| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
That young Alain Leroy Locke grew up to be an
educator is no surprise. By the time of his birth on September 13, 1885,
education had become something of a family business. But that he would also be
known as an influential philosopher and cultural critic is indeed surprising.
Less than twenty years before Locke entered Harvard University to study
philosophy, W.E.B. Du Bois had been cautioned against that discipline by
William James who feared that a Negro philosopher, even one with a degree from
Harvard, would be hard put to make a living. Du Bois chose history instead;
Locke sought to prove James wrong, even while taking up elements of Jamesian
pragmatism in his own work. Locke’s use of critical philosophy, which
questioned traditional Western faith in ultimate truths and absolute meanings,
became an important element in his more widely known cultural work. He was a
prolific reviewer of literature and drama; a critic, historian, and collector
of fine art, including African sculpture; an early student and advocate of
African American music; and, of course, the prime mover behind the primarily
artistic New Negro Renaissance, officially initiated in 1925 with the anthology
edited by Locke, titled simply The New Negro: An Interpretation.
This view of cultural production became important for the political aspects
of the New Negro Renaissance.
his criticism, Locke moves between a deep appreciation of the Western high art
forms he had come to know as a child in his late-Victorian, middle-class
household, and an impassioned regard for African and African American folk art
forms. Locke’s view of culture was influenced by the Victorian Matthew Arnold,
but early on, Locke began to depict the individual as an active producer rather
than a passive consumer of culture. This view of cultural production became
important for the political aspects of the New Negro Movement. Unlike many of
his white contemporaries in academia, Locke was always committed to social
action and an awareness of what Du Bois called the “problem of the color-line.”
graduated with honors from Central High School in Philadelphia in 1902, then
furthered his studies at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy. Matriculated at
Harvard in 1904, he began his studies in philosophy and literature at an
advanced level. Upon graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1907,
Locke accepted the first Rhodes scholarship ever awarded to an African
awareness was thrust upon Locke before he even arrived in England: five Oxford
colleges denied him admission, in spite of his prestigious award. Finally
settling in at one of the smaller and newer colleges, Hertford, the
dark-skinned Locke had difficulty finding a comfortable social footing among
his white classmates. He did, however, find company and intellectual
stimulation with many African scholars at Oxford, friendships he pursued in
later years as his interest in Pan-Africanism and international politics grew.
Following his three years as a Rhodes scholar, Locke moved on for a year of
study at the University of Berlin, as Du Bois had done just before the
century’s turn. Locke returned to Harvard in 1916 to complete his dissertation,
“The Problem of Classification in the Theory of Value,” under the direction
of Ralph Barton Perry. Locke was now on his way to becoming one of the
African American intellectual elite, those whom Du Bois exhorted to become
“co-workers in the kingdom of culture.”
constantly challenged what it meant to be an intellectual. Many of the artists
whom he actively supported charged him with elitism and Eurocentrism, and often
bristled at his (sometimes heavy-handed) editorial recommendations. Some, like
Claude McKay, were embarrassed by Locke’s perfect evocation of the “Aframerican
roccoco.” Though he certainly courted beauty in all its forms, and sometimes
questioned the “blind practicality of the common man,” Locke was never
satisfied with the role of the decadent aesthete or the sedentary academic.
Accepting the professorship at Howard University in 1912 that he would hold
(with some interruption) until his retirement in 1953, Locke immediately became
active in campus politics and student life; he supported both the Howard
literary journal and the theater department, and lobbied for parity among black
and white faculty members. This latter effort resulted in his dismissal in
1925; but student and faculty protests made it clear that Locke was a highly valued
member of the Howard community, and that the community would no longer stand
for the unjust practices of the white university president. In 1928, Howard’s
first African American president, Mordecai W. Johnson, reappointed Locke.
did not officially take up residence in that district of upper Manhattan called
Harlem until his retirement. But with the publication of the special Harlem
issue of the journal Survey Graphic in 1925 (which resulted in the anthology
published in the same year), Locke knew Harlem well enough to assert that “it
is — or promises at least to be — a race capital.” Indeed, the “pulse of the
Negro world [had] begun to beat in Harlem.” Though Locke acknowledged
important urban movements elsewhere in the North and central Midwest, it was
Harlem that could offer the New Negro Movement the “cosmopolitan scale”
necessary to rise above racial provincialism.
the 1930s and 1940s Locke spent less time supporting the arts, due in part to
World War II. Throughout the late 1940s Locke continued teaching, often as a
visiting professor. After his retirement in 1953, he finally moved to
Manhattan, his spiritual hometown, and began work on the ambitious project The
Negro in American Culture. On June 9, 1954, Alain Locke died of heart failure at
New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
Beth Helen Stickney|
City University of New York
In the Heath Anthology
The New Negro
The New Negro: An Interpretation
The Negro and His Music
When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts
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Complete text of Locke's 1925 article.
Biographical sketch and an annotated bibliography.
Alain Locke Society
Information about the Society and general resources about Locke scholarship in the world and on the web.
William Grant Still Exhibition
Several links highlighting Locke's relationship to the composer.
Everett H. Akam, "Community and Crisis: The 'Transfiguring Imagination' of Alain Locke," in American Literary History (Summer 1991)
Leonard Harris, ed., The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke, a Reader on Value Theory, Aesthetics, Community, Culture, Race, and Education, 1999
Russell J. Linneman, ed., Alain Locke: Reflections of a Modern Renaissance Man, 1982
Johnny Washington, Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest forCultural Pluralism, 1986
Tommy Lee Lott, "Nationalism and Pluralism in Alain Locke's Social Philosophy," in Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives on Pluralism and Multiculturalism: Defending Diversity, ed. Lawrence Foster and Patricia Herzong, 1994