In Thrall to Genius: Alain Locke and the Harlem Renaissance

By serving as a midwife to artists, the "Dean of the Harlem Renaissance" Alain Locke would help foster an art that would stand as a midwife to a better future.

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke
Jeffrey C. Stewart

Oxford University Press

Feb 2018


Any attempt to account for the life and work of Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954) must necessarily confront a biographical conundrum. Often referred to as the "Dean of the Harlem Renaissance" and sometimes even the "Father" of that movement, Locke, along with W.E.B. DuBois, was placed on par with Plato and Aristotle in a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. He often appears on lists of Great African Americans as well as lists of "firsts". He was the first African American Rhodes Scholar and the first black man to earn a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard—DuBois, the first African American Ph.D. from Harvard, earned his degree in History. Howard University, where he worked for the majority of his teaching career, christened a prominent building in his honor and several other schools bear his name. Any discussion of the Harlem Renaissance will find it nearly impossible to omit him from the account.

And yet, the sheer grandeur of that reputation rests almost entirely upon his editorship of and relatively brief introduction to a book of essays, poetry, fiction, and reproductions of artworks that defined the cultural moment: The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925) preceded by the "Harlem" number of the Survey Graphic, containing several of the same essays, from that same year. Compared to the considerable heft of the writings of DuBois, the relative paucity of Locke's output is surprising, perhaps disappointing, and presents a considerable challenge to the historian. There is no doubt that Locke's intellectual influence was essential to the development and shaping of the Harlem Renaissance; but how is one to account for that influence when he produced so little and what he did produce, aside from the introduction to The New Negro, was not widely read in his lifetime and remains unfamiliar today? In his new biography, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke from Oxford University Press, Jeffrey C. Stewart rises to this challenge by producing a thorough and detailed narrative of Locke's life.

Although he longed to do so, Locke never managed to cultivate the persona of the public intellectual in the manner of his idol William James; nor was he able to craft a position as a leader of the black political struggle in the manner of DuBois. Locke's primary contribution seems to have come in the form of his encouragement toward black artists (he described himself as a "midwife" to African American art). He fervently believed that black advancement would derive from an African American aesthetic contribution to society, that what the black voice offered was a newly invigorated view of the world constructed through art. Understanding Locke's impact involves more than an examination of his writings (which actually reveal precious little). While those writings ought not to be cast aside, they must be set in the context of Locke's personal efforts to foster, promote, and promulgate an emergent black aesthetic. This requires an investigation of his many interpersonal relationships, sifting them for some insight into his vision for the future and the role of black people within that future.

Moreover, Locke was a difficult man to know. Preternaturally conservative and reserved, he was also a black homosexual in a time when it was dangerous to be either, much less both. His closest relationship was with his mother. She was his confidante, the catalyst for his productivity (at least in the first half of his life), and he spent a large part of his life cohabitating with her. She was his guardian and, in many ways, his ward. When they were separated while he was at Harvard, he still managed the household financial situation from afar. His mother also (perhaps unwittingly) protected him from the suspicions surrounding a man who obstinately remained a bachelor. As long as he was living with his mother, he had an excuse for being unwed. His actual sex life remained largely obscured from view.

Although a prolific correspondent with his friends and colleagues (and when they were apart, his mother), Locke rarely openly acknowledges his homosexuality (although he becomes increasingly open toward select friends as he aged); indeed, much of his correspondence reveals little about him aside from his intellectual ambitions. In short, many of the characteristics that draw our desire to come to know Locke are precisely those characteristics that are hidden from view. As Locke's biographer, Stewart imaginatively interprets various events in Locke's life, mining them for whatever insight they might provide. At times this provides the kind of critical engagement one longs for in a biography. At other times, one can't help but feel that Stewart conjures up material out of the thinnest of resources and then makes rather outsized claims on Locke's personality and character based on his flights of imagination.

Stewart divides his book into 44 chapters grouped into three parts. Part 1 tracks Locke from his birth through his extensive education and ensconcement at Howard University to just before his mother's death in 1922, when Locke was 37 years old. Throughout, Stewart engages in quite a bit of armchair psychology but that tendency is at its most pronounced in the first third of the book. A spanking delivered to the four- or five-year-old Locke by his father Pliny becomes in Stewart's narrative punishment for the child's nascent homosexuality: "The effeminacy, moreover, in a Black male context legitimated the violence: why not torture the little Black faggot who dared not be masculine?" (30) Stewart claims that the spanking directly leads Locke to feel "the arbitrariness of all moralism, that there was no just God, just simply the rule of force and power." (30)

While one can certainly grant Stewart some hermeneutic leeway when dealing with Locke's childhood, when there are mostly reminiscences to work with rather than direct documentation, this portrayal of the moment not only wanders into the realm of purple prose and outsized claims, it does an injustice to Locke's father who does not appear to have been an authoritarian at all and certainly not given to violence. Locke's fastidiousness at school—his discomfiture with the slightest uncleanliness arising, for instance, from contact with chalk—becomes, for Stewart, "psychologically associated with feces; but here, interestingly, it is 'chalk' Locke is trying to wash off his black body. Normally, one would assume a young hyper-assimilating African American would be trying to wash the black off." (42) Stewart claims that this interpretation is "still operative" but that Locke is also trying to wash the white off of his body. Given the amount of space Stewart devotes to Locke's longing in his youth and early adulthood for identification with his white patrons and friends, this reading seems unjustified.

