Book Excerpt – The Works Of Alain Locke

The Works Of Alain Locke
by Charles Molesworth

    Publication Date: Jul 10, 2012
    List Price: $51.00
    Format: Hardcover, 624 pages
    Classification: Fiction
    ISBN13: 9780199795048
    Imprint: Oxford University Press
    Publisher: Oxford University Press
    Parent Company: University of Oxford

    Read a Description of The Works Of Alain Locke

    Copyright © 2012 Oxford University Press/Charles Molesworth No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.


         Alain Locke established his intellectual brilliance by a lifetime of study and teaching. This included earning an award laden undergraduate degree from Harvard. He capped this off with a Rhodes Scholarship, the first awarded to an African American, providing him three years of further study at Oxford. As World War I was ending, he finished his Ph. D. in Philosophy at Harvard, turning in a dissertation based on the classification of theories about value. For forty years he taught philosophy at Howard University, where he influenced generations of students, and several distinguished writers as well. His brilliance in this regard, however, was outshone by his rarest ability: thinking beyond the bounds of traditional academic disciplines. Through his friendship and collaboration with other intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Charles S. Johnson, he spearheaded the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s, and went on to make notable contributions writing about society and history for the next three decades. He shaped convincing and lasting arguments about all aspects of African American culture, chiefly its literature and its visual and performing arts, while formulating significant ideas about value theory, adult education, and democracy. A A public intellectual in the tradition of American pragmatism, Locke wrote and thought as a polymath. He constantly crossed and expanded boundaries with a mind and a pen in a way that has made him recognized today not only as the most exquisitely educated African American of his generation, but as an indispensable figure in the intellectual history of America.

         Locke produced throughout his career essays that were constantly on a high level: groundbreaking yet straightforward, nuanced when necessary, and virtually uncomplicated by personal whim or stylistic drama, they proceeded with an obvious desire to be read and for their ideas to be put to the test. One of his central accomplishments rests on his decision, taken at Oxford and reaffirmed in the years following, to put his learning especially at the service of African Americans, but more broadly for all those who valued critical reflection, toleration and steady intelligence. When one reads and considers all of essays in the many fields where he ventured, a picture appears of a unique and uniquely valuable thinker, a man who articulated important and nuanced ideas about the multiple interrelations between race, value, and culture.

         Locke’s highest point of fame and influence in his lifetime occurred during the Harlem Renaissance, the values and concerns of which he helped formulate and influence. Sharing the spotlight with his peers, Locke dramatized, by the selections he made for The New Negro (1925), what he and others saw as a set of new developments in the cultural world of African Americans. His keynote essay introduced the volume with a clarion call for cultural re-energizing and a subtle analysis of the then current state of African American society and its political possibilities. The important idea behind the Renaissance was that African Americans would no longer see themselves as a social “problem,” but instead would start or accelerate, largely through cultural expressions, the long process of becoming autonomous, and thus not only politically equal but modern and secular. Virtually everything Locke wrote embodied the spirit of this movement. Eventually, however, Locke became, along with others, concerned about the spectacle that the Renaissance threatened to become, as speak-easies competed with libraries. The Depression and the decades following put paid to the account in any case, as the ability of African American artists to make a living and be supported by a discerning audience shrank drastically. Still, a debate ensued over whether there was profit or loss in the final tally. Locke was divided on this point, as on many others. He returned to the department of Philosophy at Howard University for the next three decades, and there he decided to seek many of the same goals by different means.

         Like other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, Locke displayed his talent both before and after the heydays of the early 1920’s. His excellence in a wide range of other forums began early and continued late, long past the days when the Renaissance was flourishing. Working in the mode of the public intellectual, Locke used his powers of mind to advance clear and useful arguments for the most progressive social forces. This meant working with an ongoing awareness of the community, and if he were to become part of what Du Bois described as the “talented tenth,” he would do so with the requisite honesty and humility. Locke was not unique in regards his desire to reach a wide and diverse audience, but he surpassed his contemporaries through his broad range of interests and commitments. Always hard to classify, he refused to be a member of any sect, and yet returned constantly to a set of clear principles. These principles he shared with, and drew from, the American pragmatists, John Dewey especially. But his use of African American traditions of thought and culture were equally important to him. One of his distinguishing principles rested on the need to always honor the past, what he called “ancestry,” suggesting both an African context and an American one. Though he eschewed the label of professional philosopher, he taught the subject in the academy for four decades, preferring the realms of the arts for his most secure placement. Too modest to equate himself with poets and novelists, or musicians and dramatists, he nevertheless spoke to and about them with authority and inward comprehension. His striking self-confidence as a writer began as early as his undergraduate writings about literature.


         Locke began the development of his literary sensibility “ in some ways the key to all his writings “ as an undergraduate at Harvard in the class of 1907. At the start, he praised a literary forebear with his essay on Paul Laurence Dunbar, marking the recent passing of the poet then best known for his dialect poems by expanding the context in which his work should be considered. Locke argued “in all that has been written about the Negro since Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and even in that to a certain extent, the true Negro has been conspicuous by his absence.” He boldly and directly admonished his African American audience that when they read Dunbar’s poetry, “you should recognize your race traditions in it, and first be humbled, and then thoughtful, and then be proud.” After this complex admonition, Locke raised one of his central themes of his career by insisting that “you can’t pay for civilization except by becoming civilized, you can’t pay for the English language and its benefits except by contributing to it in a permanent endowment of literature.” With words like “benefits” and “endowment,” Locke signaled his idealistic approach to literature, which he saw as the embodiment of the striving for the values of self-improvement. The self could be improved, however, only if the community strove equally with its artists and spokesmen; shared pride had to be preceded by recognizing and reflecting on the traditions that served to unify the group.

         Locke was equally attracted to the traditions of English Romanticism, writing a prize-winning essay at Harvard on Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His tastes were molded in large part through the subjective intensity of Romanticism and the ordered discipline of Classicism, consonant with his life long habit of mind by which he reconciled opposing ideas and built from them a coherent composite. Other early essays written at Harvard, treating the poetry of John Keats and the myth of Prometheus, announced a commitment to the role of artistic forebears that anticipated “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the canonical essay by T. S. Eliot, who was in the Harvard class one year behind Locke. Locke summed up his reading of the Prometheus myth by reflecting on the self-sustaining and self-enclosed traditions of great literature. “If the study of literary tradition can show that the succession of interpretation and reinterpretation in literature is the perpetuation of truth, if it can demonstrate that the forms of literary symbolism are means to this end,” he argued, then “it has answered its own question and has proved the evolution of literature.” Literature had a crucial role to fulfill in establishing and continuing the pride of the group, in large part through its self-sustaining and self-refining use of tradition throughout the generations, as signaled by the use of the metaphor of evolution. Traditional in his taste, Locke also absorbed new forces in culture, and through his extended education at Oxford and Berlin, Locke came into direct contact with the emerging esthetic disputes around modernism.

         After returning to America from four years of study abroad, during which time he debated newly emerging literary and artistic issues and studied models and controversies with deep engagement, Locke dedicated his intellectual and critical gifts to advancing the status of African Americans. This did not mean, however, that he regarded art’s role as only that of “racial uplift.” Of course, such a call for ennobling, or at least non-degrading, treatment and subject matter had become the reigning justification advanced by many of his contemporaries, fellow African American critics and commentators in the various artistic disciplines. But because of his elaborate literary education, Locke saw things differently. He wrote poetry, but circulated it only among friends. (Very few examples survive, all of them fragmentary.) More important, he befriended, supported, and wrote reviews and introductions for writers from across the spectrum, including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and others. More than once disputes occurred that strained these relations. Locke kept faith, however, with those he felt were truly gifted and reviewed their works dispassionately in his annual review essays. In all of his reviews he steered away both from Du Bois’s call for propaganda and Hughes’s insistence on a demotic idiom. For Locke, the call for racial uplift was too formulaic, too easy to use as a cover for insipidity or timidity.

