Alain Locke (1885-1954)

    Contributing Editor: Beth Helen Stickney

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    While students often have difficulty knowing how to approach nonfiction prose, particularly the kind that tends toward abstraction as Locke's essay does, once we have historically contextualized "The New Negro," students are quick both to sympathize with Locke and to become involved in a number of salient debates. One particular point of interest is Locke's own educational background; students want to know what it was like for an African-American at Oxford, and they are also generally interested in learning about the milieu at Harvard in the early 1900s. Most will begin to sense the precariousness of Locke's position as a black intellectual struggling both to make a place for himself in an Anglo-American environment and to pave the way for other African-Americans.

    The centrality of art and culture in Locke's thought and political philosophy always touches off controversy. Students divide on issues of artistic freedom versus responsibility to one's race (and/or class/gender); the racial/cultural specificity of a given art form (for example, is jazz, or rap/hip-hop, as students think today, a "black" form?); and finally, the broader concern of the role that art and culture can play in any political or social agenda (again, a point that usually prompts students to draw on their own experience).

    When students do draw on contemporary culture, their references are usually to popular music, and I encourage this. Because The New Negro anthology itself (indeed the New Negro movement) was so deliberately an interdisciplinary project, I try to represent as many art forms as possible. (This is where student presentations can be profitably used.) Cary Nelson's Repression and Recovery, in addition to giving a history of much of the "noncanonical" literature of the period, includes reproductions (some in color) of artwork from The New Negro and several other small African-American periodicals. Included in my bibliography are two fine art books, both with informative essays on individual artists and on African-American culture in general. Any number of musical recordings (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, the spirituals) would give the opportunity to discuss Locke's distaste for the commercialized "Tin Pan Alley" jazz and his preference for the more "authentic" spirituals (though the latter were already being Westernized for the concert halls). As students begin to see that Locke's concerns are neither merely academic nor dead issues, they will sometimes bring me newspaper clippings or mention interviews in which they detect Lockean themes being raised. These, of course, I make a point of sharing with the class.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Major themes Locke develops include the entrance onto the world scene of a new social type and a new psychology in the figure of the "new Negro"; the dialectical relationship between an outer reality (social, political, and cultural conditions) and inner consciousness; the centrality of Harlem as a "race capital" and the importance of the urban experience generally in promoting the cosmopolitan ideal; pan-Africanism and the importance of uniting African-Americans with oppressed and politically awakening peoples worldwide; the significance of cultural renewal in bringing about social and political progress; the "enlarging of personal experience" as inseparable from a commitment to "a common vision of the social tasks ahead"; the authenticity of "folk" culture and the dangers inherent in empty imitation of "high" culture forms; the need for a reinvigoration of democratic ideals and institutions, and the unique ability of African-Americans to address that need; the role that the "enlightened minorities" of each race must play in bringing the races together; the urgency of seeing racial interests in a "new and enlarged way" that would ultimately transcend a narrowly racialist vision.

    As the only child of educated, middle-class parents, Locke was both a product and a proponent of an elite high-culture tradition. Though known for his devotion to cultural pluralism and what he came to call "critical relativism," Locke's early education would have instilled in him Victorian, specifically Arnoldian, notions of taste and cultural value; indeed, even as he supported young artists and emerging African-American cultural forms, he was often accused of elitism and Eurocentrism (charges that had also been levelled against W.E.B. Du Bois). But while he was educated in and became a vital part of the country's elite intellectual circles, he also knew racial prejudice (note his ostracism at Oxford even as a Rhodes scholar), and he actively fought racism and worked for full social, cultural, and political recognition of all African-Americans. Thus, both privileged and oppressed, he found himself in much the same vexed position as many of his black contemporaries, most notably Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson (both of whom had also spent time in Europe, traveling and studying).

