Harlem Renaissance Man

So for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be “kept down,” or “in his place,” or “helped up,” to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden. The thinking Negro even has been induced to share this same general attitude, to focus his attention on controversial issues, to see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.

—Alain Locke, The New Negro (1925)

Nine-hundred-plus pages seems outsize for a brief to restore the reputation of someone as small in stature and as hard to appraise as Alain LeRoy Locke. Though still known today as father of the Harlem Renaissance and mentor to such seminal black artists as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer, Locke, in life and death, has been a mercurial, elusive figure to fix precisely in historic and behavioral terms. He could be very nurturing but also devious, even vindictive, toward those he helped make famous. He was elitist in his literary and artistic preferences, yet also remains one of the most eloquent proponents of cultural pluralism. He was ardent and at times reckless in his pursuit of love with other men, and never lacked for company on his travels or in his salons. Yet the one person he seemed truly close to was his doting widowed mother Mary, whose passing was marked in 1922 by a legendary wake at which her son had, bizarrely, propped her fully dressed and coiffed corpse up on the parlor couch of their Washington, DC, home “as though she might lean and pour tea at any moment.” Even his ashes—he died in 1954 at age sixty-eight—were in dispute or limbo until they were finally interred in DC’s Congressional Cemetery in 2014.

So maybe it’s appropriate that Jeffrey C. Stewart’s comprehensive, sometimes overwhelming, but ultimately indispensable biography, which takes its title from Locke’s most enduring literary artifact, his deeply influential 1925 anthology of black literature and art, goes all out in its effort to bring its subject to his rightful place among such great “race men” of the early twentieth century as Locke’s onetime idol Booker T. Washington and Washington’s frequent adversary W. E. B. Du Bois. A race man, as defined within the African American community, is someone committed through his work and words to “lift up” his people toward broader opportunity and greater realization of their collective potential. One comes away from Stewart’s The New Negro believing Locke to have become such a race man in spite of his own impulses.

He was a precocious, inquisitive, and somewhat finicky child growing up in late-nineteenth-century Philadelphia, where he was instilled with the refined cultural tastes and aspirations of the black middle class, though without its relative economic security. Thus he inherited from his mother, whose annual schoolteacher’s salary came to a “measly” four hundred dollars, “bitterness toward the wealthier if somewhat less sophisticated members of the Black bourgeoisie” and condescension toward “less fortunate Blacks.” Locke carried this uneasy legacy of his “Black Victorian” upbringing to Harvard University; he was surprised, as he noted in a letter home to his mother, to find so many “coons” in Boston. Such disparaging remarks disclosed what Stewart notes as Locke’s insecurity with being black and middle-class among those he viewed as “less sophisticated” members of his own race, even among some of his fellow black Harvard students. He never denied his racial background but began acting out what would become a lifelong impulse to challenge others’ expectations of black deportment and mannerism.

Around the Cambridge streets at the turn of the twentieth century, Locke thus became the archetype of a “Black dandy whose gray coat ‘and gloves’ updated Beau Brummell’s signature preference for the more severe black suit and cane.” Stewart believes Locke sensed that “race was essentially a performance” rather than biological category. The “New Negro,” in image if not yet in substance, was making his debut, though not in the most hospitable of times. Locke was beginning to make his way in the world as an erudite, sophisticated, and unapologetically gay African American intellectual during a dangerously segregated era when, in some parts of the country, even looking at a white person the wrong way could get you killed. Locke’s foppishness was an outward rebellion against this tide. But it was through his intellectual growth that he forged his vision of cultural transcendence. Stewart’s biography is most illuminating when it traces the tangled path of Locke’s awakening as a scholar and aesthete.

Locke’s undergraduate essays on Romanticism and the Prometheus myth suggest to his biographer the first strong signals of his subject’s yearning for “an African American renaissance that would be sufficiently creative and androgynous for both his aesthetic sense and his sexual orientation to be nurtured within it.” After he was named the first black Rhodes Scholar, in 1907 (upon completing his four-year degree requirements in three years), Locke stepped up his immersion in cosmopolitan culture. In London, he was demeaned by the racism of his fellow Rhodes Scholars, who tried to exclude him from lunch with the US ambassador to England, and he was stung by Oxford’s dismissal of his philosophy thesis. Undaunted, he pursued his education in Italy and Germany, then returned home to get a Harvard doctorate and later a teaching post at DC’s historically black Howard University, whose philosophy department he would lead for the rest of his life.

In the waning years of World War I and immediately afterward, Locke began establishing his reputation as a literary critic, editor, and patron of black talent. At a DC salon hosted in 1920 by black poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, Locke met Jean Toomer, the fair-skinned black poet and novelist. In Toomer’s writing—especially the 1923 impressionist masterwork Cane—Locke found a sensibility modernist enough to stand with the most innovative of post–World War I art being produced in America and Europe. Toomer not long afterward drifted toward G. I. Gurdjieff’s religious doctrines and away from the “complexity of his vision” about race. (Stewart finds no explanation for this transition beyond a suggestive fragment in Locke’s papers that alludes to “spoiling” Toomer.) Less ambiguous were Locke’s relationships with the era’s most celebrated young poets, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. In Cullen’s case, Locke’s advances were reciprocated; things were more complicated with Hughes, who in the summer of 1924 rebuffed Locke’s desire for a deeper romantic commitment.