         While at Oxford Locke published his first two essays, “Oxford by a Negro Student” (1909) and “The American Temperament” (1911), and so began the process of developing a form of cultural criticism that reflected the literary values and models he had studied at Harvard. “The American Temperament” is an impressive essay for an author then only twenty-six years old, this study of the American as a new kind of cultural personality “ manifesting traits that were taken as “second nature,” such as the penchant for expressing public opinion violently and impulsively, and “the plastic and tentative nature of our institutions and our ideas” “ belongs with many other similar attempts by various authors, perhaps most notably Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” and Henry James’s “The American Scene.” The style of this essay breathes a bit of Oxfordian finesse, and Locke seldom if ever reverted to its special kind of elaborate rhetoric. His tone conveys the sense of a pronouncement, complete with “after all’s” and a sense of prophecy:

    America is wise, after all, in preferring to remain artless and unenlightened rather than accept contemporary art as a serious expression of itself…. To force an art first to digest its civilization in all its crude lumpiness is, after all, a good and sound procedure, and it is safe to prophesy that in America either the result will be representative and unique or that there will emerge no national art at all.

    Driven in part by his having been more or less propelled into contact with the British character by his experience at Oxford, Locke was thrown back on his own country’s culture, a common experience for first time travelers overseas. Though his conclusions about the American temperament are not strikingly original “ he sees a monetary spirit beginning to dominate other strengths “ the essay nicely exemplifies Locke’s ability to combine different frames of discourse in order to render justice to the complexity of his subject. It was a turn of mind that would appear repeatedly in the next four decades.

         Some of this high, idealized vocation for a critic had been presented to him during his undergraduate days at Harvard. He imagined that there could be a culture that went beyond what he identified as “interpretive criticism,” in which the critic apparently played a subordinate role to that of the artist, and instead created the possibility of a critical awareness and sophistication in the field of esthetics that would become a substitute for metaphysics, producing a “system that expands and incorporates as its content grows.” This system of cultural acquisition and incorporation, the hallmark of the cosmopolitan, possesses organic unity and demonstrates its roots in an esthetic approach to life, an approach that Locke tried to foster in his friends and students and never abandoned for himself.

         Eventually hired to teach at Howard University, Locke continued to develop the nexus of his literary and philosophical interests. As early as “Negro Youth Speaks” (1925), his essay in The New Negro that addressed the rise of a new African American generation of literary artists, Locke claimed that "Our poets have now stopped speaking for the Negro - they speak as Negroes. Where formerly they spoke to others and tried to interpret, they now speak to their own,” that is to those who participate in the culture with them. Somewhat hidden in the distinction between “for the Negro” and “as Negroes” lays the main tension in Locke’s approach to literature. To speak for the Negro suggests taking on a role like that of the Victorian sage, commanding respect for one’s broad vision as a way of forming community values and standards. To speak as Negroes is to imagine that a group of artists can delve deep into the personal lineaments of their experience and still have something to say of value for an audience. Speaking as Negroes is the new burden of the writers Locke championed, and they as formed, in his judgment, a new avant-garde, even a new type of avant-garde. These artists, as all artists have, spoke from an individual experience to a collective of other humans looking for significance, but what was new was their responsibility they continue to bear to make their audience both proud and critical of their racial experience. They still had to find a way to speak “for the Negro.”

         But Locke was not intending to become a standard literary critic, despite his apparent gifts in this regard. Instead he continued to broaden his examination of poetry and the other verbal arts by setting such experience as they provided in a broad esthetic framework. Part of the special genius Locke had displayed at Harvard was his ease in moving between literary and philosophical interests. This was furthered by his engagement with the traditions of Romanticism, as well as the German tradition of seeing artistic and ethical questions as fundamentally intertwined. The idealism of this later tradition motivated much of Locke’s writing and proved to be a counterpoint throughout his life to the more direct and pragmatic sense of cultural expression, a sense that led him to consider questions of value as related to cultural and racial issues. In turn, his wide range of interests and his refusal to be bound by the divisions of academic disciplines meant that he continued to pursue all of his subjects in ever expanding and interconnected contexts.


         Locke’s esthetic views were more embracing than he is usually given credit for. Because he was satirized as a stuffy and self-satisfied professor, most notably by Wallace Thurman’s novel, Infants of the Spring, some people thought of him as an elite snob. He nevertheless rejected using art as propaganda and paradoxically always insisted on the freedom (and the duty) of the individual artist being warranted by an ultimate sense of social responsibility. It is true that he held to a somewhat Hegelian notion that folk art should rise to the level of classical expression, and such expression should be regularly enlivened by resorting to folk material. At various times he championed racially conscious poetry, realism, experimentalism, and traditional modes and styles. It is also true that he often acted as a “midwife” to poets and writers, trying to spot the emergent trends and facilitate their full arrival. Again, this was perhaps due to his Hegelian leanings, where he would hope to identify the zeitgeist and thereby validate his judgments. Measured by academic standards, which he himself would not accept, Locke can be seen as tendentious in his critical judgments, but he was seldom vituperative or dismissive in his public formulations.

         Among the several different fields and means where his expanded ambition could be fully developed, Locke’s efforts to develop a specially directed cultural criticism, built on a deep esthetic sense, stand out in their range and pertinence. From his “Impressions of Luxor,” his account of the cultural world he imagined when he was present at the opening of King Tut in 1922, to his encyclopedic account of “The Negro Contribution to American Culture,” Locke had much to say about esthetics in specific and general terms, while often relating esthetic problems to racial or political issues. His esthetic views, however, are also related to other aspects of his thought, and yet they form a more or less unified viewpoint on their own. Locke often taught the standard esthetics course in the philosophy department at Howard and other universities where he held visiting appointments. The notes he left behind, carefully written out on three by five inch cards, demonstrate his thoroughness in preparation and coverage, and they show as well that he could be thoroughly engaged with points of view other than his own. For example, he discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud late in his career, and though he never produced an essay on any Freudian topic, he introduced Freud’s theories of art and the artist into his class. But “ as with his writings on the plastic arts “ his overriding concern was to put his knowledge and curiosity in the service of racial issues. Though he was always struggling to raise and prove the universal content of racially conscious art, he was also keen to grapple with just exactly how esthetics could help fashion both a fuller explanation of racial experience and show a way forward beyond the debilitating limits of racism.

         To some extent Locke never abandoned these large ambitions, but he changed the terms of his esthetic formulations as he began to deal more directly, and almost exclusively, with African American esthetics. Still he kept his high ideals alive when he addressed his Howard students in 1922, in an essay that was published the next year as “Ethics of Culture.” This essay embodies deep feelings, as one can sense Locke trying out some of the ideas and ideals he learned at Harvard and Oxford on the college students he was to teach for the coming decades, reminding them of the double obligation to increase one’s own fineness of mind while contributing to the community’s riches. Locke begins by arguing that culture has an intimate relation with personality, even as he admits it operates in and through the group, though it exists more purely in the individual. Trying to convey how evanescent culture can appear, his characterization of it culminates when he says, “it is that which cannot be taught, but can only be learned.” Culture works by training the senses and the mind so that they reciprocate their powers; culture is thus “warrantably judge [d]” by “manners, tastes, and the fineness of discrimination of a person’s interests.” Locke attempts to move beyond Victorian ideals to a more rigorously philosophical sense of culture, arguing that if one’s taste “should be merely a veneer, then it is indeed both culturally false and artistically deceptive.” Appreciating Locke’s reflections here entails recognizing that he never speaks of esthetics without a framework of culture, since both terms need an individual and a communal component to remain salient.

