In 1925, Alain Locke published his famous anthology entitled The New Negro. In the essay he wrote to frame the moment as he saw it, also entitled "The New Negro," Locke described the landscape of Harlem as filled by different notions of what it meant to be a black American. In many renderings of this moment, historians and intellectuals remember the Renaissance as typified by disagreements and antagonism. However, this project ascribes to Locke's rendering of this movement. Rather than understanding these seemingly disjointed expressions of life as distractions from a unified black American agenda, this project understands this diversity as the catalyst of the movement and wealth to black American history.
The reason why Locke is a reliable figure to evoke for this study has much to do with his upbringing and professional success. Alain Leroy Locke was born on September 13, 1886 to Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke in Philadelphia, PA. As a child, young Locke attended Central High School in Philadelphia. As a young man, Locke's life seemed set aside for greatness as he excelled as both a leader and a scholar. After high school, Locke enrolled in Harvard College in 1904 as a student of philosophy to be spurred on by prolific minds such as Josiah Royce, Hugo Munsterberg, George Santayana and William James.(www.alainlocke.com)
By the time he finished schooling, he had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, been named a Rhodes Scholar at Pennsylvania, studied at Oxford University and achieved a Ph.D in philosophy from Harvard University. (Locke, New Negro: 415) As time would show, Locke would carry these successes into helping define an emerging shift in the way black Americans would define themselves. The summation of such a storied career won Locke a professorship at at Howard University from 1912-1925.
Locke's major contribution to the world of black art and letters came primarily in his work as a writer and anthologist. As a writer, he wrote many influential articles such as "The New Negro", "Negro Youth Speaks", "The Negro Spirituals" and "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts," all of which were published in his groundbreaking anthology The New Negro.
These works shaped the manner in which black American artists and academics viewed themselves, emphasized both the humanness inherent in black people through reference to the diversity of voices and talents in black America and indeed their essential connection through "legacy" to the African continent. He also authored a book entitled Race Contacts and Interracial Relations, 1916.
Locke's deft at articulating a dominant feeling among black Americans manifests itself most notably in his essay "The New Negro". As this was also the title for his famous anthology, he used this essay to draw out themes in the varied works he anthologized. This tactic helped him to articulate his notion of black America as a symbiotic continuum which he saw most evident in the development of black Harlem.
Locke's primary goal in the essay "The New Negro" is to migrate from monolithic notions of an "Old Negro", as well as from the exhausted frameworks of bourgeois intellectual black leadership toward an idea that gives creative agency and credibility to the "rank and file" of Negro life (Locke, New Negro: 6). His motive here is to posit the idea of a "New Negro" as a means of rediscovering individuality of voice in the context of community.
He employs metaphors of movement to represent that this New Negro "transformation" is an essentially American phenomenon of reinvention through transplanting. Locke's essential project is one that seeks to expand the parameters of what is Negro leadership. Locke essentially debunks the way Americans remember the Negro past in order to redefine and relocate what leadership is as well as who is eligible to lead.
In order to unpack these propositions, one must ask both what role the Old Negro plays in the production and presentation of the New Negro, as well as what is it that makes this movement distinctly American. We can find answers to this question through viewing how Locke sets out to represent the nature of this novelty.
Interestingly, Locke posits monolithic notions of the "Old Negro" as "more myth than a man" and the blind acceptance of this "formula" against ideas of "the thinking Negro" and the true diversity of actual human beings (Locke, 3). This move is significant because Locke uses this idea to create space for a more accurate representation of the Negro community in light of the antecedent ideological poles of the moral leadership and imaged blackness.
He works from the established leadership of the "Sociologist, the Philanthropist, the Race Leader" and states that such individuals have in their laps a "changeling"(Locke, 3). This language denotes a shift in the focus of the African-American uplift project from a trickle-down notion to a more inclusive, more corporeal effort.
A useful moment that evidences what Locke is doing in this essay is the light in which he casts Garveyism. To the likes of Dubois and other black intellectuals, Garvey was nearly embarassing to their tradition of respectability and moral suasion. Strikingly, Locke states that though fleeting and ostentatious, Garveyism's focus on "the possible role of the American Negro" in "the future development of Africa" is both "one of the most constructive" and "universally helpful missions that any modern people can lay claim to."(Locke, 15)
He continues from this point to talk about "constructive participation" and "group incentives" as means to incorporate this controversial yet undeniably relevant voice into the greater fabric of black American leadership. Given that Garvey was viewed so poorly by bourgeouis leadership because he favored loyalty over skill, for Locke to cast him in a favorable if not positive light, while himself a part of the bourgeouis intellectual class, worked to expand the notions of what was credible black leadership.
A useful interpretive metaphor to describe this phenomenon is that of the Biblical sense of a "body". In this respect, cabarets, churches, black intellectuals, artists, the working class and Harlem's assorted professionals were all a part of one continuous corpus. The significance of this metaphor is in how it suggests that the Negro race is only "fitted and held together" by "what every joint supplies"1. Consequently, the "peasant" and the "professional" were equally valuable and necessary to the success of Harlem. Locke contends that Harlem's ability to help the diverse portions of Negro life to find one another was indeed its greatest wealth.
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