Alain LeRoy Locke was a longtime Howard University professor, art critic, writer and philosopher. He is the first Black Rhodes Scholar and considered the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”.
Once known as America’s “Black Mecca,” Harlem is as much a household name as the Harlem Renaissance. However, Locke gave expression to the movement he called “the New Negro” which we now know as the Harlem Renaissance.
During the early 20th century, Locke was a leading black intellectual who supported the Harlem Renaissance. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 13, 1886, to Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke, who were middle class educated professionals.
Locke attended Harvard University in 1904 studying under renowned scholars including Josiah Royce, George Santana, and William James. Locke was studious and excelled at his studies becoming the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.
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Locke returned to the United States in 1912 and became an assistant professor of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His academic career would span four decades. He also joined the newly organized Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
Locke contributions reached beyond the arts, providing answers to a generation of Blacks not born into slavery in search of identity, place and self-expression. Writer and poet Langston Hughes described Locke as “… a little, Brown man with spats and a cultured accent, and a degree from Oxford.”
In March 1986, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”
According to Dr. Jacoby Adeshei Carter, an associate professor of philosophy at Howard University and chair of the university’s philosophy department, a position that Locke also held while there, Locke was temporarily away from Howard University in 1924. “He had a bit of a spat with the university’s president”.
Carter revealed that during that time away, Locke formulated the idea of the New Negro. “He started thinking about what it would look like to have a collection that represented the artistic goings-
“In 1924, he put together a special issue of that journal called Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro. It became the blueprint for what in 1925, would become Locke’s anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation. It marked the second time that the Harlem Renaissance, as an artistic movement, was announced to the world”.
Pluralism, cultural interdependence, race and democracy find expression in how Locke understands the art of the Negro. For Locke, what is important is not so much the racial designation of the artist as it is what the art is about; the subject of the art that has to do with African descended people, Carter added.
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.
Reportedly, while at Howard, Locke was sometimes viewed with suspicion by more traditionally oriented colleagues and administrators because he embraced progressive, avant-garde, which some argue to be unorthodox teaching methods.
He was a guest editor for a periodical called Survey Graphic in 1925. Locke expanded the issue to create a collection of writings from African Americans titled The New Negro, which is now credited as the “first national book” of African America.
Widely regarded as the originator of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, Locke’s 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 and also make efforts to integrate into the larger society and appreciate the customs of other ethnic groups.
He was said to be 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 resolutely resisted any form of elitist behaviour.
According to reports, Locke was a resourceful, intelligent, altruistic, and generous man who managed to serve as a mentor although he was never open about his homosexuality. His sexuality, however, is frequently manifested in his works.
Professor Locke, who encouraged students to look to Africa for inspiration of their works, died on June 9, 1954, in New York City, New York at the age of 68.
Today, elementary schools are named after him in New York, Los Angeles, Indiana, Chicago and West Philadelphia. Locke Hall at Howard University was named after him and he was a recipient of prestigious Bowdoin prize from Phi Beta Kappa fraternity.