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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Alain Locke

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.

Throughout 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.”

Locke 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 American.

Race 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.”

Locke 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.

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.

In 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 (1925)

Other Works
The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925)
The Negro and His Music (1936)
When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts (1942)

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Complete text of Locke's 1925 article.

Alain Locke
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.

Secondary Sources

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