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Remembering Alain Locke: Dean of America’s Harlem Renaissance

Alain Locke (1885-1954), an essayist, professor, and, notably, the first Black Rhodes Scholar, was an only child, born to a postman and a schoolteacher from Philadelphia almost twenty-one years after the American Civil War. His painful struggle with rheumatic fever at an early age saddled him with heart issues, a condition that kept him inside, yet allowed him to nurture his love of reading, piano, and violin. Sadly, his father passed away when he was only six years old, forcing his mother to raise him alone. However, he didn’t allow those unfortunate events that shackle him, rather, he became an optimist, striving to advance important causes dear to him.

Photograph of Alain Locke
A photograph of the late Alaine Lock

Locke was reportedly given the handle “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance” by Charles S. Johnson, director of the Urban League, for boldly articulating the transformative experiences of African Americans during that storied era through his series of thought-provoking articles and books.

Dustjacket for Alain Locke’s The New Negro

Based on an article in Survey Magazine, Locke’s groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation, was published in 1925. It painted a vibrant picture of a new age where the sentimentalism and reactionism previously characterizing race relations had, in his mind, ended. In a prophetic tone, he theorized that a cavalcade of “New Negros” emboldened with talent and independence would usher in what he described as a new consciousness. The argument was based on his belief that “constructive channels [were] opening… into which the balked social feelings of the American Negro can now flow freely.”

And according to Locke, Harlem, New York, was the epicenter of a new “renaissance.” He didn’t launch the movement, of course. Still, he was undoubtedly there in its infancy and helped validate its cultural significance through his writings. But more than a mere historian, we can consider Locke a founder of the Harlem Renaissance because of how comprehensively he documented and contributed to the philosophy that came to reflect its underlying architecture.

Indeed, Harlem flourished in the early 1920s, and the exciting ideas, style, and artwork in the community attracted the attention of people nationwide. Some of the period’s best works, such as Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, wouldn’t be published until the decade’s end. Yet, the aesthetic fabric of Harlem’s rich culture was already spinning off the loom, orchestrated in the poetry of Langston Hughes and the pioneering, defiant irony registered in Claude Mckay’s prose. It began to fizzle out after the stock market crash of 1929 and had lost its steam by about 1935.

Locke wrote for an audience of what he called “thinking Negros,” an elitist phrase back then and what might be considered a racist one today. But his objective was to drive intrigue into what was occurring within the blossoming culture of Harlem. He often used incendiary language, knowing it would draw attention, good or bad, to his commentary. That rough edge seemed to appeal to a younger generation, which he described as having “a new psychology.” Writing in The New Negro, he stated, “the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life.” His was an almost biblical position of a promised land to which only a new generation could gain access.

Despite his intellectual pedigree, the Dean set himself apart in academia by tapping into the ordinary, popular experiences of African American men and women. For example, he appreciated classical music and fine art but was preferably a student of gospel and folk. Exposure to all art forms made Locke relatable and grounded. By keeping a foot outside the ivory tower, he was reminded that across all class and race lines is the yearning of all people to be free from being considered something to be “defended… helped up, worried over, harassed or patronized.” Unlike many academics today who spend their entire careers shamelessly framing themselves as saviors of minority groups yet hide from addressing the complex challenges of poverty and equality, Locke was unabashed. He was not part of the mainstream chorus. He was a soloist who engaged the critics in his audience directly.

Peter Pollack, Alain Locke, Eleanor Roosevelt and Patrick Prescott

We see that same independent spirit in Locke come alive in the author Nella Larsen’s novels and many other writers, musicians, and painters of the Harlem Renaissance. As their work evolved, they began to reject the sense of victimization inherited from their predecessors. They emerged from a perceived identity thrust upon them by society and forged a new one. Self-realization and reliance were instrumental to the socioeconomic advances seen throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, much of that progress was undone, not just for African-Americans but all Americans, in the small print of the legislation of the New Deal and Great Society.

That assertion of pride in self-knowledge, prevalent in Locke and his contemporaries, was liberating. However, it was not a cure for the condition that all Black Americans found themselves in during the early part of the twentieth century. Burdens faced by Black women back in that day, for example, were never adequately addressed by philosophers like Locke. Yet while the African-American journey at that time may never be fully comprehended, Locke did capture the essence of the obstacles that affected millions. And he accented it with a silver lining, with evidence of those he saw breaking barriers in the streets of Harlem.

1938 Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald

Locke’s communication skills, highly respected among all racial groups during that time, also positioned him as the ideal person to intercede in social conflict. The mayor of New York even appointed him to implement a series of findings following the Harlem riots of 1935. Though the melee erupted from an early form of “fake news,” rumor, and innuendo, Locke saw an opportunity to use the conflict to try and improve race relations. The effectiveness of his solutions remains debatable. Still, he stepped up in earnest when few others would.

That courage is perhaps his most lasting legacy. Ironically, it’s likely that Harlem Renaissance artists and writers, including Locke, also inadvertently influenced, at least to some degree, the rage that hit the streets of Harlem in 1935. Just as life influences art, art affects the lives of the communities around it, and not always positively. Sometimes, lines are blurred in the heat of passion, such as with the conflict in 1935. We forget what is appropriate for art and what is needed for civility. Still, the art of the Harlem Renaissance was, at its core, genuine. It originated from a sincere wish to build a better, more equal world. There were commercial works back then, but money didn’t drive as much of the creative impulse as it does today.

The most endearing thing about Alain Locke may have been that he was an optimist, despite all he knew about human nature and history. With conviction, he wrote, “The Negro today is inevitably moving forward under the control largely of his objectives.” And, importantly, he understood, from his own life, that outward success differed from one’s inner life. Locke had pride in his country, the United States, and his family’s role in fighting for the freedoms we enjoy. He believed that African Americans’ objectives for a happy life “are none other than the ideals of American institutions and democracy.” But he also knew that our lives were ultimately a work in progress as individuals. Getting ourselves back to that shared yet independent model of identity may hold the key to a better future for all Americans.

Works Referenced

RAFAEL MOSCATEL is the author of the best-selling business book Tomorrow’s Jobs Today and director of The Little Girl with the Big Voice, a critically acclaimed documentary. His third book, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, a memoir about hope, forgiveness, and redemption, will be published in 2023.

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