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A masterful study of the "dean" of the Harlem Renaissance

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke - Jeffrey C. Stewart

Though regarded as the "dean" of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke's name is not one that usually comes to mind when most people think of the movement. Yet it was the Philadelphia-born philosopher who provided much of the intellectual framework for it, most notably with his concept of the "New Negro." That Jeffrey Stewart uses the name as the title for his in-depth biography of Locke both highlights its role in defining Locke's legacy and the degree to which it was a product of Locke's own life and experiences.

 

The only child of middle-class parents, Locke grew up in Gilded Age Philadelphia. Stewart stresses the predominant role Locke's mother Mary played in his life, particularly in inculcating a passion for education. Graduating from Harvard, Locke became a celebrity among African Americans by becoming the nation's first black Rhodes scholar, though he was frustrated in his efforts to complete his degree there. Returning to America, he started teaching at Howard University, moving from education to philosophy after earning his doctorate at Harvard. Yet it was his work on race that would endure, particularly with his promotion of African and African-American culture in both art and literature. Though the Renaissance as a movement declined by the end of the 1920s, Locke had succeeded in redefining African American identity in ways that embraced their heritage while reaffirming its place in American life.

 

Locke's role in this has long deserved its due, and Stewart has provided it. His biography provides readers with a deeply perceptive study of Locke's life and achievements, one that situates them both within his time and the circumstances of his life. His is especially good at describing the central role Locke's homosexuality played in his life, which is no small achievement considering the degree to which such matters often went unspoken back then. That doing so requires a degree of supposition on Stewart's part is understandable, but his judgments are reasoned and well-argued. Together it makes for a masterful achievement, one that gives Locke the recognition he deserves for his many achievements.