         The middle 1920’s, one of great productivity for him, saw Locke involved in the signal African American cultural effort of the first third of the twentieth century. In becoming one of the founding figures in the Harlem Renaissance, Locke brought his philosophical training to bear on daily issues. Close in spirit and friendship with other pragmatic philosophers, Locke believed that experience was the foundation of all art, and that the esthetic approach to life was meant to enliven and sharpen experience. So when the Renaissance began to gather momentum in the mid-1920’s, Locke tried to formulate an all-embracing explanation of what was happening, as well as an analysis of its roots and possible flowering. This resulted in the essay “The New Negro” (1925), which is perhaps Locke’s most beautifully written essay. It represents Locke at his comprehending best, as he weaves together sociology, history, demographics, and especially esthetics, all with a subtle argumentative direction that guides “ or hopes to guide “ the rather sudden efflorescence of art and thought into a patterned understanding that would influence African American life for the next several years.

         The social phenomenon of the New Negro, by virtue of its newness, is not subject to easy categorization; it “simply cannot be swathed in…formulae.” Locke sounds an unbridled hope, because the so-called “Negro problem,” which addressed the people it referred to as “more of a formula than…human being[s],” had been transformed. Through new instances and forms of artistic expression their spirit was enlivened. “For the younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life.” The vocabulary here - of unseen spirit being revealed, and transformed “ recalls Locke’s high minded mission for literature, even as it allows him to conceptualize the movement that he is both describing and attempting to call into existence. To further this argument, he steps into the streams of recent history and tells of the “Old Negro” and that group’s slow progress towards “self-understanding.” This remains the state that matters most to Locke, since the burgeoning reality of self-respecting, assertive African Americans was a concomitant manifestation of, or at least a pleasing expression of, Locke’s ethics of self realization.

         Debates about art, its function, its worth, its place alongside education and political activism, flourished among African Americans during the Renaissance and later. Locke joined in with strong views. In describing how “Negro Youth Speaks”(1925), an essay he included in The New Negro, Locke showed that his tastes were diverse even as he tried to formulate a definitive account of new writing:

    Not all the new art is in the field of pure art values. There is poetry of sturdy social protest, and fiction of calm dispassionate social analysis. But reason and realism have cured us of sentimentality: instead of the wail and appeal, there is challenge and indictment. Satire is just beneath the surface of our latest prose, and tonic irony has come into our poetic wells. These are good medicines for the common mind, for us they are necessary antidotes against social poison.

         Here Locke is at pains to draw the line that separates tendentious or propagandistic art from that which genuinely engages social issues and tries to show a way through to a greater, even a healthier, understanding of present day circumstances.

    This was not the only time Locke balanced his trust in the idealizing mission of the literary arts with a more hardheaded assessment of their possibility of social engagement. A trio of essays near the end of the 1920’s “ “Art or Propaganda?”, “Our Little Renaissance,” and “Beauty Instead of Ashes” “ form a kind of esthetic manifesto for Locke. These essays argue, among other things, that experimental or shocking works “ such as the small magazine FIRE!! (which he also reviewed) and Carl Van Vechten’s scandalous novel of Harlem night life, Nigger Heaven (which in private correspondence he both praised and faulted) “ have genuine esthetic value, even if they do not live up to the highest community standards of propriety. Equally important for Locke was the artistic use of what he called the “folk spirit,” which was a valuable ingredient in modern art even if the dictates of modernism meant that the spirit was sometimes not easily recognizable. His view here was sharply put: “the folk temperament raised to the levels of conscious art promises more originality and beauty than any assumed or imitated class or national or clique psychology available.” And in offering a summary retrospective view of the Renaissance, Locke again returned to the question of propaganda: “We need, I suppose in addition to art, some substitute for propaganda. …Surely we must take some cognizance of the fact that we live at the center of a social problem. Propaganda …nurtured some form of serious social discussion…[but] the difficulty and shortcoming of propaganda is its partisanship. It is one-sided and often pre-judging.” The last phrases are very crucial for Locke: as a philosopher he was adamantly anti-foundationalist, and any view that prompted or supported a single sided or pre-judged “answer” was to be rejected or re-thought. Here, as elsewhere, his esthetics and his philosophy converged.

         Locke drew into his presentation of a clarion call for cultural reenergizing the notes of history and contemporary politics. “The New Negro” argues for an African American parallel with then current forms of Romantic nationalism, as he invokes the example of Ireland, and borrows vanguard ideas from Herder and other Enlightenment figures, to create a nexus of political and cultural argument. Always a meliorist in political terms, Locke assumed that the great northern migration of the American Negro, along with what he felt were increasingly progressive forces in American politics, had already begun to produce profound changes in the self-awareness of even ordinary African Americans, which would in turn be honed by its writers and artists. When his friend Langston Hughes quipped that the Renaissance hadn’t raised the wages of the average Negro, he probably had most of the facts on his side, but he also missed the point. All of the Renaissance writers felt that a cultural advance would be a necessary, or at least a desirable, complement to any economic process. There the agreement halted, for African American tried many different forms of political activism in the nineteen twenties, only to see them all stymied by the onset of the Depression. What that darkened era would bring in its wake no critic or public intellectual was prepared to say.

         Eventually, however, Locke would feel that the Renaissance lost its way, trading in what he called “exhibitionism,” and leaving behind any notion of a collective urge towards an elevated state for African American culture. The essays where he revisited the esthetic issues raised by the Renaissance therefore have an air of melancholy, mixing a desire to return to higher standards while lamenting what had come to seem inevitable. (To hear the full measure of this melancholy, tinged with a sense of outrage as well, one has to look at Locke’s review of Claude McKay’s autobiography, titled by Locke as “Spiritual Truancy.”) Now that a number of successive generations of African American critics, and others, have had their say in evaluating the “success” of the Renaissance, we can see that Locke’s early faith and latter-day reservations represent a judgment that stands as the equal of any one else’s. Locke never claimed that cultural advances, in literary, visual, and other arts, would lead directly and inevitably to greater social emancipation. But he shared with James Weldon Johnson and others the belief that a group’s cultural achievements would validate its values, and thus bring about an artistic flourishing, both as a sign of past achievements and the promise of future excellence.

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         In his early writings about literature and other esthetic issues, Locke repeatedly stressed the need to develop a tradition to support and challenge serious thought and cultural expression. As for how Locke thought he might shape and encourage greater, more serious, and more fruitful cultural achievements for African Americans, he demonstrated his resolve by taking up the critical examination of virtually all the visual, plastic and performing arts, including painting, sculpture, drama, and music. Some of this effort went into activities that he pursued with a gentlemanly air, picked up in part at Oxford. These included an interest in collecting rare editions of black authors, for example, a passion he shared with Arthur Schomburg, perhaps the premier African American bibliophile. He equally pursued his interest in the visual and plastic arts on a personal level. He began collecting small African artifacts in the 1920’s, and was one of the first to write about African art and contribute to a museum for its display in America. His collection of several dozens African paperweights continues to be enjoyed as an impressive bequest to Howard University. But following the model of nineteenth century gentleman collectors, Locke decided to make what might have been a hobby into a genuine study. He read widely about Africa, especially its history and ethnology, and was soon convinced of one of his main ideas, namely, that African art, to be fully appreciated, had to be seen in terms of its practical and ritualized contexts, as well as its storehouse of purely esthetic forms. In a way, this put him at odds with the two main schools of African art scholarship, one stressing ethnological aspects and the other interested primarily in formal and esthetic qualities, but it demonstrated once again his habit of combining or mediating between opposing views.