By this time, Locke had augmented his own inquiries into the writing, artwork, and artistry by and about Black America emerging in the 1920s with trips to Europe and Egypt that would coalesce into the vision he would articulate as part of a March 1925 special issue of the Survey Graphic literary magazine, whose contents included poetry, prose, and paintings attesting to an artistic bloom centered in Harlem.

In his “New Negro” essay, Locke laid out challenges to the racial status quo that were rooted more in aesthetics than in economic advancement or political engagement. What he sought was a transformation in the way black people were seen, and in the way they saw themselves. At the start of the century, the dueling strategies for black advancement in a cruelly segregated era pitted Booker T. Washington, who advocated accommodation with powerful whites as a means of securing economic and educational advancement, against W. E. B. Du Bois, who insisted on a more militant stance of civil rights protest and direct action. Embedded in both of these approaches, as Locke saw them, were views of “the Negro” as reductive as those of white racists:

The Negro today wishes to be known for what he is, even in his faults and shortcomings, and scorns a craven and precarious survival at the price of seeming to be what he is not. He resents being spoken of as a social ward or minor, even by his own, and to being regarded a chronic patient for the sociological clinic, the sick man of American Democracy.

Only art, poetry, music, and “the beautiful and the sublime,” Locke wrote, could “transform the image of the Negro from a poor relation of the American family to that of the premier creator of American culture.” The poems, paintings, stories, and essays in the Survey Graphic issue would make up the content of Locke’s The New Negro anthology, commemorating what seemed at the time a transformative moment for America and its chronically misperceived and mistreated descendants of slaves.

It still inspires, though it’s not perfect: One wishes Locke had been more attentive to the blues recordings of Bessie Smith, the inventive jazz arrangements of Fletcher Henderson, and the insurgent trumpeting of Louis Armstrong in that same decade. (Later, however, Locke would extol Duke Ellington for expanding his range beyond “purely commercial” music to include “enigmatic, complex compositions” such as 1943’s “Black, Brown and Beige.”)

By the late ’20s, Locke had established a psychic and financial bond with Charlotte Mason, a wealthy white patron with visions of a Harlem-based center of African art. Theirs was an odd alliance: On the one hand, Locke had found someone to whom he could be the “loving child” he’d been with his late mother, and from whom he could obtain financial support for his enterprises and those of Hughes, Hurston, and others he had encouraged; on the other, she could exploit Locke with what Stewart characterizes as her “maternalistic approach.” Their relationship was both mutually beneficial and mutually calculating. “Mother Mason” proved to be Locke’s match in the ability to schmooze, negotiate, and manipulate others to get what she wanted. Their friendship somehow withstood their respective struggles for control. But other shared associations, with Hughes and Hurston for instance, were strained, seemingly beyond repair.

Meanwhile the renaissance proclaimed by The New Negro couldn’t withstand the effects of the Great Depression. The Harlem race riot of 1935 signified the decade’s shift from aesthetic to sociopolitical concerns. Locke could adjust to the times; where once he favored the purely aesthetic in black art, he now endorsed the “searing, cutting, angry” fiction of Richard Wright as a newer means of providing poor, desperate African Americans with “self-emancipation.” He continued to teach, write, and travel, and to search for the romantic fulfillment that remained elusive till his death. Stewart’s account of those final years is as exhaustively detailed and as rigorously attentive to Locke’s mood swings, flirtations, flings, and ambitions as it is when examining his youth.

In all, there’s as much to appreciate about Locke as there is to lament. What you admire most is how this fastidious man with emotions as fragile as his frame had enough iron in his intellect to retain, in the face of white racism in all its variations, a conviction that art and beauty have the power to change the world. In our dismal present, when Difference-with-a-capital-D remains what white Americans tend to notice before they assess intelligence, ideas, and ability, when merely asserting that black lives matter can in some circles be taken as a terrorist threat, Stewart’s sprawling, magisterial labor of love comes as a reminder that in those Birth of a Nation days a century ago, when race relations were far worse than they are now, a fiercely independent philosopher of color set down visions of black American freedom beyond economic agendas, nationalist visions, and political protest. This book draws Alain Locke out of the shadows and bestows his legacy to artists of all colors and genders seeking freedom from narrow-minded expectations and fear-mongering hypocrisy. If there’s any regret that reverberates, it’s that Locke was unable, or unwilling, to pursue his aesthetic vision. His breadth of experience, coupled with a deep well of painful grievances and hard-won perceptions, could have brought forth his own poetry, fiction, or drama. In those early-twentieth-century years of peril and promise for African Americans, a coffee-colored dandy deploying witty aphorisms and spinning intellectual fables could have changed as many minds and transformed as many paradigms as Locke’s criticism and patronage. But as The New Negro thoroughly shows, Locke did the best he could, and it was just enough.

Gene Seymour is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.