- Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher, and: Slave Songs and the Birth of African American Poetry
Alain L. Locke (1886-1954) was an influential and brilliant interlocutor of the New Negro/ Harlem Renaissance Movement. Harvard graduate (both undergraduate and Ph.D.), Rhodes scholar, Howard University professor for four decades, polymath, and prolific writer on a capacious range of subjects, he is primarily known for editing the widely acclaimed "Bible" of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, Locke mentored dozens of artists and authors. He was, in his words, the "midwife" of mid-twentieth-century black intellectualism. Yet his role as philosopher has often been ignored, and until now, no biography has existed.
Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth have done a tremendous service with this largely superb biography. They have put Locke in perspective, giving him his rightful due without falsely exaggerating his importance. In addition to describing the details of his life, Harris and Molesworth focus on Locke's philosophy: advocacy of pluralism; insistence on relativism concerning race relations; emphasis on social democracy; concepts of "value"; and aesthetic ideas. For Locke, all of these facets were interrelated: pluralism was based on what he called "cultural reciprocity," the concept that every culture has exchangeable "value," and it is through the reciprocal exchange of ideas via education and especially the arts that democracy can flourish.
According to Harris and Molesworth, Locke's pedigree was nurtured by his mother. While educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Berlin, he was exposed to many cultures, which influenced his notion that all cultures have value and that these values are exchangeable. In his search for philosophic roots, Locke developed the concept of cosmopolitanism: a network of ideas based on harmony, tolerance, and critical inquiry of other cultures. This cosmopolitanism provided "the core of Locke's ideas [with] the need for 'cultural reciprocity' and his special sense of multiculturalism, which he would spend the next several decades developing and promulgating" (76). As a philosopher, he believed that values are fungible, contextual, and multifaceted. For Locke, "cultural reciprocity," write the authors, "increases understanding between peoples and aids in the elimination of oppressive stereotypes and destructive feelings of group or racial supremacy" (93).
Influenced by anthropologist Franz Boas, sociologist Georg Simmel, American pragmatists John Dewey and William James, the value philosophies of Alexius Meinong and Josiah Royce, and W. E. B. Du Bois's theories of race relations, Locke shaped his philosophical ideas. Values for him are interpretative rather than empirical; facts are important, but data alone cannot tell the whole story. The emphasis on values formed the core of his race theory. According to Harris and Molesworth, Locke averred that "there is no scientific basis for race or racism"; that "the cultures of people were complex and hybrid historical phenomena"; and that he "did not accept the idea that races were permanent" (122). Locke was a moderate in his views; he did not subscribe to racial separation, but he did recognize group contributions in art and culture. Locke, write Harris and Molesworth, "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 for each to encapsulate its values into a representative type" (125). The authors further stress that "Having embraced pluralism in terms of values and eliminated any scientific basis for racial distinctions, Locke concluded that one could speak of Negro culture only as a composite of racial, national, and regional idioms" (339). [End Page 759]
If there are faults with this book's account, they consist in the insufficient details concerning Locke's pivotal role in American pragmatism and African American drama. The authors tell us that John Dewey's work "would become central to the courses Locke taught in philosophy at Howard" (38); that Locke's key 1935 philosophical essay "Values and Imperatives...