Alain Leroy Locke

Alain Leroy Locke
Alain Locke circa 1946

“We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 19, 1968

 

Alain Leroy Locke (September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954) was an American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts.  In a popular publication, “The Black 100”, Alain Locke ranks as the 36th most influential African American ever, past or present.  Distinguished as the first African American Rhodes Scholar in 1907, Locke was the philosophical architect - the acknowledged ‘Dean’ of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural efflorescence connected with the New Negro movement from 1919–1934.

Harlem negro

Alain Locke, Survey Graphic: “Harlem Mecca of the New Negro”

Locke’s importance as the ideological genius of the Harlem Renaissance is of great historical moment, immortalized in the Harlem Number of The Survey Graphic 6.6 (1 March 1925), a special issue on race for which Locke served as guest editor.  That edition was entitled, “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro”, which Locke subsequently recast as an anthology, “The New Negro: An Interpretation of Negro Life”, published in December 1925.

Alain Locke was one of the guiding forces of this new cultural and aesthetic vision.  He played an influential role in identifying, nurturing, and publishing the works of young black artists during the New Negro Movement.  His philosophy served as a strong motivating force in keeping the energy and passion of the Movement at the forefront.  Ernest Mason explained that, “much of the creative work of the period was guided by the ideal of the New Negro which signified a range of ethical ideals that often emphasized and intensified a higher sense of group and social cohesiveness. …The writers…literally expected liberation…from their work and were perhaps the first group of Afro-American writers to believe that art could radically transform the artist and attitudes of other human beings.” (Dictionary of Literary Biography p.313)

Locke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the only child of Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke.  He grew up in Philadelphia and attended Central High School and the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy.  Locke entered Harvard in 1904 and graduated in 1907 with a distinguished academic record (magna cum laude), and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

race leader

Alain Locke: Race Leader, Social Philosopher, Bahá'í Pluralist

After graduating from Harvard, he studied for three years (1907-1910) at Oxford University in England as the first black Rhodes scholar.  Upon his graduation from Oxford, he spent one year pursing advanced work in philosophy at the University of Berlin.  Alain Locke began his career at Howard University in 1912 as an Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy.  His tenure was briefly broken in 1916 when he left to pursue his doctorate degree at Harvard University, eventually receiving that degree in 1918.  Locke returned to Howard University in 1918 as Professor of Philosophy and remained at the University until he retired in 1952.

Locke’s involvement with the Renaissance touched a number of areas.  Not only was he involved with the visual arts and literature, but he was directly involved with the theatre movement through his association with the Theatre Arts Monthly, the Howard University Players (one of the earliest Little Theatre Groups among blacks), and with his collaborations with Montgomery Gregory.  One such collaboration with Gregory resulted in the drama anthology, "Plays of Negro Life" (1927).

plays of negro life

Alain Leroy Locke, “Plays of Negro Life” 

To varying degrees, Locke encouraged young black writers, scholars and artists of the New Negro Movement; and he served as a mentor to many of them.  His philosophy of the New Negro was grounded in the concept of race building.

Nathan Huggins in his book, Harlem Renaissance, states: “Alain Locke believed that the profound changes in the American Negro had to do with the freeing of himself from the fictions of his past and the rediscovery of himself.  He had to put away the protective coloring of the mimicking minstrel and find himself as he really was.  And thus the new militancy was a self-assertion as well as an assertion of the validity of the race.”  “Locke could not promise that the race would win the long-desired end of material progress, but the enrichment of life through art and letters would be an ample achievement. What is more, the Negro would be a people rather than a problem.” (pp. 59-60) 

the works

The Works of Alain Locke

Locke edited The New Negro, an anthology that was published in 1925 and is sometimes referred to as the manifesto of the New Negro Movement.  This anthology had its origin as a special issue (March 1925) of the Survey Graphic magazine, which was devoted entirely to Harlem.  This respected magazine devoted a full issue to “express the progressive spirit of contemporary Negro life.”  This issue became the most widely read in the magazine’s history.  In the words of Steven Watson,  “The issue’s contents drew upon poets, illustrators, and essayists, but it was firmly governed by Locke’s cultural agenda.” (Watson, p.28) Locke emphasized that the spirit of the young writers who were a part of this anthology would drive the Harlem Renaissance by focusing on the African roots of black art and music.  Five of his essays were included in the anthology.

