The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke
by Jeffrey Stewart.
Oxford University Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 932 pages, $30.

Gilbert NMO Morris

One gets the sense, not even halfway through Jeffrey Stewart’s epochal biography of Alain Locke, that Locke touched aspects of one’s own life, beliefs, and possibilities, without one’s ever having imagined it. Locke, it seemed, in pursuit and defense of cultural proofs of the humanity of the Negro, intuited, imagined, discussed, and acted upon every notion of personal dignity, of value and cultural prestige for the black American; not merely moving him, but showing him at the center of any possible meaning of an American spirit in the world. Alain Locke was precocious, ubiquitous, and prolific and Stewart has written a biography that captures the vast panoply of the life he lived, in the panoptical world of American racial animus, by the sheer immensity of his will and ambition.

Stewart’s skill as a biographer is made visible immediately, by means of an “authorial chivalry,” such that one feels his guiding hand into and through the sweep of such a vast life: from Locke’s meticulous removal of the frivolity of cartoons from his father’s evening paper as a boy, to his final mastery of continental philosophy (as an Oxford University student in Berlin, Germany), to the Machiavellian shenanigans he employed from his intermittent perch as professor at Howard University, all exercised to assert control over the “Harlem Renaissance,” which he helped to initiate, even as he lost control of its artists—Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay—and constantly lost control of himself.

Locke was born in Philadelphia, September 13, 1885 and lived largely in Washington DC, as a professor at Howard University, but he was a world traveler, with extensive periods in Boston, Oxford, Berlin, and Harlem. He died June 1954 at age 68. Despite such a worldly existence, the animating force in Locke’s life was his mother—Mary Locke—to a degree that is perhaps hard to comprehend today. To her, he was her “one and only.” For him, so wedded to her was he that, coldly, he refused to acknowledge even as a boy and throughout his life that he had a brother, who died as a baby. The mother-son relationship in the book is revealed as a study in exhaustless interdependent and enabling intimacy: She taught him high Victorian manners, circumspection even against other Negroes, and that it was his charge to represent the race, even if he regarded them with faux aristocratic snobbery.

This admixture of benign, at times overt contempt for other blacks, together with his remorseless defence of black humanity, was as central a contradiction in Locke as it was a recurrent theme amongst educated or successful blacks of the late antebellum and into the turn of the twentieth century. As Stewart reveals in detail, Alain LeRoy Locke would have been an outstanding figure in any age: though only four feet eleven inches and one hundred pounds, Locke was a brilliant student, the first black American Rhodes Scholar, the first black American to attain a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard University (and probably the first to make a social enterprise from an unapologetic claim to the value and prestige of black humanity), and a homosexual. W. E. B. Du Bois may have called forth the “talented tenth,” but Locke was of that talented tenth, and he gave them their marching orders to produce art of the most discriminating taste, that was self-aware, with the transformative aim of stoking white appreciation without invoking white guilt.

Locke achieved a measure of his aim in 1925 by editing an issue of a magazine called Survey Graphic, identifying Harlem as the incubus of a new cultural “flowering.” Titled “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro,” the edition sold a stunning 40,000 copies and charmed American enlightened opinion. Locke refined the theme in book form: The New Negro: An Interpretation featured almost every black American writer, poet, and artist we know from the period (and several whites), either in print or in portrait, all working subordinate to Locke’s direction and theme; including Aaron Douglas, Arthur Fauset, Cugo Lewis, E. Franklyn Frazier, Miguel Covarrubias, Jessie Fauset, Jean Toomer, Paul Robeson, and the great Du Bois himself.

The New Negro was published in the fall of 1925 to great sensation. Locke had hoped for white intellectual opinion, not merely to appreciate its content, but to understand its purpose. He was rewarded not least with the words of H. L. Mencken: The New Negro was “the American Negro’s final emancipation from his inferiority complex … The Negroes who contribute to this dignified and impressive volume … show no sign of being sorry that they were Negroes. For the first time, one hears clearly the imposing doctrine that, in more than one way, the Negro is superior to the White man.”

