Harlem Philosophy: Two Looks at Locke
ALAIN LEROY LOCKE was born in Philadelphia on September 13, 1886 to
Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke. The young Alain attended
the Central High School of Philadelphia and the School of Pedagogy.
Entering Harvard College in 1904, he studied under the celebrated
faculty in philosophy that included Josiah Royce, Hugo Munsterberg,
George Santayana, and William James. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa
and named a Rhodes Scholar in 1907. Locke pursued studies at Hertford
College, Oxford University, from 1907 to 1910, and at the University of
Berlin for the academic year, 1910-1911. He received the Ph.D. degree
from Harvard in 1918 in philosophy after a successful defense of his
dissertation on "Problems of Classification in Theory of Value. [His]
career as a teacher began at Howard University in 1912 and extended over a period of forty-one years.
In 1921, he became Head of the Department of Philosophy and held this position until his retirement in
1953. In that year, Locke was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by Howard
Philosopher and educator, Locke played a central role in the emergence of the literary and aesthetic
movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. One of his most important writings is a paper published in
1944 under the title "Moral Imperatives for World Order.” In this article, Locke strongly proclaimed his
belief that “Realism and idealism should be combined in striking for a world order.” Indeed, he stated
“Skeletal ideals of universal human brotherhood have been in the world a long time and we are further
from tribal savagery and its tribalism because of these ideals. But they are but partial expressions of
what we hope to make them mean and what today's world crisis demands.” Thus, he argued, “The
moral imperatives of a new world order are an internationally limited idea of national sovereignty, a
non-monopolistic and culturally tolerant concept of race and religious loyalties freed of sectarian
Howard University Libraries http://www.founders.howard.edu/Locke.htm
Alain LeRoy Locke
(September 13, 1886 – June 10, 1954)
Alain Locke played an influential role in identifying, nurturing, and publishing the works of young black
artists during the New Negro Movement. His philosophy served as a strong motivating force in keeping
the energy and passion of the Movement at the forefront. Ernest Mason explains that
“…much of the creative work of the period was guided by the ideal of the New Negro which signified a
range of ethical ideals that often emphasized and intensified a higher sense of group and social
cohesiveness. …The writers…literally expected liberation…from their work and were perhaps the first
group of Afro-American writers to believe that art could radically transform the artist and attitudes of
other human beings.” (Dictionary of Literary Biography p.313)
Locke was one of the guiding forces of this new cultural and aesthetic vision.
Alain LeRoy Locke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the only child of Pliny Ishmael Locke and
Mary Hawkins Locke. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended Central High School and the Philadelphia
School of Pedagogy. Locke entered Harvard in 1904 and graduated in 1907 with a distinguished
academic record (magna cum laude), and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
After graduating from Harvard, he studied for three years (1907-1910) at Oxford University in England as
the first black Rhodes Scholar. Upon his graduation from Oxford, he spent one year pursing advanced
work in philosophy at the University of Berlin.
Alain Locke began his career at Howard University in 1912 as an Assistant Professor of English and
Philosophy. His tenure was briefly broken in 1916 when he left to pursue his doctorate degree at
Harvard University, eventually receiving that degree in 1918. Locke returned to Howard University in
1918 as Professor of Philosophy and remained at the University until he retired in 1952.
Locke’s involvement with the Renaissance touched a number of areas. Not only was he involved with
the visual arts and literature, but he was directly involved with the theatre movement through his
association with the Theatre Arts Monthly, the Howard University Players (one of the earliest Little
Theatre Groups among blacks), and with his collaborations with Montgomery Gregory. One such
collaboration with Gregory resulted in the drama anthology, Plays of Negro Life (1927).
To varying degrees, Locke encouraged young black writers, scholars and artists of the New Negro
Movement; and he served as a mentor to many of them. His philosophy of the New Negro was
grounded in the concept of race-building.
Nathan Huggins in his book, Harlem Renaissance, states:
“…Alain Locke believed that the profound changes in the American Negro had to do with the freeing of
himself from the fictions of his past and the rediscovery of himself. He had to put away the protective
coloring of the mimicking minstrel and find himself as he really was. And thus the new militancy was a
self-assertion as well as an assertion of the validity of the race.
“…Locke could not promise that the race would win the long-desired end of material progress, but the
enrichment of life through art and letters would be an ample achievement. What is more, the Negro
would be a people rather than a problem.” (pp. 59-60)
cover of the Survey Graphic March 1925 issue, courtesy of the University of Virginia Locke edited Core
CollectionThe New Negro, an anthology which was published in 1925 and is sometimes referred to as
the manifesto of the New Negro Movement. This anthology had its origin as a special issue (March 1925)
of the Survey Graphic magazine, which was devoted entirely to Harlem.
This respected magazine devoted a full issue to “express the progressive spirit of contemporary Negro
life.” This issue became the most widely read in the magazine’s history. In the words of Steven Watson,
“The issue’s contents drew upon poets, illustrators, and essayists, but it was firmly governed by Locke’s
cultural agenda. (Watson, p.28) Locke emphasized that the spirit of the young writers who were a part
of this anthology would drive the Harlem Renaissance by focusing on the African roots of black art and
music. Five of his essays were included in the anthology.
Locke energetically supported and was a staunch advocate for the black visual arts. He firmly believed
that the black artist should draw from the roots of his African heritage for themes reflected in his works.
He referred to this as “their own racial milieu as a special province.” ("The American Negro Artist," p.
214) Those who explored these themes were referred to as the Africanists or Neo-Primitives. Locke felt
that this group of visual artists carried “the burden of the campaign for a so-called ‘Negro Art.’ ” (“The
American Negro Artists”, p. 215) Locke defined the Africanists as those artists who derived their
inspiration from the principles of African design.
During the 1920’s and 30’s, a few of the younger artists that worked in this vein included Hale Woodruff,
James Lesesne Wells, Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthé, and Sargent Johnson. In fact, Locked rated
James Wells as one of the most promising of these younger black artists, and “Aaron Douglas…deserves
to be called the pioneer of the African Style among the American Negro artists.” (“The American Negro
Artist,” p. 218)
Locke’s “Africanist” approach was not only limited to the visual arts. He emphasized that the future of
Black drama depended on the development of the folk play. In his words: “Negro drama must grow in its
own soil and cultivate its own intrinsic elements; only in this way can it become truly organic, and cease
being a rootless derivative.” (Theatre Arts Monthly 10, p. 703)
He encouraged the dramatists, like other artists, to turn back for dramatic material to their ancestral
sources and draw upon African life and tradition. During the Renaissance, black drama was in its infancy
stage and it was prime for exploring the rich resources of African material. By embracing the folklore,
art-idioms, and symbols of African material, drama was sure to flourish as its sister arts had done.
Alain LeRoy Locke made a profound contribution to the philosophy, art, and culture of American society.
African Americans are direct beneficiaries of his efforts.
DC Library http://dclibrarylabs.org/blkren/bios/lockea.html