Alain LeRoy Locke

Alain LeRoy Locke

Michèle Mendelssohn

A highly distinguished American writer and philosopher, Locke's influence on early twentieth century culture can hardly be overstated. Locke is often identified as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s that proudly championed black intellectual and artistic production. It was vital to the formation of black modernity. 'Harlem is the precious fruit in the Garden of Eden, the big apple,' Locke said.

Born in 1886 in Philadelphia, Locke was the first African American Rhodes Scholar to come to Oxford. Despite outstanding work at Harvard, he was denied admission to several Oxford colleges because of race prejudice. He was admitted to Hertford, where he studied philosophy, Greek, and Literae Humaniores from 1907–1910. He co-founded the African Union Society.

After obtaining a PhD from Harvard in 1917, he went on to a distinguished academic career. He taught philosophy at Howard University from 1912 to his death, in 1954.

Along with W. E. B. Du Bois, Locke was one of the intellectual lights behind the rebirth of the black arts movement in the early 20th century. In The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art (1940) and other publications and articles he contended that art could function as propaganda, but that artists should be free to choose their subjects. Locke perceived European interest in African art as a means of emphasising African-American modernity and black Modernism.

He was a prolific writer and editor. Locke's anthology, The New Negro (1925) proclaimed the Harlem Renaissance's existence to a wider audience and presented the "new Negro" as a representative of high culture. This seminal publication included works by Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, Arthur A. Schomburg, James W. Johnson, and others.

for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being –a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be 'kept down,' or 'in his place,' or 'helped up,' to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden.... By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation.... With this renewed self-respect and self-dependency, the life of the Negro community is bound to enter a new dynamic phase. [as Locke explained in The New Negro's introduction]

 

Bibliography

  • Harris, Leonard. The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond
    Philadelphia: Temple University P, 1989. Print
  • Harris, Leonard, and Charles Molesworth. Alain L. Locke: Biography of a Philosopher
    Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print
  • Locke, Alain LeRoy. The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture
    Ed. Stewart, Jeffrey C. New York: Garland, 1983. Print
  • Stewart, Jeffrey C. "A Black Aesthete at Oxford." The Massachusetts Review
    34 3 (1993): 411-428
  • Washington, Johnny. Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism
    Westport: Greenwood P, 1986. Print