Black History Month Spotlight: Alain Locke
It’s Black History Month, so I figured I would share a little bit of the Black history that I do with a little post about a little man with some great big ideas: Alain LeRoy Locke. Locke was a pretty interesting guy: born to educated free Blacks in Philadelphia, he attended Harvard college and then Oxford as the first African American Rhodes Scholar, earned his PhD in philosophy at Harvard. It’s redundant to say he was the “most unique” guy around, but it may have been true: he stood a bit over 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds, he was gay, and he may have converted to the Bahai faith in 1918. He spent most of his life as a philosophy professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but was best known as the intellectual godfather of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
Some readers may have read Locke’s most famous essay, his 1925 Harlem Renaissance manifesto know as “The New Negro.” This brilliant polemic still resonates today, an artistic call to arms for a new, modern form of cultural nationalism, a nationalism that celebrated group heritage, distinction and pride just as it rejected rigid categories of identity, a cultural nationalism that embraced individual aesthetic expression and creative and intellectual collaboration while also venerating tradition and community.
These ideas did not emerge ex nihilo, of course, but developed over time. Before World War I, Locke advanced a more particularist, perhaps less modernist form of cultural nationalism. Locke believed that in order for Black Americans to participate fully in what W.E..B Du Bois would call the “kingdom of culture,” they had to first develop and restore their own unique heritage. And so Locke declared before the Negro Historical Society of Philadelphia, on October 24, 1911:
To have a tradition means to have a separate tradition, to have a culture means to have a special culture, indeed to have a history in any real sense of the word one must have acquired a corporate sense, a racial or national consciousness which segregates and claims one’s past as definitively and legitimately as if it were private property.
Locke believed in the benefits and importance of studying Black history, not just for its own sake (which would be reason enough) but in order to build a foundation for group pride, individual achievement, and community development. Studying history is not only interesting, it’s pragmatic. That’s a great idea too.