Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance

Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance

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Alain Leroy Locke, philosopher, educator, editor, author and Black gay man was born in Philadelphia in 1885. He died in New York City in 1954, the architect of the renowned 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. DuBois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”

Locke was the editor of magazines and journals that promoted the work of Black writers and artists, among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer and others. He was also the progenitor of the concept “The New Negro,” which, he said, was, “the creative Negro Americans whose art, literature, music, and drama would inspire Black people to greatness.”

Locke wrote, “But even with the rude transplanting of slavery, that uprooted the technical elements of his former culture, the American Negro brought over an emotional inheritance [and] a deep-seated aesthetic endowment.” It was Locke’s belief that there was a transformative element to Black culture and art and that it ran parallel to America’s white cultural history. It was that which Locke wanted to nurture, promote and expand. And it was through the promotion of that concept and the organizing of the work of Black literary voices Locke coalesced that the Harlem Renaissance was born. Locke wrote, “Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid.”

Locke knew about prejudice — it followed him throughout his life — and yet he excelled despite the impact of racism.

Philadelphia imprinted Locke’s early life. His father, Pliny, was the first Black employee of the U.S. Postal Service. His mother, Mary, was a teacher in Camden. Locke credited his mother with his love of literature and his passionate interest in education. Locke’s love for his mother was lifelong, and she was the single most important influence in his life. At her death, rather than have her body displayed in a casket, he had her seated on the sofa — which stunned those who came to pay respects.

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, which was a program for Central High graduates who wanted to become teachers.

From there Locke attended Harvard University, where he studied literature and philosophy with William James, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1907, with degrees in English and philosophy. At that time, fewer than one percent of Ivy League students were Black.

After graduation, Locke traveled to England to study philosophy, Greek and literature at Oxford. He was the first black graduate chosen as a Rhodes scholar and the last Black person to be chosen until 1960. But on his arrival in Oxford, he 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 rooms.

It was at Oxford that Locke was befriended by a group of white gay men, and he would later explore the openness of Weimar Germany in a Berlin rife with gayness — and with gay men eager for Locke’s companionship.

From Oxford, Locke returned to Harvard for yet another degree and then began his long career as a professor at the historically black university, Howard. It was there Locke began his phenomenally important work on race and philosophy.

Locke was an aesthete and his aesthetic education took him to Europe for travel and to be suffused with a different perspective on race from that of the United States. It was there that Locke wooed poet Langston Hughes, who was living in a garret apartment in Paris. Locke turned up at Hughes’ door after a long courtship via letters. Once there he took Hughes — 20 years his junior — under his mentoring wing.

Locke’s gayness was a driving force in his life, leading him to befriend and mentor many young Black gay writers, like Hughes and Countee Cullen. But Locke’s relationships were often one-sided affairs in which he lavished letters and gifts upon the men with whom he was in love, only to discover his feelings were not reciprocated.

A letter to Locke from one of his lovers is brutally honest. “What I am trying to say, Alain,” wrote Robert E. Claybrooks, “is that you excite me in every other area but a sexual one. It has nothing to do with the differences in ages. Of that I’m certain. Perhaps physical contact was precipitated too soon — I don’t know. But I do know, and this I have withheld until now, an intense feeling of nausea accompanied me after the initial affair, and I know it would be repeated each time, if such were to happen again.”

Yet, he did not want for lovers, even if he was unable to forge the kind of lasting relationships he yearned for. His biographer, Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, noted that among Locke’s possessions at his death was a collection of semen samples, stored and marked.

Locke’s gayness was — as was true of most gay men in the early half of the 20th century — a source of conflict. Even as he launched himself into new erotic relationships, Locke feared being outed.

According to his biography, Locke would have parties, but would put a different name on his doorbell: only those who knew the “code” of that particular evening could gain entry. He would never let anyone in who he didn’t know. No plus ones were admitted.

That’s how afraid Locke was of being outed. Locke had been investigated by the FBI because of his work on race and Black culture and within the FBI file obtained for his biography, there were references to Locke’s rumored homosexuality.

Locke’s “search for love as a gay man” had not been detailed prior to Stewart’s exhaustive research and it is one of the most fascinating aspects — and contradictions — of Locke’s life.

Locke created a family of Black artists, writers, dancers, musicians. Locke did what so many LGBTQ people have had to do in their lives: create family when theirs rejects them for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Locke’s search spawned a movement and birthed a Black and gay history that is extraordinary in its vision, breadth and legacy. 

A historical marker stands in front of the house where he was raised at 2221 South 5th Street.


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