Alain Leroy Locke is perhaps best known as the editor of “The New Negro,” an anthology that is widely viewed as the touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance. In many biographies, Locke is considered the “dean” of this historic era.
Whether he warranted this rank or not, there is no disputing his prominence in the realm of Black social and political thought during his lifetime. Almost from the beginning of his academic career his brilliance was apparent, much of which can be attributed to his parents, both highly educated middle-class professionals in Philadelphia.
There is some dispute, though, about when Locke was born. Most biographies list his birth as Sept. 13, 1886, including such leading authorities as Bruce Kellner. But a noted researcher discovered that Locke was actually born in 1885. Christopher Buck offered a firsthand account of why Locke changed the date, citing that “he may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having future biographies discover that he was registered as white on his birth certificate.”
Esteemed scholar David Levering Lewis, in his engrossing “When Harlem Was in Vogue,” provides another aperture to issues of color in Locke’s life in his discussion of Locke’s grandmother. Lewis wrote that one of Locke’s earliest memories “was his grandmother hanging clothes on the line in a broad bonnet and long white gloves, lest the summer sun darken her light skin, and turning to scold him for playing outdoors when he was already much too dark.”
Obviously, none of her admonitions dissuaded Locke from his determination to be the doyen of African-American culture, a pursuit that was clearly established after leaving Central High School and distinguishing himself as a student at Harvard University.
In 1907, he graduated magna cum laude with Phi Beta Kappa key and subsequently became the first Afro-American Rhodes scholar. His three-year stay in Europe included study in Germany and France. Upon his return, he served as an assistant professor of philosophy and education at Howard University. He obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard in 1918 and returned to Howard to teach and to chair the philosophy department, a post he would hold until 1953.
Locke’s academic acclaim, however, was subsumed by his journalism and editorial successes, and in 1925 when he was invited to edit a special edition about Black America for Survey Graphic, a leading white publication, it was the springboard that vaulted him to the pinnacle of literary recognition. He sliced and spliced the articles from an ensemble of noted African-American artists into “The New Negro,” which, more or less, announced the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance that, in fact, had been in formation at least three or four years before.
The introduction Locke wrote for the special edition in Survey Graphic was retained for the anthology, including his premise on the role of culture in Black attainment and acquiring white appreciation. “If in our lifetime the Negro should not be able to celebrate his full initiation into American democracy, he can at least, on the warrant of these things, celebrate the attainment of a significant and satisfying new phase of group development, and with it a spiritual Coming of Age,” he concluded.
From his post at Howard University and his role among a coterie of emerging artists and intellectuals, Locke was in a key position to select and nurture young aspirants as well as colleagues into the literary world, particularly where they needed a rubber stamp and funding. His relationship with Charlotte Osgood Mason, the renowned patroness of the arts, would be a boon to a succession of writers and artists, among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Aaron Douglas and Richmond Barthe, each of them endorsed by Locke.
In effect, Locke, in a far more material way, had extended DuBois’ idea of the “Talented Tenth” although he was mindful not to be as elitist or haughty in this association. He strode quite deliberately between the corridors of education, the offices of publishers and the less endowed quarters of the world filled with struggling artists. Locke and DuBois had their differences about the Renaissance and the “art versus propaganda” argument, with Locke unwaveringly a proponent of art.
Only with the spate of recent research is there much discussion about gay and lesbian relations during the Harlem Renaissance, and Locke, many writers suggest, would be the key to understanding the extent of homosexuality during the period. Even so, other than a passel of letters, many of them cited by A.B. Christa Schwarz in “Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance,” there is not a definite indication that Locke was gay. “Renaissance leader, Locke,” Schwarz wrote, “a self-identified gay man who displayed a keen interest in sexology, was consulted by various young men regarding sexual problems, many of them related to same-sex desire. Locke offered advice, for instance suggesting to one of his correspondences that ‘repressed homosexualist [sic] emotions and fixations are primarily responsible for your condition.’”
Richard Bruce Nugent, among the notable artists and writers of the Renaissance, was the only one openly gay, and he along with poet Countee Cullen had a very long and productive relationship with Locke; however, nowhere is it conclusive of any homosexuality.
As more research is disclosed, maybe some of these questions will be answered to the satisfaction of the curious. Meanwhile it’s Locke’s scholarship and his generous concern for his students and writers that is most paramount in examining his eventful life and contributions.
Of course, countless essays, articles and reviews flowed from Locke’s pen and typewriter, including his dissertation.
Locke, who adopted the Baha’i faith, died June 9, 1954, in New York City at the age of 68. He was cremated and his remains were interred at historic Congressional Cemetery, where part of the inscription on his tombstone reads, “Herald of the Harlem Renaissance.”