Alain Locke Biography

Alain LeRoy Locke was born on September 13, 1886, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into a well-known family. Alain’s father, Pliny Locke, had obtained a degree in law from Howard University, and then became a mail clerk in Philadelphia. Mary Hawkins, Alain’s mother, was a teacher.

Pliny Locke and Mary Hawkins were engaged for sixteen years, not marrying until they were middle aged. Alain, their only child, was brought up in a cultured home environment. When Alain was just six years old his father died, and his mother supported her son through teaching. Alain attended the Ethical Culture School, which was a school with modern ideas about education, teaching moral principles and human values. Young Alain became ill with rheumatic fever early in his childhood. The disease permanently damaged his heart and restricted his physical activities. He dealt with his weak physical condition by spending time reading books and learning to play the piano and violin.

Alain Locke. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Locke attended Central High School, graduating second in the class of 1902, and then studied at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy, where he was first in his class. He attended Harvard University and completed Harvard’s four-year program in three years, graduating magna cum laude (second in his class) in 1907, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa (an honor society made up of high-ranking American college and graduate students in the subject of liberal arts and sciences), and winning the school’s most distinguished award, the Bowdoin Prize, for an essay in English. It was a remarkable achievement for anyone, especially an African American during this highly segregated (separated because of race) era.

Locke was named a Rhodes Scholar (a person who receives a scholarship to Oxford University for two to three years), the first African American chosen for this award, and sailed to England in 1907 to attend Oxford University. In 1910 he received a bachelor’s degree in literature. From Oxford he moved to Germany for advanced work in philosophy at the University of Berlin from 1910 to 1911. This time in Europe helped to intensify his interest in modern art, music and literature.

Alain Leroy Locke, a leading black intellectual during the early twentieth century and an important supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 13, 1886 to Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke. His parents were middle class educated professionals. A gifted and talented student, Locke attended Harvard University in 1904 where he studied under renowned scholars including Josiah Royce, George Santana, and William James.

Locke excelled at his studies and became the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1907, Locke attended Oxford University where he obtained another B.A degree in 1910. The following year he attended the University of Berlin in Germany.

In 1912 Locke returned to the United States where he became an assistant professor of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., beginning an academic career that would span four decades. He also joined the newly organized Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. In 1916 Locke interrupted his teaching career at Howard to return to Harvard University where he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy. When Locke rejoined the faculty at Howard he quickly rose in rank and in 1921 became the chair of the Philosophy department. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1953.

Locke was known as an engaging, talented, accessible and admired professor by both his students and his colleagues. He was a pioneer in interdisciplinary scholarship as his work transcended standard academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Locke also embraced progressive, avant-garde, and, some would argue, unorthodox teaching methods while at Howard which were sometimes viewed with suspicion by more traditionally oriented colleagues and administrators at his institution.

Alain Locke has been widely regarded as the originator of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. His main contribution to both movements was the promotion and emphasis on values, diversity, and race relations. He challenged African Americans to acknowledge and promote their cultural heritage while at the same time, making the effort to integrate into the larger society and appreciate the mores and customs of other ethnic groups. He also was a firm believer in W.E.B DuBois‘ Talented Tenth philosophy, yet, unlike DuBois, he remained socially attached to the general African American population and staunchly resisted any form of elitist behavior.

Locke was a resourceful, intelligent, altruistic, and generous man who managed to serve as a mentor and establish close relationships with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Rudolph Fisher, and Zora Neale Hurston. While Locke was never open about his homosexuality, his sexuality contributed to his various sensibilities and would frequently manifest itself in his works.

Alain Locke died on June 9, 1954 in New York City, New York at the age of 68.

Teaching and scholarship

Locke received an assistant professorship in English at Howard University in 1912. While at Howard, he became a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

Locke returned to Harvard in 1916 to work on his doctoral dissertation, The Problem of Classification in the Theory of Value. In his thesis, he discusses the causes of opinions and social biases, and that these are not objectively true or false, and therefore not universal. Locke received his PhD in philosophy in 1918.

Locke returned to Howard University as the chair of the department of philosophy. During this period, he began teaching the first classes on race relations, leading to his dismissal in 1925. After being reinstated in 1928, Locke remained at Howard until his retirement in 1953. Locke Hall, on the Howard campus, is named after him.

Locke promoted African-American artists, writers, and musicians, encouraging them to look to Africa as an inspiration for their works. He encouraged them to depict African and African-American subjects, and to draw on their history for subject material. The library resources built up by Dorothy B. Porter to support these studies included materials acquired from his travels and contacts.

Scholar Jeffrey C. Stewart has won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for biography for “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” his meticulous and sensitive biography of the African American philosopher and activist who was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

The award was announced Monday, April 15.

“I send my wholehearted congratulations on behalf of our entire proud Santa Barbara campus to Professor Jeffrey Stewart on receiving the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his book ‘The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,’ which illuminates the life of an important historical figure,” said Chancellor Henry T. Yang. “This most prestigious honor is a testament to Jeffrey’s brilliance and perseverance as an exemplary researcher, teacher, scholar and writer. We are immensely proud of and absolutely thrilled about his tremendous achievement. That the announcement of the award comes during the 50th anniversary of our Department of Black Studies is both inspirational and serendipitous.”

The honor follows Stewart’s winning the National Book Award for nonfiction in November 2018. In accepting that honor, Stewart praised Locke as a man who nurtured an artistic community while he himself suffered as a man apart.

“As a gay man who lived a closeted life, he had many struggles, and one of them was with tremendous, crushing aloneness,” Stewart says. “So when I stand here I think about his achievement, and what that was to create a family among writers and artists and dancers and dramatists, and call them The New Negro. The basis for a new creative future — and not just for black people. A new negro, for new America.”

Charles Hale, the SAGE Sara Miller McCune Dean of Social Sciences, called the award a proper validation of Stewart’s talents as a scholar and writer.

A Respected Scholar

Stewart was a graduate student when he first encountered Locke. College students discover and forget historical figures every day, but something about Locke intrigued Stewart, today a professor in the 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.

‘The New Negro’

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 20 th 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.”

A Complicating Factor

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,” 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.”

Maternal Influence

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.”

A Survivor and a Leader

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.”

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