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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The quest of social parity is at the core of the early 20th century black movement and the means of its achievement is found in four different areas for the four men who came to define that period of black thought. For Booker T. Washington, the “something vital” that blacks offered was labor. Washington believed that just like the five fingers can be separate and yet all contribute to the power of the hand, so the various social groups could remain separate and yet all be integral to the proper functioning of society as a whole. Washington encouraged blacks to fill those jobs that were considered below the station of whites, not because he believed that blacks ought to accept subservience but rather because he felt there was nobility and necessity in such labor. In this manner, blacks would prove themselves essential to the social fabric of the United States without forcing social integration.

W.E.B. DuBois considered such a position defeatist and perhaps even somewhat hypocritical given Washington’s standing as an intellectual and a civic leader. DuBois believed that it was hardly from common labor that blacks would attain secure footing within the United States and the world, but rather through notable achievement, particularly in intellectual and professional fields—they must succeed as lawyers, doctors, authors, and college professors. Therefore, the industrial education promulgated by Washington would have to be replaced by the classical education of European tradition. If blacks wanted some semblance of social parity with whites, then it was incumbent upon them to demonstrate that they were on par with whites in terms of achievement and intellectual worth. This was the doctrine of the Talented Tenth: recognition for blacks would come through the prominence of a small percentage, the exceptional men among them, as public intellectuals.

Marcus Garvey insisted that there could be no social parity in a country with such an ingrained history of slavery, racism, and socially sanctioned discrimination. Garvey famously claimed that the members of the Ku Klux Klan were a greater friend to the black race than their so-called white allies in that the former readily admitted their prejudice and didn’t offer table scraps of acceptance to keep rebellion and dissent at bay. Garvey advocated flight from the United States. Only in a country of their own, far away from the site of their enslavement, could blacks achieve self-standing. Social parity required radical separation.

Labor, intellectual achievement, or physical flight: these were the solutions to the “Negro Problem” according to Washington, DuBois, and Garvey. Locke offered a fourth option—not to solve the “Negro Problem”, inasmuch as blacks were not problems but individuals, but rather an alternative answer to a deeper question: how ought one to live adequately in a society that continually attempts to make you a problem? In line with Washington, Locke’s approach required craftsmanship and skill. Along with DuBois, Locke insisted that the exceptional talents would lead the way. We might even suggest that Locke’s approach shared the imperative of flight with Garvey but Locke’s was a spiritual, rather than physical, flight. Locke insisted that it was through art that blacks would garner the recognition and social advancement they sought.

At first blush, the notion that social parity for African Americans would derive from artistic achievement strikes the pragmatic American mind as hopelessly misguided and naïve, an attempt to sidestep a real social dilemma and a systemically racist society through an appeal to aesthetic appreciation, i.e., “some of my favorite authors are black.” However, Locke gradually developed a strategy of black representation that raised the stakes for the arts and black contributions to them so that they became not merely an ancillary and pleasant accoutrement to the “real” task of living but rather the arts became the primary public forum for giving form to that life.

At its basis, art is a form-giving enterprise. While content (what an artwork is “about”) cannot be eschewed from aesthetic consideration, content-based aesthetics always fails to explain what makes a novel superior to the Cliff Notes summary. A paraphrase of a poem pales in comparison to the real thing. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that the paraphrase misconstrues the poetic in its attempt to reduce it to content. Whatever its content, an artwork stands forth on the basis of its sensuous form. It occupies a space (even if, with the poem, it is primarily a mental space) in which we confront it, engage it, embrace or reject it. We encounter the presence of the artwork and therein lies its power. The form of the artwork brings into presencing something that cannot be ignored, something that demands our attention and attempts to elicit our affection.

Immanuel Kant, in his famously form-based aesthetics, claims that aesthetic form beguiles the art lover insofar as it enlivens her faculties, reassuring her of her capacity to make sense of the world. The beautiful is non-conceptual. I can’t define in an axiomatic manner what is beautiful in painting X; that is, I cannot offer up an incontrovertible proof of its beauty. And yet, what is beautiful strikes me as making sense. It makes sense beyond the bounds of a restrictive rationality. It is fitting, even if I cannot rationalize the manner in which it is so. One might then go further than Kant and claim that there is a synthetic element to the aesthetic. Whereas logic is analytical (in the sense that it breaks a truth claim into its component parts to verify their validity and then ultimately the validity of the whole), the aesthetic is expansive. It draws in elements of the world that are beyond current modes of thought and rationalization and grants them a standing in the world as things that “make sense”. This is why so many writers, from Pythagoras to Arthur Schopenhauer to Jacques Attali, see art as revealing the numinous realm of Truth beyond our grasp or as adumbrating a mode of existence that impinges upon our present from an ever-approaching future. Art is transformative precisely because it is intrinsically concerned with the act of forming.

For Locke, the aesthetic clarion call to social parity for blacks relied upon the expansive, synthetic quality of aesthetic production and experience. Art involves both self-forming and form-driven comprehension. In making an artwork, the black artist makes present a form of existence that had not been fully realized in society (shades of Attali here). Locke considered himself a “midwife” to the black arts in his support and encouragement of many of the artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance. But art itself is a “midwife” to social advancement in Locke’s eyes insofar as it marshals into ideal, aesthetic being the hopes and demands for social parity, recognition of common humanity, and the achievement of shared aesthetic and practical goals. The mastery of form touted by Kant becomes for Locke the mastery of the Self in relation to an often hostile Other.

On the other hand, art makes demands of those engaging with it. It insists upon its presence, its right to exist. Because we cannot explain it away (art cannot be adequately summarized or paraphrased—ultimately, we must all “see it for ourselves” for it to be art at all), art places a demand upon our time, our attention, our respect. Furthermore, art draws us into collaboration in making it present. Since art cannot be explained as a formula, a definition, or an equation of some sort, it requires a participating recipient for it ontological status. In this sense, the artwork only exists as a nexus among the artist’s efforts, the recipient’s attempts to come to grips with it, and the hazy, mysterious sensuous construct that serves to mediate between them. The industrial or intellectual social advancement promulgated by Washington and DuBois respectively can always be dismissed as not directly involving whites, as being something blacks do “for themselves”. But art requires participation—even when that participation amounts to discomfort or rejection. It insists upon understanding beyond reason, beyond current social mores. Locke’s hope was that art would expand the horizons of how the United States (all of it, black, white, Latino, etc.) saw itself, understood itself, and formed itself. By serving as a midwife to artists, Locke would help foster an art that would stand as a midwife to a better future.

Jeffrey C. Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke is a monumental tribute to Locke’s peculiar genius. It is the most thorough-going and detailed biography of Locke we have or are likely to have for a long time to come. This is a book that will not satisfy readers looking to engage carefully and deeply with Locke’s writing and thought (Stewart has edited two volumes of essays and lectures that are more appropriate for such readers; Race Contacts and Interracial Relations: Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Race, Howard University Press, 1992 and The Critical Temper of Alain Locke — A Selection of his Essays on Art and Culture, Garland, 1984) but for those interested in a scholarly life that was more productive of influence and support than written material, for those fascinated by a man forced to cultivate his homosexuality in an environment that repudiated it, this biography will serve as a welcome entrée into the beguilingly contradictory existence of Alain Locke.