Jeffrey Stewart was a graduate student when he first encountered Alain Locke. College students discover and forget historical figures every day, but something about Locke intrigued Stewart, today a professor in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Black Studies.
Locke had certainly earned the respect of history. He was the first African American selected for a Rhodes Scholarship, taught philosophy at Howard University for nearly four decades and was a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
And yet Locke is little remembered today, a seeming footnote in the long African-American struggle for equality.
“He’s under-appreciated and kind of an invisible man,” Stewart said.
That could change with “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke” (Oxford University Press, 2018), Stewart’s meticulous biography that retraces the footsteps of the philosopher/activist from his early days in a middle-class Philadelphia family to Harvard and Europe, and the tightrope he walked as a gay man.
Locke’s life was extraordinary by any measure. He mentored such luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. He was a cultural pluralist who believed that the path to equality for African Americans was through self-improvement and the arts. His influence as an advocate for African art and an enduring black aesthetic carried well into the 1960s.
His landmark anthology of African American works, “The New Negro,” laid out his vision of cultural pluralism and was viewed as one of the most important works of literature of the age. Published in 1925, it established him as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance.
As the decades passed, however, Locke slipped into history’s shadows. Stewart argues, in part, that he was eclipsed by what he called the “dominant poles” of African American leadership in the early 20th century: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington, born a slave, called for disenfranchised blacks to embrace education, entrepreneurship and conciliation as a way forward. Du Bois, meanwhile, denounced capitalism and racism, and a was a forceful advocate of African American equality.
Locke’s philosophy fell somewhere between the two. An intellectual with a distaste for conflict, “He really didn’t like protest as the main approach to racial interaction,” Stewart said, explaining that Locke felt it put too much emphasis on the other side. “In other words, you’re reacting to what they’re doing, trying to convince them to change, instead of building up your own resources.”
Complicating his life was being a gay man in an era long before it was acceptable. As Stewart tells it, Locke was something of a dandy and a complicated man to start with, and being gay made it harder for him to navigate the layers of society he moved through.
“And so he didn’t really fit into this aspect of black middle-class culture,” Stewart said, “which was called respectability: you make sure that everything about your life is middle class and bourgeois and a kind of mirror of heteronormative middle-class life. And this ideology held out the hope that if you mimicked that life, you would be accepted, assimilated and integrated into society. Sexual conformity was a big part of it.”
As Stewart relates in “The New Negro” — which has been longlisted for a National Book Award — Locke’s private life was fraught, bordering on tragic. He was a lonely man whose search for love and acceptance was marked by frustration. In a heartbreaking chapter, Stewart recounts Locke’s desperate and doomed attempts to win over a young and dashing Hughes with holidays in Paris and Italy, and promises to support him if he came to Howard.
Their story, Stewart writes, “is more one of pathos and unrequited love than naked exploitation. Locke did not want a prostitute — he wanted a companion, a partner, who lived with and inspired him.”
In a way, Locke’s loneliness — and greatness — began the day his mother died. In the extraordinary opening chapter, Stewart recounts that upon her death in 1922 Locke honored his mother with an unusual wake. When guests arrived they found “the deceased Mary Locke propped up on the parlor couch, as though she might lean and pour tea at any moment. She was dressed exquisitely in her fine gray dress, her hair perfectly arranged. She even had gloves on. Locke invited his guests to ‘take tea with Mother for the last time.’ ”
As strange as the wake was, the death of Locke’s mother allowed him to break with her bourgeois tradition and formulate his own notion of “The New Negro,” who, Stewart writes, “was a cultural giant held down by White Lilliputians …” Locke believed that “all that was needed was for this giant to throw off the intellectual strings that bound this intellect to self-pitying despair about Black people’s plight in America, and assume his or her true role — as architect of a new, more vibrant future called American culture if those in his or her path would just get out of the way.”
The disparate elements of Locke’s life — the intellectual vibrancy, the sadness, the resilience — made him an exemplar of a survivor, and a leader, in a difficult age, according to Stewart.
“I think that all of us have the power of self-invention and re-invention,” he said, “and part of that comes from being willing to step into our power. And this is kind of a universal philosophical position, but one he felt had particular resonance within the black experience. It’s a message as relevant today as it was during Locke’s lifetime.”