         Locke never formally studied the traditional discipline of art history, however. In this regard, his essays on the visual and plastic arts are more a projection of concerns he engaged in other fields than rigorously argued examples of an academic art historical discipline. In literature, by contrast, from his Harvard days he was an accomplished interpreter of the written arts, especially poetry and fiction. Following the development of various poets “ mainly Hughes, Cullen Sterling Brown, and others “ his desire to find the deeper meaning in lyric verse took form early and lasted throughout his career. His interest in painting and sculpture, though restricted by and large to the work of African American artists, was nevertheless engaged and informed. He reverted often to questions of form, but he was constantly looking for historical and materialist explanations as well. Because of his omnivorous reading, he could invoke different experts and different contexts to discuss what he felt was emergent and urgent among painters and sculptors who were forging an African American tradition. Though some, especially his art history colleagues at Howard, rejected his art essays as amateur efforts, Locke spent many hours reading and writing about painting and sculpture in a broad humanistic context.

         One of the fields where Locke boldly advanced theories and made judgments was that of African art. In essays like “A Note on African Art” (1925) and, almost a decade later, “African Art: Classic Style” (1933), Locke insisted that if African American artists were to achieve a classic style of their own they needed a tradition, an elaborate and extensive body of compelling works, that they could hold closely and mine relentlessly. This line of thought reached back to his early essay on Paul Dunbar. In making such an argument he tried to do something that many academic art historians would consider quite ill-advised: he hoped to teach the plastic artists of the day that there was much they could learn from African art. He reckoned that all art of a classic stature derived from long effort and continuous dialogues about means and ends. This role could best be played by drawing on African art, which had the added feature of being a way to compensate for the deprivations of slavery, thus using the curse of slavery’s origins in Africa as a redemptive force in elevating the race to full social and political standing and force. For this view Locke received a fair degree of mockery, especially in Wallace Thurman’s satire, Infants of the Spring, for being too prescriptive and didactic in his approach to artistic expression. His conviction in this area was exceptionally strong, however, and it led him into the thickets of race theory and whether or not racial art was driven by, or expressive of, a group identity that had a basis in biology.

        Only once did Locke resort to the metaphor of blood to make his argument, and this is where he suggested that twentieth century African American arts carried with them a biological inheritance from Africa that made the use of African art not only richer but virtually necessary. In the “Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” (1925) he claimed that African art “may very well be taken as the basis for a characteristic school of expression in the plastic and pictorial arts, and give to us again a renewed mastery of them…Surely this art, once known and appreciated, can scarcely have less influence upon the blood descendants than upon those who inherit by tradition alone.” The sentence with the metaphor of descent through blood has some built in ambiguity, of course, and one can sense Locke trying to say something compelling even though his own thoughts on the subject are not completely clear.

         Some of his theorizing about what Van Wyck Brooks, his ex-classmate from Harvard, called a “useable past,” led him into a struggle he had with Mary Beattie Brady, the director of the Harmon Foundation. This Foundation resulted from a philanthropic venture meant to aid African American artists with juried awards, financial support, and inclusion in traveling exhibitions. Always willing to struggle with an institution in order to circulate his ideas, Locke agreed to write an introduction for the annual catalogue of Harmon Foundation prizewinners. Moreover, he attempted to influence the jury of selectors to foreground artists he felt were especially racial in their expressions. This essay, “The American Negro as Artist” (1931), a rewritten version of his catalogue essay, presented the fruit of Locke’s thinking about issues in the visual arts which he had expounded for several years. Typifying his skills as a critic, it combines a historical framework with an esthetic argument, illustrated with several examples of individual artists. Locke begins with “an historical reason” explaining why in Africa the characteristic cultural expressions of black people were decorative and craft arts, whereas in America they were music, dance, and folk poetry. The historical reason arises from a materialist base. Cut off from their cultural roots, the African American artists faced “the hardships of cotton and rice-field labor, the crudities of the hoe, the axe, and the plow.” This “reduced the typical Negro hand to a gnarled stump, incapable of fine craftsmanship.” The expression then flowed into the “only channels left open—those of song, movement, and speech.” But the younger artists, one Locke was championing as early as The New Negro demonstrated a “new social background and another art creed,” as this new generation “aims to express the race spirit and background as well as the individual skill and temperament of the artist.” At once a materialist and a conceptual narrative about the development of art forms, this theorizing has been refined by subsequent critics, but it was striking in its formulation at the time Locke produced it.

         When it came to his writing about African American drama and music, Locke relied more comfortably on what was a genuine historical tradition, but he approached this large subject with a critically reflective eye. In “The Negro and the American Stage” (1926), one of several essays he produced on the subject, Locke drew on his own extensive theatre going experience to set out the terms that the past experience of Negro dramatists, even going back to the days of minstrelsy, had laid down for contemporary players on the stage. Published in the Theatre Arts Monthly for February 1926, his essay set out a strong case for the emerging importance of Negro actor, and just as important, the way theories of racial supremacy had created historical limitations that he faced at every turn. Though not at all understating the importance of Negro drama “ both by Negro dramatists and about Negro life “ he chose to stress “the deep and unemancipated resources of the Negro actor, and the folk arts of which he is as yet only a blind and hampered exponent.” Having “to struggle up out of the shambles of minstrelsy and make slow headway against very fixed limitations of popular taste,” the Negro actors were especially victims of racial prejudice. What should have been accounted their great strength ““the free use of the body and voice as direct instruments of feeling” “ and what could thereby regenerate the dramatic arts, was instead seen in stereotypical terms, and the phrase “natural-born actor” was usually “intended as a disparaging estimate of the Negro’s limitations.” Caught up as all African Americans were by the explosion of talent, especially in the musical theatre, Locke celebrated the physical gifts and utterly masterful abilities displayed by black performers. At the same time, he urged the audiences not to settle for just the superficial delights but to look to the theatre as a way of seeing reflections of the moment, both in its urgent presentness and its more resonant echoes of communal life.

         Later commentators drew a picture of Locke as someone committed almost exclusively to European standards of taste, and so listed him as an opponent of popular entertainment, even jazz. But as his writing in one of the Bronze Booklet series, The Negro and His Music (1936), amply makes clear, his sense of what sort of discipline is required to be a great performer, and equally necessary to appreciate what great performers do, extended to jazz as well as spirituals. Here is a brief passage combining history and analysis:

    But in addition to jazz rhythm and harmony, jazz improvisation came rocketing out of the blues. It grew out of the improvised musical “filling-in” of the gap between the short measure of the blues and the longer eight bar line, the break interval in the original folk-form of the three line blues. Such filling in and compounding of the basic rhythm are characteristic of Negro music everywhere, from deepest Africa to the streets of Charleston, from the unaccompanied hand-clapping of the street corner “hoe-down” to the interpolations of shouts, amens and exclamations in Negro church revivals.

    Locke responded here to a celebratory sense of performance, one that centered on improvisation, which later critics would see as vital to jazz, but he was able to see and capture this in words while the music was still changing and expanding in many ways. Few if any of his contemporaries combined rigorous standards with a rich, inner appreciation of African American performers and a love of their creativity and a dialogue with their past. The resonances of the performing arts always had strong echoes for African Americans, and Locke worked hard to honor and particularize their contributions to the complex fate of the community they represented.


         Locke spent decades writing about racial issues and the ways that such issues might be resolved, largely by first exposing and then abandoning rigid ideas of racial supremacy. In this regard, he relied heavily on the notions drawn from pragmatism, that such absolutist claims as were made in the name of racism were unsustainable in any rational sense or in any democratic polity. The anti-absolutism of the pragmatic tradition, and the dialectical and functional approach to a subject as complex and nuanced as race: such a summary tends to sound rather dry or lackluster. Locke, however, energized his mental habits in the crucial way in which he engaged the question of race. More than a decade before his role in the Harlem Renaissance, Locke began a study of race and race theory that resulted in a masterly survey; it is certainly central to his thought and an impressive project. The study took the form of a series of lectures, which were eventually published after Locke’s death as Race Contacts and Interracial Relations, though he published a summary account of them, complete with bibliography. In these lectures, which were delivered in 1915 and drew on many theories and the thought of people such as Simmel, Franz Boas, Dewey, and others, he began to set up the framework of virtually all that followed in his thought. He saw that race was not a valid scientific concept, but that it nevertheless had semantic force in the area of cultural expressions and values. His charge to himself, in brief, was to demolish the nefarious notions associated with ideas of racial supremacy while salvaging what was useful about the concept of race itself. He then joined his ideas about culture “ that it is an expression of group and individual values that function so as to clarify our experience “ to those of race. This meant that there was a critical nexus among the activities and thoughts that shaped all three areas, race, culture, and value.

