by Len Lear
I am willing to bet that almost no one reading these words has ever heard of Alain Locke, and yet no less a giant than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself (in a 1968 speech) compared Locke to Plato and Aristotle as being in an elite group of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. What prompted this article, however, was the recent publication of an astonishing 1,000-page biography by Dr. Jeffrey C. Stewart, chairman of the Black Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara, entitled “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” published by the Oxford University Press. It recently won the National Book Award for Non-fiction.
According to Kirkus Review, an esteemed book review website, the book is “a magisterial biography of the 20th century philosopher, curator and prime mover of the Harlem Renaissance, including … the lovers the closeted gay, peripatetic Locke endlessly pursued, not to mention writers like (Langston) Hughes who rejected his advances. This hefty, deeply researched book is sometimes overwhelming in its detail about Locke — every letter he wrote seems to be quoted — but it brilliantly doubles as a history of the philosophical debates that girded black artistic triumphs early in the 20th century.”
My own interest in Locke began in the late 1960s when a co-worker at the Philadelphia Tribune told me he actually knew Locke in the late 1940s and that he was “by far the smartest person I have ever known.” I also felt a kinship with Locke because he graduated from Central High School many decades before I did (Locke was second in his class in 1902, to be exact) and grew up in Germantown, close to my own neighborhood in West Oak Lane.
“New Negro,” by the way, is a term that refers to the Harlem Renaissance, implying a more outspoken advocacy of dignity and refusal to submit quietly to the practices and laws of racial segregation. The term “New Negro” was made popular by Locke, who wrote extensively about the the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem, New York, spanning the 1920s.
Locke was born as born on Sept. 13, 1885, to Pliny Ishmael Locke (1850–1892) and Mary Hawkins Locke (1853–1922), both descended from prominent families of free blacks. He was their only child. His father was the first black employee of the U.S. Postal Service, and his paternal grandfather taught at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth. His mother’s great-grandfather fought heroically in the War of 1812.
His mother Mary, was a teacher who incited her son’s passion for education and literature. In 1902, After graduating from Central, Locke attended the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy, which was primarily a school for Central High alumni who wanted to become teachers. In 1907, Locke graduated from Harvard University with degrees in English and philosophy, and was honored as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and recipient of the prestigious Bowdoin prize. After graduation, he became the first African-American selected as a Rhodes Scholar (and the last to be selected until 1960).
At that time, Rhodes selectors did not meet candidates in person, but there is evidence that at least some selectors knew he was African-American. On arriving at Oxford, Locke was denied admission to several colleges, and several Rhodes Scholars from the American South refused to live in the same college or attend events with Locke. He was finally admitted to Hertford College, where he studied literature, philosophy, Greek, and Latin from 1907 to 1910. In 1910, he attended the University of Berlin, where he studied philosophy.
Locke wrote from Oxford in 1910 that the “primary aim and obligation” of a Rhodes Scholar “is to acquire at Oxford and abroad generally a liberal education, and to continue subsequently the Rhodes mission [of international understanding] throughout life and in his own country. If once more it should prove impossible for nations to understand one another as nations, then, as Goethe said, they must learn to tolerate each other as individuals”
One review of “The New Negro” on GoodReads.com stated: “His biography provides readers with a deeply perceptive study of Locke’s life and achievements, one that situates them both within his time and the circumstances of his life. His is especially good at describing the central role Locke’s homosexuality played in his life, which is no small achievement considering the degree to which such matters often went unspoken back then. That doing so requires a degree of supposition on Stewart’s part is understandable, but his judgments are reasoned and well-argued. Together it makes for a masterful achievement, one that gives Locke the recognition he deserves for his many achievements.”
Ed. note: I tried three times to contact Dr. Stewart through his university’s website, by the way, to ask him questions about Locke, but I did not receive any replies. For more information about “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” visit www.amazon.com/New-Negro-Life-Alain-Locke