    As the advance guard (in Du Bois's case one might already say, in 1925, the "older" guard) of an emerging black intelligentsia, these men, and women such as Jessie Fausset (literary editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's journal), Angelina Grimké, and Zora Neale Hurston, initiated and helped sustain public debate on issues of assimilation, nationalism, higher education, artistic freedom, economic independence, cultural self-determination, women's rights, and race leadership. (Here, the extensively researched and well-documented Propaganda and Aesthetics is extremely helpful in delineating the way these debates became public through a nexus of journals and small magazines.) Historically, these writers, artists, and activists were uniquely poised so as to inherit a set of social conditions shaped by Reconstruction, the black migration northward, economic fluctuation, U.S. participation in World War I; and to set the terms for addressing and representing those conditions, terms that would in turn be inherited by future generations.

    Personally, Locke seems to have been able to balance an active, even extravagant, social life among Manhattan's upper crust, with his commitment to education, and even serious philosophical writing. Well-respected by prominent philosophers like John Dewey and Sidney Hook, Locke was called upon both to speak at professional gatherings and to contribute to volumes on contemporary philosophy. One can only speculate on what his stature as a philosopher might have been had be exerted more sustained efforts in that area. And yet, the poet Claude McKay referred to him simply as a "charming, harmless fellow" (and at least on one occasion as the embodiment of the "Aframerican rococco," an even less flattering picture). Perhaps not without irony, Locke humbly referred to himself as the "midwife" of a generation of writers and artists who would be responsible for Harlem's renaissance.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    While the primary historical and cultural importance of Locke's essay certainly lies in its content rather than in its form or style, I do stress Locke's ability to appeal to an educated, and perhaps dispassionate, reader through careful control of tone and language. I also spend some time on the essay form itself as part of an American traditional of cultural criticism. This latter approach works especially well in writing-intensive courses; student-writers are likely to take their work more seriously if they are able to see their own essays as fitting into that tradition.

    Original Audience

    "The New Negro" makes a nice case study in audience because of its publication history. Originally written as the lead essay for a special issue of the magazine Survey Graphic that Locke had been called upon to edit, it later served as the introduction to a much expanded anthology based on that issue, published as The New Negro: An Interpretation. As the popular version of Survey, a professional journal devoted to social work, Survey Graphic was an extensively illustrated magazine designed to acquaint a general readership with social problems of the day. The anthology, published by the well-respected Albert and Charles Boni, and illustrated with fine color portraits, drawings, decorative designs, and reproductions of African artwork, is clearly designed to avoid racial polemics and to reach an educated, enlightened audience, composed of both black and white readers. (One might even say that Locke is aiming for a primarily white audience, presenting a well-reasoned defense of his cultural agenda to potential supporters.)

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Locke's essay works well alongside Du Bois's "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" (chapter I of The Souls of Black Folk); Langston Hughes's "When the Negro Was in Vogue"; Johnson's The Autobiography of an ex-colored Man. However, it is also important to remember that Locke was a vital member of an American intellectual community--be it "Anglo" or "Afro"--and therefore can be seen as addressing issues of national concern. An instructive connection to make in this light is with Bourne's "Transnational America." (See also Locke's 1911 essay, "The American Temperament.") Bourne's cosmopolitanism, his notion of a "trans-nationality" and a "federation of cultures," is compatible with Locke's own vision of an American democracy based on a rigorous sense of cultural pluralism. Further, on the dialectic between artistic innovation and cultural conservation, also an issue for Locke, see T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent."

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    Students should be able to answer questions along the lines of the following:

    1. What does Locke mean by the "new" negro? How does this figure differ from the "old" negro? To what extent does this figure correspond to an actual social type, and to what extent might it be an idealization? What might Locke's purpose be in idealizing the new negro?

    2. What does Locke hope to achieve with his essay?

    3. What concerns does Locke share with other writers of his day?

    4. What influence do you think Locke had on the artists of the New Negro Movement? Can this influence be seen today? What issues of importance to Locke and the New Negro Movement generally are still of concern today?

    Writing assignments might range from a work of original cultural criticism (that is, attack a contemporary issue/cultural problem related to those Locke dealt with, addressing a particular audience from the student's own viewpoint), to an analysis of Locke's vision of culture and democracy vis-à-vis that of another writer, say, Du Bois or Bourne (this, of course, might involve research and further reading in each author's body of work).


    Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    Dallas Museum of Art. Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989.

    Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

    Johnson, Abby Arthur and Ronald Maberry Johnson. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of African-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

    Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.

    Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

    Studio Museum in Harlem. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987.