         In the last years of his teaching career Locke offered courses on just these three subjects. Monocausal explanations never tempted Locke, but he was led by his rational training to look for deep causes and comprehensive explanations. The intertwining of these three areas of human thought and reflection meant that shedding light on one potentially illumined the others, and Locke seldom strayed beyond these areas when doing his most impressive thinking. One of the central conclusions that Locke drew in his lectures about the way racial ideas worked in society was that each large distinctive group had developed what he called a “civilization type.” The idea is not as fully developed as one might wish, especially given how Locke uses it to formulate his views on the possible future of a world without rabid and persistent racism. But the civilization type builds on ideas from “The American Temperament,” as Locke uses his training in literary and cultural analysis to fashion a notion that can utilize the idea of race in a positive sense. He evinces his meliorism when he further claims that, “The history of progress has been the history of the redemption of ideas.” (This formulation echoes Emerson’s claim in “The Emancipation of the West Indies” (1844), that “When at last in a race a new principle appears, an idea, -that conserves it; ideas only save races.”) Locke believed that group identity was inevitable, and the only way to manage it was to make it possible to have groups offer reciprocal tolerance to each other, and to encapsulate their values into a representative type. The broader and more cosmopolitan such a type was, the higher and more fulfilled the civilization.

         Borrowing from Du Bois’s idea of the “talented tenth”, Locke projects a future where the representative of what he calls the “secondary race consciousness” (which means the mentality of the group that is a numerical minority) not only adapts to the larger, dominant group but - and this is crucial “ it prevents the secondary group from losing its identity. He makes this point unequivocally:

    Now this is not a doctrine of race isolation. It is not even a doctrine of race integrity. It is really a theory of social conservation which in practice conserves the best in each group, and promotes the development of social solidarity out of heterogeneous elements.

    The concluding lecture sees in the idea of race classification a social good; as Locke says, “the race issue has performed a social function in society because it has blended two heterogeneous elements [that is, two different racial groups] into a homogeneity of which either one in itself would have been incapable without the collaboration and help of the other.” Then, he concludes, “Whatever theory or practice moves toward it [the blending of heterogeneous elements] is sound; whatever opposes and retards it is false.” This would also serve, in suitably different terms, as his general conclusion to his essay “The New Negro,” and to his compilation of essays by others, When Peoples Meet (1942).

         Restricted only to the subject of race, Locke’s work extended from the questions of racial classification to the broader issues around the African American diaspora. In the ten years or so preceding his editing The New Negro, Locke had spent an impressive amount of time and scholarly energy in thinking through the ideas about race that were circulating throughout the world in the early part of the twentieth century. In the early 1920’s he published a number of essays that contributed to a dialogue, generally limited to African American thinkers, about how race could be classified and whether or not one could say with certainty or authority what constituted the “Negro.” This dialogue had as one of its main targets the theories of “Nordicism,” advanced by people like Lothrop Stoddard, who argued for racial supremacy on the part of the so-called Nordic races. Essays such as “The Negro and a Race Tradition”(1911), “The Problem of Race Classification” (1923), and “The Concept of Race as Applied to Social Culture”(1924), relied on the research Locke had done for his lecture series, but even here he showed how he could master distinct ways of arguing and framing his discourse. In the latter essay, for example, he maintained that there should be three methodological principles when discussing race: the “principle of organic interpretation” (that all presumably race-derived behavior be seen as part of the entire society where it occurred); the “principle of cultural relativity” which saw each culture in its own terms and yet comparable to others; this was to form the core of his notion of “intercultural reciprocity”); and “the dynamic and social interpretation of race” (which involved seeing race and culture as historically changing social forces and traditions.) Each of these ways of interpreting race resulted from Locke’s ideas about the subject, and rather than being mere methodological rubrics, they represent a distinctive philosophical engagement with racial theories. As a seasoned teacher of philosophy, Locke well understood that by the way the questions are framed, and the methods by which we pursue the answers, we arrive at certain resolutions and imperatives rather than others.

        Locke, however, went beyond any academic or philosophical engagement with race and diligently addressed the problem in immediate and committed terms. His most direct political and social commentary, virtually all of it preoccupied with the question of race, was written for the Survey Graphic, then one of the more progressive journals of the time. His editing of the special issue of the Survey Graphic on the Harlem riot of 1935, called “Harlem: Dark Weather Vane,” is much less well known than the issue that became The New Negro, but it was no less salient and timely. Along similar lines, his work in adult education, and his turning to specifically African American issues in treating such a loaded subject, rested on a solid base of social responsibility. During his prolific career Locke edited three special issues of Survey Graphic, in part because he had befriended Paul Kellogg, the journal’s progressive editor who was an early champion of civil rights. The New Negro of 1925 was central in abetting Locke’s reputation, and the “Harlem: Dark Weather Vane” of 1936 showed him working in an empirical, sociological framework. The third special issue was equally important. Introducing the special issue of the Survey Graphic in 1942 with an essay called “Color: The Unfinished Business of Democracy,” Locke extended, to an international scale, his thought about the political and social consequences of theories of race and racial superiority. As early as his introduction to The New Negro he had argued that the democratic ideal in America had to address the issue of race head on or else risk losing the historical energy that democracy arose from and promised to continue and expand. The two subsequent special issues took this argument further.

         Where it was relatively easy to see the 1925 essay as abjuring political solutions in favor of cultural ones, such a choice was not available in the two later essays. In the 1936 issue Locke insisted on social and political actions that would target and eliminate the worst excesses of racism in America and throughout the world. He pointed out the low number of hospital beds in Harlem, for example, as a way of particularizing the “hidden costs” of a theory about people that had no science to support it and only unthinking prejudice to maintain it. In the 1942 issue Locke expanded his vision to a global scale, arguing in his keynote essay, “Color: The Unfinished Business of Democracy,” that world peace could never be achieved until the problem of racism had been eliminated. Critics have remarked on the “leftward” turning of Locke’s thought in the wake of the Depression, a turn he remarked on himself and shared with other African American thinkers and writers. But many readers have not been willing to see how Locke’s cultural politics eventually developed into a political culture that held democratic values as its lodestar.

         Locke kept race foremost in his mind, and when this meant forming oppositional arguments, he didn’t hesitate. On the other hand, he quickly developed a special set of skills as an editor. Strictly speaking, Locke never authored a monograph until his contributions to the Bronze Booklet series, which he edited, in the mid-1930’s. However, he edited a number of volumes beyond the well-known anthology of The New Negro. His editorial skills distantly resembled those he used as a conduit for various forms of white patronage, since various editorial projects demanded an ability to mediate, and on occasion conciliate among genuine partisan differences. The editorial duties also called on his tact and judgment, and a self-affirming confidence in his own ability to recognize what was important.

         Generally speaking, Locke contributed his essays most often to informative, general audience journals like Opportunity and Survey Graphic. The former was edited by his good friend Charles S. Johnson, and was the official organ of the urban league. Johnson was a highly educated sociologist, but he devoted much of the journal to cultural issues. This proportion, of cultural over social and political writing, distinguished it from Crisis, the organ for the NAACP, where Du Bois was editor; Locke published there as well, but not nearly as often. As for the Survey Graphic, it was the offshoot of a journal called Survey, which sought to bring the fruits of sociological study to a wider, lay audience. The Survey Graphic utilized visual aids, such as graphs, charts, and illustrations, to display its empirical data more forcefully. The focus of both journals was similar: the repressive policies of the Jim Crow era, when segregation was official in many venues, and the oppositional struggle to combat these policies so that all American might enjoy full civil and political rights.

