Authors: Alain LeRoy Locke

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American philosopher and critic

Identity: African American

Author Works

Edited Texts:

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.{$I[AN]9810001688}{$I[A]Locke, Alain LeRoy}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Locke, Alain LeRoy}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Locke, Alain LeRoy}{$I[tim]1886;Locke, Alain LeRoy}

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.

BibliographyHarris, Leonard and Charles Molesworth. Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008. The focus of this biography is Locke’s writing, and his significance as a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance and as one of the great African American intellectuals. However, his personal life is also discussed in detail, including his childhood, education, work, and political views. This book is essential for anyone interested in Locke or the Harlem Renaissance.Harris, Leonard, ed. The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. A wide-ranging collection of essays on Locke’s philosophical, aesthetic, and sociological contributions.Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. An overview of the time and place.Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. 1981. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 1997. Perhaps the best evocation of the Harlem Renaissance.Linnemann, Russell J., ed. Alain Locke: Reflections on a Modern Renaissance Man. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982. A collection of essays detailing Locke’s achievements in fields from philosophy to folklore. Includes a selected bibliography of Locke’s works.Mason, Ernest D. “Alain Locke.” In Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis. Vol. 51 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. Discusses the influence on Locke of William James, Ralph Barton Perry, and Josiah Royce, his Harvard philosophy professors, and offers an account of Locke’s philosophical differences with Claude McKay, one of the poets anthologized in The New Negro.Posnock, Ross. Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Contrasts the philosophies of Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois regarding the concept of a black intelligentsia.Stewart, Jeffery. Alain Locke: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990. Useful resource to works by and about Locke.Wolters, Raymond. The New Negro on Campus. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. Contains a chapter entitled “James Stanley Durkee and the Rising Tide of Color at Howard University,” which discusses Locke’s academic career, especially his efforts to broaden Howard’s curriculum to include classes on African American culture.
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