Locke energetically supported and was a staunch advocate for the black visual arts.  He firmly believed that the black artist should draw from the roots of his African heritage for themes reflected in his works.  He referred to this as “their own racial milieu as a special province” ("The American Negro Artist," p. 214). Those who explored these themes were referred to as the Africanists or Neo-Primitives.  Locke felt that this group of visual artists carried “the burden of the campaign for a so-called ‘Negro Art.” (“The American Negro Artists”, p. 215) Locke defined the Africanists as those artists who derived their inspiration from the principles of African design.

the new negro

Alain Locke, “The New Negro” 

During the 1920’s and 30’s, a few of the younger artists that worked in this vein included Hale Woodruff, James Lesesne Wells, Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthé, and Sargent Johnson.  In fact, Locked rated James Wells as one of the most promising of these younger black artists, and “Aaron Douglas…deserves to be called the pioneer of the African Style among the American Negro artists” (“The American Negro Artist,” p. 218).

Locke’s “Africanist” approach was not only limited to the visual arts.  He emphasized that the future of Black drama depended on the development of the folk play. In his words: “Negro drama must grow in its own soil and cultivate its own intrinsic elements; only in this way can it become truly organic, and cease being a rootless derivative” (Theatre Arts Monthly 10, p. 703).  He encouraged the dramatists, like other artists, to turn back for dramatic material to their ancestral sources and draw upon African life and tradition.  During the Renaissance, black drama was in its infancy stage and it was prime for exploring the rich resources of African material.  By embracing the folklore, art-idioms, and symbols of African material, drama was sure to flourish as its sister arts had done.

Alain Locke made a profound contribution to the philosophy, art, and culture of American society.  African Americans are direct beneficiaries of his efforts.

 

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REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS


  • Locke, Alain. “The American Negro Artist.”The American Magazine of Art23, no.3 (September 1931): 211-220.
  • _____________. “The Drama of Negro Life.”Theatre Arts Monthly10 (October 1926): 701-706.
  • Watson, Steven.The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
  • Selected Books Written By Locke
  • Locke, Alain LeRoy.The Negro and His Music. Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936.
  • Negro Art: Past and Present. Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936.
  • Four Negro Poets, edited by Alain Locke (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1927)
  • The New Negro: An Interpretation, edited with contributions by Alain Locke (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1927)
  • Plays of Negro Life: A Source-Book of Native American Drama, edited by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory (New York: Harper, 1927)

 Selected Essays Written By Locke

  • Locke, Alain. “A Collection of Congo Art.”Arts2 (February 1927), pp. 60-70.
  • “Harlem: Dark Weather-vane.”Survey Graphic25 (August 1936), pp. 457-462, 493-495.
  • “The Negro and the American Stage.”Theatre Arts Monthly10 (February 1926): 112-120.
  • “The Negro in Art.”Christian Education13 (November 1931), pp. 210-220.
  • “Negro Speaks for Himself.”The Survey52 (April 15, 1924), pp. 71-72.
  • “The Negro’s Contribution to American Art and Literature.”The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science140 (November 1928): 234-247.
  • “The Negro’s Contribution to American Culture.”Journal of Negro Education8 (July 1939), pp. 521-529.
  • “A Note on African Art.”Opportunity2 (May 1924), pp. 134-138.
  • “Our Little Renaissance.”Ebony and Topaz, edited by Charles S. Johnson. New York: National Urban League, 1927.
  • “Steps Towards the Negro Theatre.”Crisis25 (December 1922), pp. 66-68.
  • And Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Younger Literary Movement.”Crisis28 (February 1924), pp. 161-163.

 Selected Material About Locke

  • Brewer, William. “Alain Locke.”Negro History Bulletin18 (November 1954), pp. 26-32.
  • Bunche, Ralph J., Krikorian, Y. H., Nelson, William, et al. “The Passing of Alain Leroy Locke.”Phylon15 (1954), pp. 243-252.
  • Davis, Arthur P.From the Dark Tower: Afro American Writers, 1900 to 1960. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974.
  • Hay, Samuel A. “Alain Locke and Black Drama.”Black World(April 1972), pp. 8-14.
  • Holmes, Eugene C. “Alain Locke: A Sketch.”Phylon(Spring 1959), pp. 82-89.
  • “Alain Locke- Philosopher, Critic, Spokesman.”Journal of Philosophy(February 28, 1957), pp.113-118.
  • “The Legacy of Alain Locke.”Freedom ways3 (Summer 1963), pp. 293-306.
  • Mason, Ernest D., “Alain Locke,” inDictionary of Literary Biography. vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1987).
  • The New Negro Thirty Years Afterward: Papers Presented to the Sixteenth Annual Spring Conference of the Division of the Social Sciences, April 20, 21, and 22, 1955. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1955.
  • The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, edited by Leonard Harris (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1989).
  • Washington, Johnny.Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
  • Wright, W. D. “The Cultural Thought and Leadership of Alain Locke.”Freedom ways(First Quarter, 1974), pp. 35-50.

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