         On the subject of race there persists one decided constant in Locke’s thought: his utter rejection of any biological determinant in racial classifications. He came to this fixed notion in large part out of his experience and temperament, but also because he was an early student of Franz Boas, whose work on primitive art militated against any notion that a group’s cultural expression was determined by its biological foundations. However, by using his fluid and somewhat diffuse sense of culture, which he substituted for biology’s empirical claims and foundational role, Locke was able to maintain a belief in the defining force of community experience. Such views on race as a culture term, which put the group at the base of historical and social understanding, had their counterpart in the realm of the esthetic. Awareness of the group’s shared experience was necessary in any undertaking that would broaden, and indeed validate, a singular artistic or intellectual expression. Loneliness and alienation could drive artistic exploration, but African American artists did not have the luxury of solipsism or “radical individualism.” For Locke, to betray the community was to betray oneself. On the other hand, jingoism “ the aggressive elevation of one’s community values over those of any other “ was an equally damaging standpoint. Locke’s claim for a necessary balance between the individual’s art and the community’s needs can be viewed as a distant variation of Du Bois’s sense of “double consciousness.” Locke’s variation was a way of articulating how art itself could be both racial (in dealing with group experience) and culturally liberating (in presenting the challenges of individual artistic visions.)

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         As for the elimination of notions of racial superiority or supremacy, however, Locke had no ready answers, despite his trust in pragmatism and democracy. But he often turned to art, and especially literature, to keep alive both the experience of racial suppression and the hope of its elimination. Writers, by virtue of their engagement with the cultural moment, offered a guide to what historical forces were at work. A special sort of outlet allowed Locke a chance to treat writing in a variety of modes with racial issues and themes: his editorial effort on a special book called When Peoples Meet. This outlet differed from the standard essay where Locke’s skills were well displayed, but somewhat predictably so. Instead what he most needed to display his special talents at their fullest were wide ranging subjects that already included a broad range of voices, approaches, and arguments, which Locke could then orchestrate into a more comprehensive and subtle set of claims and reflections.

         Included in this collection are the “Interchapters” of When Peoples Meet, which display Locke’s thought at its most polymathic. This project arose as part of a collaborative effort with Bernhard Stern, a friend of Locke and a professor of sociology at Columbia. The two men enlisted essays, or portions of books, from eighty different experts and scholars in a range of disciplines. Most of the contributors were already well established by 1942, when the first edition of the work appeared. Still, it is a tribute to both Stern and Locke that so many of the writers proved to be leaders in their fields. The book was intended to be used as a textbook in college courses, and the two co-editors hoped for large sales, though unfortunately the war kept the book’s reception limited, and a second edition fared no better. This book was a forerunner of the kind of volume that became very popular after the so-called paperback revolution of the early 1960’s. The editorial vision it encompasses continues to impress, and its overall intellectual argument remains striking. Though the eighty or so contributors voiced a diverse and enlightened set of views, Locke himself had some strong points to make in his “Interchapters.” One such point brought to a culmination his thought about cultural contact “ first broached in the 1915 lecture series “ and its civilizing force:

    Modern imperialism has bred, in addition to its half-castes, its hybrid and border line cultures. A number of complex cultural reactions have resulted, according to the variations in modern colonial contacts and the divergent degrees of cultural level and resistance encountered. But, despite its historic uniquenesses, Europeanization and its moving force of economic imperialism are best understood as an interesting and complex variant of the process which has basically underlain all historic culture contacts; a process which has been the primary cause of the growth of what we know as “civilization.”

    In other places Locke makes it clear that colonization and imperialism always proceed by sending the soldier in ahead of the priest. Yet the question of cultural contact remained vexed. Richard Wright, for example, identified a different cause of the exploitation of Africa: after a visit to the Gold Coast (current day Ghana) in 1953, he spoke in his diary of the “essential soddenness of the African mentality.” Later he changed his sense of the complex interactions involved in what Locke termed “intercultural reciprocity.”

         If the word were not so often misapplied, one could easily refer to Locke as a “dialectical” thinker. Though the points Locke makes in the “Interchapters” refer to the essays of the contributors, it is easy to make out how Locke tessellated and integrated the different viewpoints of the writers he had gathered from various disciplines: the editing itself becoming a sort of small scale model of “intercultural reciprocity.” The gathering of many learned voices on this compelling subject of cultural contact also allowed Locke to voice his strongest opinions on the nature of geopolitics and the role that the Western nations had to play if imperialism was to be eradicated. Pointing out the increasing tension of the contradictions generated by the gap between principles and actions on the part of governing regimes and cliques, he saw how the people who were being dominated increasingly contested this situation. The “submerged” peoples had begun to talk back to the “dominant” ones. Locke saw clearly one of the most important forces operating in the second half of the twentieth century: “Non-European cultures and repressed minorities seize upon such justifications as the ‘civilizing mission’ of European civilization and all the formulas and creeds of democracy professed by the dominant orders to implement their struggle for minority assertion and its mounting claims.” Western civilization was not prepared for “such wholesale unmasking of its practical politics,” and this led directly to “the dilemma of the present time and scene.” The “dominant” countries were being sharply called to account as the era of post-colonialism gathered strength and notice, demanding a different set of values, which Locke would unabashedly anchor in the democratic faith, in what he promulgated and yet addressed critically as the “American creed.”


         Supplementing his triad of subjects “ race, culture and value - is the issue of what Locke called by several names: multiculturalism, cultural pluralism, and, perhaps most often, intercultural reciprocity. This latter phrase is the philosophical term that arose out of the “race contacts” part of his lecture series, and was furthered enriched by the work he did for his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. It would especially animate When Peoples Meet (1942), where it became the most dynamic of valuations since it made all values at least potentially available to anyone who could see, or attempt to see, beyond one’s own value systems to whatever would be useful in someone else’s. Intercultural reciprocity is the two-way sharing of cultural values that occurs when different groups “ often of different “races” “ meet one another in prolonged and varied ways. Because, as Locke discovered, values have functions that they perform in the social system, they can be thought of, or imagined, as having a transportable or translatable character. History overflows with examples of such phenomena. The key example, of course, is the way the values of African Americans meld into and importantly shape the larger field of American values, while clearly American values impinge on and influence African Americans at every turn. Such reciprocity can be implicit, subconscious, and the result of strife or cooperation. Whatever the case, and whatever the particulars, Locke believed that race contacts always ended by strengthening the cultures of both groups. Again, by rejecting the false notion of group identity “ that one’s core is defined by a racial marker or set of markers supported by science “ to a truer sense of one’s habits and values as shaped by group experience extensive in space and time, Locke shows how race and culture can be thought through to a clearer understanding.

         Intercultural reciprocity has come into the vocabulary of mainstream politics as “multi-culturalism.” Locke would not recognize what this idea has devolved into in its cruder forms. For him this was not a plea for separatism or formulaic diversity or group jingoism; rather, it was the ultimate form of global democracy and a step towards a humane harmony among all different races and groups. But the important element was the reciprocity, which meant that one’s own culture had to be examined critically and pragmatically so as to see how it might genuinely benefit from looking intelligently at the culture of others. Locke was a meliorist, but not a utopian. Easy answers were like absolutist ones, ready at hand, but all the more in need of unblinking critical redefinition. When the reciprocal element more or less fell away from the way Locke’s formulation was received, his clear-eyed awareness of what he was asking of the “transvaluation of values” was also lost. If Locke’s thought were to aid in the ever-necessary task of lifting our national political dialogue, it would be through this key notion of his, but it would have to be absorbed with more of its nuance and rigor intact.

