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  • The Man Behind the Harlem Renaissance
  • Sanford Pinsker (bio)
Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher, by Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth. (University of Chicago Press, 2008. 448 pages. $45)

Alain L. Locke (1886–1954) is best known for the introductory essay he wrote to The New Negro (1935), an anthology that brought a generous sampling of fiction, poetry, drama, and essays to a wider American audience and that put the Harlem Renaissance on the map. Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth’s first full-length study of Locke’s life and work takes into account relevant materials found in the Howard University archives and draws from Locke’s extensive correspondence. The result is a rich tapestry of writing on race and American culture, one that Harris and Molesworth describe this way:

In 1948, near the end of his teaching career—and near the end of his life—Locke was asked to teach at the New School in New York City. Given virtual carte blanche, Locke offered three courses directly connected to his life’s work: “The Philosophy of Value,” “Race Relations,” and “The Philosophy of Aesthetic Experience.” Virtually everything Locke had written revolved around these three subjects, which together form a thread connecting the activities and accomplishments that made Locke the most influential African American [End Page lxxx] intellectual born between W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Following Horace Kallen’s lead, Locke used the term cultural pluralism (what now passes as multiculturalism) to describe the balance between a respect for the uniqueness of each personality and a need for that uniqueness to flourish within a democratic ethos.

Leonard Harris, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University, does an admirable job in clearly summarizing Locke’s philosophical treatises and in explaining their connection to the larger context of thought about “value.” Charles Molesworth, a professor of English at Queens College, cuny, guides readers through Locke’s efforts during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, when he championed writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and, later, played an important role in furthering black art and dance.

Much in Locke’s life did not go smoothly. When he became the first African American to become a Rhodes scholar, many of Oxford’s colleges would not accept him; later his elitist mannerisms put off many people. Even those he helped could not resist biting the hand that had helped to feed them—at least in private correspondence. Here is an exasperated Zora Neale Hurston criticizing Locke to James Weldon Johnson: he is, she insists, “a malicious, spiteful little snot that thinks he ought to be the leading Negro because of his degrees.” Nor did the vitriol stop there: “He [Locke] spends his time trying to cut the ground from under everybody else. So far as the young writers are concerned, he runs a mental pawnshop.”

That the black writers who came of age during the Harlem Renaissance can be so mean-spirited should not be surprising; writers are often unkind about other (i.e., competing) writers, and usually have mixed feelings about those, like Locke, who stood on the sidelines, cheering on a wide range of talent. Later we learn that Hurston substantially modified her feelings about Locke.

What matters is that Harris and Molesworth put appropriate shadings in a biography that might have tilted toward hagiography. Alain L. Locke decidedly does not. Nor does it become what Joyce Carol Oates calls “pathography,” a study that emphasizes a writer’s alcoholism, drug addiction, or other maladies at the expense of the art. For example, Alain L. Locke not only was a homosexual but was also one whose exploits became the subject of urban myth. To their credit Harris and Molesworth do not suppress this dimension of Locke’s life (we are told that he was often referred to as “the Proust of Lenox Avenue,” and that, over a lifetime, he had a number of gay friends), nor do they sensationalize it. None of the standard biographical entries about Locke mention his homosexuality, but this deliberate omission no longer makes sense.

The Harris and Molesworth biography also does not falsify the facts of Locke’s nearly...


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