Similar issues arise with respect to Locke's sexual life. Again, one can understand the dilemma Stewart faced. In the absence of clear documentation, the biographer has little choice but to resort to some form of conjecture. The problem with Stewart's approach is that he makes the assumption of an amorous affair with some figure in Locke's life and then constructs an elaborate scenario with respect to what that presumed affair meant to Locke at that moment, how it shifted his perspective, how it set the course for what Locke would become. The entire edifice, of course, rests upon an affair that may or may not have occurred—certainly at that stage of his life, Locke seemed justifiably reticent in openly revealing what was actually happening in his romantic life. This is the case with Stewart's handling of the relationship between Locke and Carl Downes, a white friend and fellow student at Oxford. Downes and Locke spent a lot of time together, travelled together, were clearly close friends, and very well may have been lovers.

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Stewart is perfectly justified in the speculation. But speculation quickly turns to insistence by the time Downes is set to return to the United States: "The love affair with Downes had been a bulwark against the emotional cruelties of Oxford. His impending departure exposed the crux of Locke's emotional life. He longed for someone who would love him unconditionally as his mother did. Downes was not that person." (158) It is certainly possible that all of this is utterly the case, but the documentation doesn't suggest that it is. Later, in discussing Locke's relationship with a 16-year old boy he mentored (which we are assured was platonic, again without real evidence one way or the other), Stewart claims that sex was "morally neutral" for Locke (318). Yet much of the narrative in this biography would not seem to support this assertion. How are we to judge its accuracy? Moreover, why does Stewart require this rather unlikely notion at this moment? As welcome as Stewart's guidance is throughout the biography, one can't help but wonder what the limits of imaginative reconstruction ought to be in the telling of a life.

In Stewart's narrative there is never any doubt that Locke will emerge a genius and that forces his narrative into a heroic saga that perhaps obscures and even undermines what we might learn from an account of Locke's development. Every minor incident in the child's life, no matter how banal, is mined for every possible interpretive insight and they all point toward the inevitability of Locke's eminence. This, coupled with the fact that the editors of the book failed to excise the many immediate redundancies (there are several pages where a point is made only to be made again, almost with the same words, a mere paragraph later) makes the book overly long and occasionally tedious. Indeed, the editing of the book leaves a lot to be desired. In many places, Stewart refers "back" to a subject that had never been introduced (this happens, for example, in his allusion to the possible attraction Jessie Fauset may have felt for Locke at Harvard—but Stewart never mentioned that Fauset was anywhere near Harvard—p.263) or re-introduces characters after having just done so a few pages earlier (as with the two "introductions" to Horace Kallen on pp.94 and 95). Some names are missing from the index—which is a problem for a book with so many names, many of which will be unfamiliar to most readers.

And yet, despite these criticisms, one can't help but be charmed by Stewart's portrayal of Locke. Locke was a contradictory character and an often-unreliable narrator of his own life, experiences, and motives. Told as a child by his grandmother (Stewart later changes his mind and claims it was the mother) that he ought to stay out of the sun because he was "black enough already" (28), Locke could be disdainful of other blacks, particularly those who did not meet his Victorian standards of behavior, education, and dress. In the first part of the book, Stewart illustrates with many fine and revealing examples how this longing for whiteness impacted Locke's life, enabled (to an extent) his success, and sometimes disappointed him when others would not accept him apart from the color of his skin. In the second part of the book, however, Stewart claims that Locke disparaged Fauset, in part, because she disdained the "darker side of her family, which incensed Locke, who abhorred color consciousness among African Americans." (417) Stewart doesn't note the contradiction (which is a shame insofar as his analysis of it would have been intriguing) but it is revelatory of Locke's divided self-consciousness and the development of his race thinking. It is in his thinking about race that Locke captures the fascination of history and it is in the account of Locke's development in that regard that Stewart's narrative shines brightest. The contradictions of Locke's character and statements are not incidental, they point to the existential work in which Locke was continually engaged. This is the story of the second and third parts of the biography and this story is most likely what those searching for knowledge about Locke are seeking.

Stewart shows that, nearly from the outset, Locke railed against the very notion of the so-called "Negro Problem". When he became the first black man to be awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, Locke bristled at the attention he was getting in the press as a "representative" of his race. Locke wrote: "I did not care for this muddying of a purely personal issue of my life with the race problem—I am not a race problem—I am Alain LeRoy Locke." (105) While at Oxford, Locke ironically had his first strong experience with racial prejudice—many of his fellow Rhodes scholars, particularly those from the South, objected to being placed at the same institution as Locke and openly excluded him from various functions—and this turned his attention more concretely to racial issues. And yet, throughout his life, Locke objected to the notion of reducing the African American to a social problem. Indeed, one might summarize the Lockean approach as follows: the solution to the race problem is to demonstrate that African Americans, no less than whites, are not a "problem" that needs solving but rather a group of individuals who draw upon their experience and their traditions to offer something vital to the country and to the world.

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