The New Negro: An Interpretation, 1925
Four Negro Poets, 1927
Plays of Negro Life: A Source-Book of Native American Drama, 1927
The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art, 1940
When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts, 1942
A Decade of Negro Self-Expression, 1928
The Negro in America, 1933
The Negro and His Music, 1936
Negro Art: Past and Present, 1936
The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture, 1983 (Jeffrey C. Stewart, editor)
Race Contacts and Interracial Relations: Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Race, 1992 (Stewart, editor)
Alain LeRoy Locke was born in Philadelphia, where he attended Central High School and the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy. In 1907 he graduated from Harvard University after three years of study there. From 1907 to 1910 he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, the first black person to achieve that distinction. Having earned a B.Litt. degree from Oxford, Locke went to the University of Berlin to study philosophy for a year. He returned to Harvard in 1916-1917 in order to write his doctoral thesis, “The Problem of Classification in Theory of Value.” In 1912, before returning to Harvard, Locke had already begun teaching English and philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He taught philosophy at Howard until his retirement in 1953. He also taught as a visiting professor at Fisk University in Nashville, at the University of Wisconsin, in Haiti, and elsewhere.
While at Harvard, Locke studied under William James, professor of philosophy and brother of novelist Henry James. William James espoused a philosophy called pragmatism, which is contrary to Platonic idealism. According to pragmatism, there is no absolute truth or ideal; rather, the truth is constantly changing, so there are many possible truths. James’s pragmatism helped Locke justify his exaltation of African American culture during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. Locke encouraged African Americans to take pride in their culture, which he believed should exist parallel to, and simultaneous with, Anglo American culture. This concept of cultural and philosophical pluralism is the very essence of pragmatism.
Another Harvard professor of philosophy who influenced Locke was Josiah Royce, who taught the importance of group memory and group hope. According to Royce, the strongest communities were populated by individuals who accepted certain past events as a common heritage of all members of the community; likewise, these individuals sought common goals for the future. When Locke applied Royce’s teachings to the African American culture, he concluded that it was natural for black Americans to want to return spiritually and physically to Africa. In the popularity of Marcus Garvey’s movement to take blacks back to Africa, Locke saw the realization of Royce’s theory regarding the community of memory, although Locke recognized Garvey’s obvious flaws. Locke pointed to the Pan-African conferences of his day as further evidence of the intuitive desire of blacks to return to their origin. Locke called Harlem the cradle of black “Zionism” and said that both Jews and blacks had become international citizens as a result of persecution.
Locke is best known for editing a 1925 anthology entitled The New Negro, the vehicle by which he encouraged African Americans to cultivate their own art and culture. Much of the material in the anthology had been published earlier the same year in a special issue of The Survey magazine that was guest-edited by Locke. Among the thirty-eight writers included in The New Negro were the poets Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Countée Cullen. The purpose of The New Negro was to offer a positive, constructive remedy to the wounded self-esteem that African Americans suffered as a result of years of being oppressed and patronized. Locke recognized that by promoting African American art and literature in his anthology, he was treading the fine line between racial separatism and the appeal for acceptance by the majority.
While much of Locke’s philosophy would seem to be populist and democratic, his academic pedigree made it difficult for him to believe that culture was genuinely the domain of the masses. Locke’s cultural elitism recalls that of W. E. B. Du Bois, another African American who received undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard and who also had studied at the University of Berlin. Du Bois was known for his call to “the talented tenth,” the label he gave to the black intelligentsia, who would, he hoped, be the gatekeepers of higher education for African Americans. Given Du Bois’s professed Marxism and his role in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), his cultural elitism is as contradictory as is Locke’s. Nevertheless, both Locke and Du Bois represent a radical departure from the educational philosophy of Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, who promoted African American achievement only insofar as it did not threaten the white power structure.
While a professor at Howard University, Locke proposed that the institution’s traditional curriculum be broadened to include African American studies. In 1915-1916 Howard’s board of trustees denied Locke’s proposal for a course on race relations and another proposal by the faculty for a course on African American issues. In the 1920’s Howard allowed classes in African American history, and the Howard Players staged plays by black dramatists. However, Locke lamented Howard’s insistence on simply duplicating the curriculum offered by the white universities. Locke died in 1954, less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to prohibit racial segregation in public schools, an indication of how far ahead of his time Locke was as an educator and philosopher.