alain locke -- 7/7/22

Today's encore selection -- from Zora and Langston by Yuval Taylor. Alain Locke was a young intellectual who had graduated from Harvard and was the first African American Rhodes scholar at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. It was then that he was tasked with publishing an issue of the Survey Graphic, which was dedicated to highlighting the "New Negro":

"The son of a teacher at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy, Alain Locke had grown up in high Victorian surroundings, and had inherited their fastidiousness. He wore bespoke suits, spoke in a high pitch, and walked quickly, despite his seeming frailty. He graduated from Harvard in 1907 and was the first African American Rhodes scholar, studying first in Oxford and then in Berlin. He received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard in 1918, after which he was chair of the Department of Philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C. ...

"Locke intently promoted black writers, artists, and musicians, encouraging them to depict African and African American people and history. [His anthology] The New Negro has defined the Harlem Renaissance ever since. Yet he was a pompous, supercilious, and frustrated man, holding himself above the rest of his race. His pontifications on the 'peasant mind and imagination' of black spirituals, for example, or his effusions on what he found 'primitive in the American Negro -- his naïveté, his sentimentalism, his exuberance and his improvizing spontaneity,' are condescending, reminiscent of the kind of whites who considered a visit to Harlem an expedition into an uptown jungle.

"By [the] time Locke was thirty-nine years old, [he] had published relatively little. At the 1924 Civic Club dinner, Paul Kellogg, the editor of the monthly magazines Survey Midmonthly and Survey Graphic, which were dedicated to social causes, had called for a special issue of the latter devoted to the 'New Negro'; Charles Johnson regards Alain Locke, who was master of ceremonies at the dinner, as 'a sort of "Dean" of this younger group,' and asked him to edit it. ... Fortunately, Locke embarked upon his task with an assiduousness and energy he had rarely displayed before, traveling to New York frequently not just for meetings with established writers like James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois, but to make friends with the younger generation as well. The special issue was published in March 1925, entitled 'Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro'; 42,000 copies were printed -- double its normal circulation.

"Locke then expanded it into what he would view as the definitive anthology of the movement. Although it has has ever since been cited as the landmark publication of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro, unlike the Survey Graphic issue, was not specifically focused on Harlem; Locke himself had never lived there, nor did many of the contributors, and the book included a great deal of material from and about other places (as well as truly out-of-place reiteration of hoary stereotypes of black people in an essay ostensibly on Negro art penned by the white collector Albert Barnes).

"Instead it focused on what Locke -- and many others -- called the 'Negro Renaissance,' taking a more or less middle-class approach (for example, it devoted a great deal of space to spirituals and none at all to blues). The book, which came out from a major publisher, Albert and Charles Boni, put Locke on the map, as it were, despite his own voluminous and condescending essays in it. ..."



Yuval Taylor


Zora and Langston


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2019 by Yuval Taylor


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