Alain Leroy Locke was born in Philadelphia in 1885. He died in New York City in 1954, the architect of the Harlem Renaissance and a figure so massive in black history that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech in 1968, “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”
Locke was the first black Rhodes scholar and the progenitor of the concept of “the New Negro.”
He was also gay.
Locke is the subject of “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” the masterful and definitive biography by Dr. Jeffrey C. Stewart, chair of the Black Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of several major works.
At 1,000 pages and published by Oxford University Press, Stewart’s tome has won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
In its description of Stewart’s book for the award ceremony, the National Book Awards wrote of “a tiny, fastidiously dressed man [who] 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. 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.”
Locke’s “search for love as a gay man” has not been detailed prior to Stewart’s exhaustive research and it is one of the most fascinating aspects — and contradictions — of Locke’s life.
Philadelphia imprinted Locke’s early life. His parents were both descendants of prominent free blacks. His father, Pliny, was the first black employee of the U.S. Postal Service. His mother, Mary, was a teacher. Locke credited her with his love of literature and his passionate interest in education — particularly of other black people. Locke’s love for his mother was the single most important influence in his life.
Locke was a graduate of Philadelphia’s Central High School, where he was second in his class. He also attended the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy, designed for Central High graduates who wanted to become teachers.
From there, Locke attended Harvard University, graduating in 1907 with degrees in English and philosophy. He was the first black graduate chosen as a Rhodes scholar — and the last black person to be chosen until 1960. But upon arriving in Oxford, Locke struggled to find admittance to a college due to the racism of both Oxonians and fellow Rhodes scholars from the American South who refused to study with him or even be in the same room.
From Oxford, Locke began his long career as a professor at the historically black Howard University, and it was there Locke began his most important work on race and philosophy.