"A tiny, fastidiously dressed man emerged from Black Philadelphia around the turn of the century to mentor a generation of young artists including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jacob Lawrence and call them the New Negro--the creative African Americans whose art, literature, music, and drama would inspire Black people to greatness. In The New Negro : The Life of Alain Locke, Jeffrey C. Stewart offers the definitive biography of the father of the Harlem Renaissance, based on the extant primary sources of his life and on interviews with those who knew him personally. He narrates the education of Locke, including his becoming the first African American Rhodes Scholar and earning a PhD in philosophy at Harvard University, and his long career as a professor at Howard University. Locke also received a cosmopolitan, aesthetic education through his travels in continental Europe, where he came to appreciate the beauty of art and experienced a freedom unknown to him in the United States. And yet he became most closely associated with the flowering of Black culture in Jazz Age America and his promotion of the literary and artistic work of African Americans as the quintessential creations of American modernism. In the process he looked to Africa to find the proud and beautiful roots of the race. Shifting the discussion of race from politics and economics to the arts, he helped establish the idea that Black urban communities could be crucibles of creativity. Stewart explores both Locke's professional and private life, including his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his white patrons, as well as his lifelong search for love as a gay man. Stewart's thought-provoking biography recreates the worlds of this illustrious, enigmatic man who, in promoting the cultural heritage of Black people, became--in the process--a New Negro himself"--
Interestingly, he lived life as a closeted homosexual. His love life was marked with instability as he moved from one lover to another. He fed off the energy that his lovers provided to him, but he was about 80 years too soon for stable homosexual relationships. I ponder what kind of impact Locke might have in contemporary society with the dual-minority status as black and gay.
This book is a long book – 944 pages. Although Stewart deals with intellectual issues with care (as one should with a philosopher), I wonder whether a 600-page book (with tightened prose and a more rapid narrative) might have an even greater effect in the marketplace. But then again, this book did win the National Book Award, so Stewart can’t be too far off.
For me, this book provided an exposure to the pre-civil-rights lives of African Americans. Its focus is not on the American South (where I live), but on the urban North. Locke mainly aimed to provide inspiration of black voices in cities. Nonetheless, he lived in DC under segregated conditions. He never lived to see the freedoms of cultural integration. However, he did anticipate such movements and sought to promulgate its effect through art. This art tied back to Africa as its source and used African forms as its methodology. Like many a black intellectual, he was tired of judging success from the vantage point of the white European tradition.
Was Locke effective? When one considers the scope of the last 100 years of American history, one cannot help but say yes, Locke was effective. Black artistry – both in its refined sense and also in its popular sense – dominates the American cultural landscape. It resides in the mainstream of culture, and its sophistication has led to the acceptance of blacks into that mainstream. Stewart leaves us with the (correct) impression that Locke would be proud of the legacy he helped to leave for his country and his people.
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 accomplishments.