme in Art, in 1940. A return to formal work in philosophy found him producing a series of essays in the 1930s and 1940s on cultural pluralism. Moreover, he revived his early interest in the scientific study of global race relations by coediting with Bernhard Stern When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts (1942). During a year as an exchange professor in Haiti, Locke had begun a potential magnum opus on the cultural contributions of African Americans, which occupied the last decade of his life, when his preeminence as a scholar and the lessening of segregation in American higher education kept him in demand as a visiting professor and lecturer within the United States and abroad. The effects of his lifelong heart ailments led to Locke's death in 1954. His uncompleted opus, The Negro in American Culture, was completed and published posthumously by Margaret Just Butcher, daughter of a Howard colleague.

See also Du Bois, W. E. B.; Garvey, Marcus; Harlem Renaissance; Howard University; New Negro


Baker, Houston. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Harris, Leonard, ed. The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Harris, Leonard, ed. The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke: A Reader on Value Theory, Aesthetics, Community, Culture, Race, and Education. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Kofi Cain, Rudolph Alexander. Alain Leroy Locke: Race, Culture, and the Education of African American Adults. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2003.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Linnemann, Russell J. Alain Locke: Reflections on a Modern Renaissance Man. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Posnock, Ross. Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Stewart, Jeffrey, ed. The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture. New York: Garland, 1983.

Tidwell, J. Edgar, and John S. Wright. "Alain Locke: A Comprehensive Bibliography of His Published Writings." Callaloo 4 (1981): 175192.

Washington, Johnny. Alain Locke and His Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1986.

Washington, Johnny. A Journey into the Philosophy of Alain Locke. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994.

john s. wright (1996)
Updated bibliography

About this article

Locke, Alain Leroy

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article