At the heart of the biography are the informative cross-currents of sentiment and innuendo that Stewart shares, in fine detail, that illustrates the internecine conflicts between liberal white supporters and the “New Negro” aficionados, both abutting black educated and respectable(Victorian) middle-class opinion; a vortex of increasingly complex tensions, which Locke operated to maintain askew. These tensions show a theme that Stewart traces as an undercurrent in Locke’s life and work: that the meaning, inclinations, and explicit ambitions of being Black for Blacks in general, and what constituted representations for unifying such a nexus of identity and value—in this case art and cultural production—seemed never to have cohered.

None other than Langston Hughes—whose relationship with Locke was complicated by Locke’s pursuit of him as a love interest and Hughes’s rejection of Locke’s pretentious Victorian mannerisms—burst forth in a fit of fury at attempts both to dismiss and control black artistic endeavours. In 1926, George Schuyler of the Nation magazine—reacting to the excitement generated by the idea of the “new negro”—published a dismissive article titled “The Negro Art-Hokum,” suggesting that the black American had nothing new or compelling to say through art. Hughes answered—in Locke’s absence—in an article titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If White people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too … If coloured people are pleased we are glad. If not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” Hughes’s lightning response not only showed yet another division among New Negro aficionados, whites, respectable blacks, and young black artists themselves, but it threatened to scare white support away from the movement. Hughes’s response forced Locke to thread a tight needle, supporting his young artists, while holding onto white support and avoiding a reckoning with respectable black middle-class Christian sentiment.

It would be interesting for scholars today to draw links between Du Bois’s mighty Black Reconstruction in America and Locke’s New Negro. It is a testament to Professor Jeffery Stewart’s achievement that his biography of Locke may prove more useful in such an enterprise than Locke’s own writings. In essence, Stewart shows that Du Bois’s explication of the forces that moved against the political and economic rise of the Negro during Reconstruction were the same or similar forces for Locke, preventing or limiting the cultural rise of the Negro during the Harlem Renaissance.

America and the condition of the Negro is still not nearly as Locke would have hoped, as he worked to achieve his vision. For instance, the recent 2018 Grammys show that aspects of “black culture”—hip-hop—do have a sort of grip on American and even global imagination. But that has not yet evolved into or connected with the cultural ancestry of the African continent, nor the aesthetic imperatives of the New Negro, as Locke would have wished. Today’s searing themes of protest in black artistic expression, Stewart shows us, again and again, would have grated against Locke’s governing thesis as much as his Victorian sensibilities.

Second, the tensions that forced “by long odds, the best trained man amongst the younger American Negroes” (as Du Bois referred to Locke in his demand for Locke’s reinstatement at Howard in 1927) may have retained their potency, for though historically black colleges and universities now have black presidents and administrators, the white philanthropic power structure—in spite of significant black wealth—is still the primary funding source for these meccas of learning.

The biography, in its treatment of the historic and historical arc of Locke’s life and work, shows that Locke built on the quaking truths in Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and his many prophesies concerning the coming of a renaissance of black American culture. One may be despondent at the lack of uniqueness in canon and curriculum in American universities—even at HBCUs—which should have emerged from Locke’s New Negro renaissance; but Locke himself rejected Jazz or Blues as vehicles for black cultural expression, which has enjoyed a sustained renaissance for the last thirty years or more. In the Harlem Renaissance, Dr. Alain LeRoy Locke sought a tradition to which he could link and from which to leverage cultural features of black American artistic taste. In so doing he fostered a tradition to which today’s cultural production by blacks can cultivate linkages and from which they may leverage meaning; mining that now great and unprecedented tradition for inspiration. 

Gilbert NMO Morris—a philosopher, legal scholar, and former diplomat—was Professor at George Mason University, where he served two annual terms as Director of African American Studies. He lectured at the Smithsonian Institution Associates on the History of Revolutions. He was educated at the London School of Economics.