Lewes Speakers Festival
20 - 22 July 2018
All Saints Centre, Lewes,
Angela Eagle and Imran Ahmed, Lt General Ben Hodges,
Diane Atkinson, AC Grayling, Florence
Gaub, John Crace, Philip Collins, Salley
Vickers, Sylvia Blackwell, Jonathan Aitken, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Dharshini David, Vicky Pryce,
Ali Ansari, David Fraser, Humphrey
Hawksley and Edzard Ernst.
Book tickets online lewesspeakers festival.com or by phone on 0333 666 3366
Literary Review | july 2018 20
A Dandy in Harlem The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke
By Jeffrey C Stewart (Oxford University Press 932pp £25.99)
After news circulated in 1907 that an African-American had been awarded a Rhodes scholarship for the first time, the recipient was far from pleased with the wave of letters from black and white wellwishers. Their ‘muddying of a purely personal issue of my life with the race problem’ left him intensely irritated, as he confided to his mother. ‘I am not a race problem – I am Alain LeRoy Locke and if these people don’t stop I’ll tell them something that will make them.’ There can be no doubt that Alain Locke was a singular character. After his mother died in 1922, he propped her up on the couch and invited friends to take tea with her. After his own death in 1954, it was discovered that he had stored samples of his lovers’ semen in a box.
And yet a ‘race man’ is what Locke became. Despite his rejection of suggestions that he was a black standard-bearer as he left for Oxford, not to mention the standoffishness he had shown towards the few other black undergraduates at Harvard and the disdain he expressed for workingclass African-Americans, Locke emerged, as Jeffrey Stewart’s massive new biography ably attests, as one of the 20th century’s most important proponents of the idea that black people in the United States and around the world were possessed of a proud and distinctive history, culture and beauty.
For a queer black aesthete intent on bestriding the public sphere, there were few options other than to come to terms with race as a structuring fact of American life, cloak his sexuality and seek to inherit the mantle of black leadership from Booker T Washington and W E B Du Bois. Where those elders had championed, respectively, economic initiative and political protest as the paths to black progress, Locke advocated artistic awakening. But Locke’s metamorphosis, however incomplete, was more than a calculated strategy for selfadvancement. His fascination with Africa’s aesthetic traditions and his excitement about the emergence of a confident, modern black voice in the world grew with each passing year. Still, it was a tightrope act, and Locke did not always maintain his poise.
Born to middle-class but cash-strapped parents in Philadelphia in 1885, Locke is remembered as the self-described ‘midwife’ of the Harlem Renaissance. This outpouring of black creativity peaked during the mid- and late 1920s, finding expression in the literature of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay and Jean Toomer, and in the music of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and countless others. For all their differences, these artists embodied the wider, race-proud ‘New Negro consciousness’ that sought a definitive break with what many AfricanAmericans perceived to be the mentality of the slave era, which their parents or grandparents had endured. Locke’s own faltering efforts at poetry led nowhere, but from his perch as a philosophy professor at Howard University in Washington, DC, a leading black college, he carved out a path to extraordinary visibility as a broker, booster and figurehead for the artistic movement.
Through regular forays to New York, he established himself as a mentor to younger black writers, a client of white publishers and a collaborator with civil rights leaders. In 1925, as editor of the instantly canonical anthology of essays, short fiction and poetry The New Negro: An Interpretation he placed his most enduring stamp on the Harlem Renaissance. Introducing the volume, Locke heralded Harlem as a ‘race capital’ where a modern, cosmopolitan black society was being formed through the interactions of southern, Caribbean and African migrants. At the same time he lauded black America’s emerging artists as the voices of a self-motivated generation making strides rather than issuing demands. This vision of progress and self-sufficiency would soon implode as the Depression wrought its havoc, setting Locke on a tentative journey towards socialism, an ideology he would never seem entirely comfortable espousing.