        In 1935 Locke was invited by his friend Horace Kallen to contribute to a book of essays. For the occasion he composed a waggish contributor’s note, perhaps his most succinct self-portrait, describing himself as “more of a philosophical mid-wife to a generation of younger Negro poets, writers and artists than a professional philosopher.” The note of modesty, even self-deprecation - given its appearance in a collection of essays by professional philosophers “ is consonant with the essay he produced, “Values and Imperatives.” The essay opens with a sentence central to all of his thought: “All philosophies, it seems to me, are in ultimate derivation philosophies of life and not of abstract, disembodied “objective” reality; products of time, place and situation, and thus systems of timed history rather than timeless eternity.” The mix of tones - “seems” and “ultimate” indicating the intuitive balanced with the inevitable - guides the claims of personal testament into a framework where eternal considerations are mentioned, if only to be put aside. The essay goes on to offer a nuanced argument solidly in the Deweyan tradition of pragmatism, and so avoids ending with a single or absolute moral imperative, while still facing squarely the fundamental aspects of moral values, moral choice, and moral behavior and the pressure for them to be honored. Locke himself lived with a number of “imperatives,” and his belief in the pliant and time-conditioned character of our valuations, if we choose to consider them self-reflectively, did not change that.

         “Values and Imperatives” in effect summarized Locke’s Ph.D. thesis, in which he examined the functional character of value judgments. This meant that he tried to systematize the various schools of axiology “ the study of values “ and to show how the differences between them were related to how values were formed and what part they played in the larger scheme of cognition and behavior. The essay is an example of how Locke worked even when not engaged in a professional philosophical idiom. He took the connections between certain kinds of valuing scales “ such as good and bad, or beautiful and ugly “ and placed them in an interpretive scheme. From there he could proceed to show how values were shaped and altered, even morphing from one scale to another, which seemed like his main goal from the start. Opposing all forms of a belief in fixed and absolute truth about values, he centered his argument in the way value systems were about people more than about some unchanging eternal principles. “The effective antidote to value absolutism lies in a systematic and realistic demonstration that values are rooted in attitudes, not in reality, and pertain to ourselves, not to the world.” His conclusion, announced tentatively and with little fanfare, suggested that the model or source of the various valuing scales “ in other words, the value beneath all other values - was best thought of as esthetics. Locke as esthete: it was a role he enjoyed thoroughly during his European days as a student, and one that he subjected to philosophical scrutiny without abandoning any of its savor.

         However esthetic the basis of Locke’s sense of values, he could be hardheaded when required. The argument in “Values and Imperatives” refers to the second term in its title to offset any temptation to the utopian, or the form of absolutist thought that Locke referred to as “monopolistic.” Here he sees that the changing of values, and the respect for the values of others, will not necessarily usher in an age of universal brotherhood.

    One way of reform undoubtedly is to combat the monopolistic traditions of most of our institutions. This sounds Marxian, and is to an extent. But the curtailing of the struggle over the means and instrumentalities of values will not eliminate our quarrels and conflicts about ends, and long after the possible elimination of the profit motive, our varied imperatives will persist. Economic classes may be absorbed, but our psychological tribes will not thereby be dissolved.

    Locke probably means this as a covert response to the Marxism of the 1930’s, especially as it was influencing the thought of W. E. B. Du Bois, but what is clear is that Locke had no inclination to privilege any system that contained a full measure of historical determinism.

         Locke’s closest friends “ members of his psychological tribe - were African American poets like Countee Cullen and Sterling Brown, and some of his Howard colleagues, like the historian Carter Woodson, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche the diplomat. In the last fifteen years of his life Locke came to know and study with white intellectuals such as Jacques Barzun, Horace Kallen, and T. V. Smith, a professor of ethics at the University of Chicago. Like these men, he had developed his outlook during the first third of the twentieth century, when many were working on what Dewey called the reconstruction of philosophy. Late in his life Locke also turned to white American writers to support his views about what sort of developments literature might best pursue. In his late annual reviews, for instance, he cited Faulkner as a model of someone who handled the racial issue with condescension or sensationalism, an author who could “thunder out the doomsday of racial injustice by the simple device of holding up, quietly but unflinchingly, a relentless mirror before the face of the characteristic South.”

         At least one white writer merits comparison with Locke as a public intellectual: Lewis Mumford. (The two never met, and this points up one of the more invisible but deeply regrettable costs of racism in American, namely the way that many black and white intellectuals were unable to form rewarding friendships or productive collaborations with kindred spirits.) Both men were skillful writers with polymathic interests. Where Mumford used the city as the focal point of his work, however, Locke explored the nature and effects of race. Like Mumford, he entered his own intellectual project through literature. Both were deeply engaged with national culture, even as they looked forward to a transnational sense of the human condition. The approach of both men disdained sociometrics, but both were keenly aware of the writer’s enmeshment in a social world that called out for examination and opposition. A strong current of anti-scientism runs through Locke as well as Mumford, since the promise of scientific and technological breakthroughs bore a concealed cost in the form of material determinism. Both were indebted to humanistic thought, where literature and philosophy joined with history and ethology, all of which were mediated by axiology “ the concern with values being less the glue that held the others together than the bedrock of any advanced thought. Locke’s charge, however, was distinct. His centering subject was race, but his reflective powers and his temperament took him towards a time and place where the concept of race no longer determined social and political values.

         With esthetic views developed in the heat and strife of the Harlem Renaissance, Locke adroitly steered among several shoals. Adamant in resisting the use of art for purely propagandistic ends, he was nevertheless willing to risk unpopularity in being didactic in his coverage of new trends and new voices. His desire to see visual and plastic artists, for example, draw on the rich legacy of African motifs and designs, earned him scorn in some circles, but this desire rose out of a sense of social responsibility. The artist was singular in his or her vision, but multiple in the obligations and levels of awareness needed to make truly transformative art. While Locke grew very familiar with modernist and abstract art through his connections to Albert Barnes, Paul Guillaume, and other patrons and collectors, his own taste tended to the conservative. Yet he was quite vocal in singing the praises of the socially gritty realism of American fiction of the 1930’s. As with his value theory and his philosophical penchants, he outlined the way extremes of thought and belief produced distortions and then suggested that the most useful and responsive approach was to draw on all the available forms of thought and expression.


         In the last decade of his life Locke discovered the work of Gunnar Myrdal and was impressed by the sense of democracy that the Swedish sociologist called the “American creed.” Locke held to this deep belief throughout all his thinking. A further extension of his thought would come about when he looked beyond the national boundaries. He knew that the greatest threat to democracy came from its two most persistent opposing forces: racism and imperialism. Locke didn’t hesitate to address both evils by making a foray into international relations, always prepared to view them through a democratic framework. An immediate opportunity appeared in the late 1920’s when Locke wrestled with the international peace settlement set up by the nascent United Nations, known as the Mandate System. This system consisted of three tiers of sixteen countries (including such states as Syria and Palestine in the Middle East, the Belgian Congo, Togoland, and Cameroon in Africa, and islands in the South Pacific), each of which would be assigned to the protection of a specific European country, whose putative aim was to bring the colonized people to a state of full independence and political freedom. The system worked poorly, and in some places not at all, as various corrupt practices set in quickly. Enlisted for the task by Paul Kellogg, his friend from the Survey Graphic, Locke was asked to travel and observe the working of this attempt to bring order to foreign diplomacy in the aftermath of the colonial era. The Foreign Policy Association, in some ways an extension of the anti-imperialist leagues that had agitated for the last several decades, would be Locke’s sponsor. At the Executive Board meeting of the Association in November 1927, Locke reported on his trip to Geneva and presented an oral version to the Board members. In the written version, he spoke frankly of the deficiencies of the Mandate system, chiefly its failure to grant anything like “self-adjustment” and the forced labor that sprang up under the system. For reasons not completely clear, Locke never published the report he wrote, though he spent the better part of two years working on it. His faith in the global force of democracy, however, never diminished. But his experience of the Mandates would continue to influence his views on the international order more than a decade later.

         Meanwhile, three of the most important of Locke’s essays “ published in the last fifteen or so years of his life - deal with philosophy and political theory as related aspects of a singular vision, one with democracy as its key idea. These are the essays that treat democracy as an intellectual disposition, specifically a form of pluralism. These overlapping essays “ each with the word “pluralism” or “ideological” in the title - grew out of invitations Locke received to participate in important symposia in the 1940’s, which included a considerable gathering of some of the most prominent intellectuals, black and white, who wanted to explore the relations among religion, science, and democracy. Driven by an undercurrent of anxiety about the future of democracy and the dominant beliefs of a mass society, as well as the prospect of world war and the lingering depredations of the Depression, these symposia advanced any number of important ideas. Unfortunately, the post-war period’s slide into the cold war left many of these ideas undeveloped and far from implemented. Locke did not live to see the worst of the cold war distortions, and in fact he died only months before the historic decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which went a long way towards putting an end to the Jim Crow era. (Incidentally, Locke was a close friend with Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice, and with Kenneth Clark, whose work on the education of African American children played such a vital role in that Supreme Court victory.) Locke’s ideas in these essays, however, represent a high water mark for African American contributions to the theory of democracy.

         Some of his most demanding and rewarding essays attempt to bring together the arguments for “ and the values embedded in “ pluralism and democracy. Democracy, the rule of law, the dignity of individual citizens, and the necessary tolerance that allows for genuine progress and amity: all these elements, each requiring active and even activist belief, were present and animating forces in Locke’s social and political writings. They were at work in the international dimension to Locke’s democratic thought, as seen in the later essay “Democracy Faces a World Order,” published in 1942 after being given as a lecture at Harvard. This essay argued that unless and until the world of nations could solve the “color problem” no lasting and widespread peace could be achieved. After World War II, Locke saw “ along with W.E.B. Du Bois and others “ that world harmony and lasting peace could not be achieved without a thorough settlement of the question of race. Du Bois’s Color and Democracy (1945) was in fact an incisive treatment of the same issues, more extensive than Locke’s, and so a book Locke both reviewed and put on his syllabus for his final years of teaching.

         This broad vision would boldly call for an answering scheme, an international, even anti-imperialist remaking of the geopolitical order, such as he had explored in When Peoples Meet. Recalling his work on the Mandates, he pointed out that they had become “clandestine colonies and relatively closed spheres of economic influence.” What the world was facing after the war was “A Pax Romana of irrepressible power politics rather than a Pax Democratica of reciprocal international rights and responsibilities…That most sacrosanct of all our secular concepts, the autonomous sovereignty of the self-arbiter nation, must surely be modified and voluntarily abridged.” Locke‘s reasoning and his desire for a truly peaceful world order led him to this urgent plea to redefine nationalism, “that most sacrosanct” concept. This late phrase of his thought reaches back to those lectures on race that he delivered to an audience at Howard University thirty years earlier. Also echoing here are the claims Locke made for the “New Negro” as a counterpart to examples of Romantic nationalism, but one that had to be absorbed into an international context before it could truly flourish. Even as the polymath he was gave multiple features to his accomplishment, he was in a rich sense single minded and consistent in his ethical imperatives.

         The long-range development of Locke’s political writing creates a quite different picture of him from that of the esthete who was active in the Renaissance because he believed in cultural more than political solutions to the problems of racial exploitation. The consistency of his belief in democracy, especially in its cultural expressions, was one of the few places where Locke showed a willingness to speak out about his own achievements. In a late lecture to his Howard students, he prided himself on his belief in democracy and his never having once resorted to any call for a chauvinistic or separatist response to racism. The occasion was a 1949 lecture, published as “The Frontiers of Culture.”

    I … stand firmly on the side of the democratic rather than the aristocratic notion of culture and have so stood for many years, without having gotten full credit, however. I realize the inevitability of such misunderstanding; what price Harvard and Oxford and their traditional snobbisms! Culture is so precious that it is worth even this price, if we can have it only at the high cost of nurturing and conserving it on the upper levels of caste and privilege. But one should not have to pay that exorbitant price for it

    This moment of self-reflection doesn’t make Locke unique among black leaders, to be sure, but it should be taken into account before we can arrive at a full estimation of his value as a thinker and writer.

    * * * * *


         Virtually all of Locke’s writing shows him in his favorite mode, that of the essay. Even in this form, however, there are several adaptations: the review essay, the occasional piece, the introductory essay, the editorial, and the “interchapters” of an anthology of other writers. As an essayist Locke was prolific, and so dutiful that I suspect he seldom missed a deadline. Since it is argued here that Locke worked without the guide wires of academic disciplines, it should also be pointed out that some of his essays could be classified or grouped under more than one label. One of the delights awaiting Locke’s faithful reader is the chance to see ideas and values connect across decades of serious thought and recursive concerns.

         Locke’s standing as a public intellectual and his continuing influence in various fields are beyond dispute. While some of the assessments of his role in the nation’s life of the mind have centered on his place in the canon of the Harlem Renaissance, dimming somewhat the unique brilliance that he offered over a four decades long career, his work repays close and repeated reading. Public intellectuals, virtually by definition, do not rely on traditional academic disciplines to guide their thought or extend their influence. This must be done with a certain inner resolve, a given core of beliefs that ramify into an array of issues and situations, to use a word vital in the work of Jean Paul Sartre. Locke can be considered under a set of different labels: philosopher, critic, polymath, educator, editor, and essayist. As the other thinkers and writers of the Renaissance went on to even fuller careers after the putative end of the 1920’s, so Locke’s contributions continued, extending into the 1930’s and 40’s. The Renaissance has sometimes been explored as a struggle of generations, pitting the older men with more settled tastes and standards, like Du Bois and Walter White, against the younger writers like Hughes, Thurman, or Eric Walrond. This simplifies matters, as most such narratives do, though genuine tensions as well as frequent agreement and support rose and fell between and among the various Renaissance writers. If such a scheme were to serve an explanatory function, however, Locke would again play his mediating role. Intellectually equal to the older figures, yet esthetically quite in tune with the younger writers, Locke continued to be as eager to discover new talent as he was to preserve and extend the traditional “legacy.” (In the contributor’s note to the volume that included “Values and Imperatives,” Locke described himself as “more of a philosophical mid-wife to a generation of younger Negro poets, writers and artists than a professional philosopher.”)

         A careful reading of his essays from Locke’s last two decades suggest that his later output differed only in subject matter, not in quality, from the excellence of the eponymous essay, “The New Negro.” Consider as well the volume that that essay introduces, for the anthology The New Negro typifies Locke’s special skill as an editor and orchestrator of arguments towards a common and harmonious goal. Added to this skill is the pleasure to be derived from watching one mind engage a wide variety of subjects while not succumbing to dilettantism. On all the scales that matter, Locke’s work rates very highly, but perhaps most high on the scale that registers distinctive skills as well as distinguished peers. All in all, this collection of essays will give his readers another chance to see Locke as writer and thinker where he belongs, moving about the issues brought to light when we think hard about race, culture, and value.

         The present collection of Locke’s writings is grouped under six rubrics that represent the large and diverse fields in which he thought and write: Literature; Art, Music and Drama; Esthetics; Race; Value; and Democracy. There is also a separate section on Locke’s “Interchapters,” which he composed as essays treating of the ideas in When Peoples Meet.


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    Read Oxford University Press’s description of The Works Of Alain Locke.