Alain Locke’s Controversial Vision of a “Negro Renaissance”
On the Fallout from His Battle Against Entrenched Paternalism
Less than four months after the spectacular “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” issue of the magazine Survey Graphic appeared, Alain Locke, its guest editor, was out of a job. On June 16, 1925, Emmett Scott, Secretary-Treasurer of Howard University’s Board of Trustees, wrote to Locke: “Voted: That, Alain LeRoy Locke, Professor of Philosophy, be not reemployed for the school year 1925-26.” By way of explanation, Scott continued: “After very full discussion of the matter, in all its phases, your place, among others, it was decided, could be vacated and the work of the University not unduly suffer.” That might seem surprising, for during the winter quarter, 1925, Locke had carried a heavy load of teaching, including Philosophy 2 Ethics, Philosophy 126 Modern Philosophy: Renaissance to the Present, Philosophy 129 Race Contacts (for graduate students), and Philosophy 130 Aesthetics and Literary Criticism.
Of course, on another level, Scott’s comment reflected the low value placed on the teaching of philosophy, rather than religion, at Negro colleges and universities in the mid-1920s. As if to ensure that Locke did not feel unappreciated, Scott concluded: “I am directed to add an expression of the Executive Committee’s appreciation on the behalf of the Board of Trustees of the services you have rendered since you have been connected with the University.”
How could the premier Negro institution of higher education in the United States fire its most-educated faculty member, especially after he had made history, again, by editing arguably the most important statement of Negro efficacy in 1925? The answer, while complex, came down to this: the New Negro was not a welcome attitude in all quarters of Negro America, especially among administrators of institutional Negro America who viewed the New Negro and its criticality of racial hegemony as a nuisance to be dismissed or, if that did not suffice, to be crushed.
Locke’s problem was simple. He was not only the principal chronicler of the New Negro—he was a New Negro himself, an upstart rebel against the kind of paternalist control that had become the staple of Negro higher education. For years he had served as the secretary of the faculty committee peppering the board of trustees at Howard University with memoranda demanding better salaries for the faculty. As recently as January 1925, Locke, as secretary of the faculty committee on salaries, had penned a caustic letter to Jesse Moorland, chairman of the Budget Committee of the Howard Board of Trustees, challenging the board’s statement in the press that most of the recent increase in salaries went to the teachers and not the staff. Locke was the face of faculty rebellion against the board’s obfuscations about faculty salaries.
Locke had been able to keep his distance from this caldron of faculty rebellion against the board of trustees and Howard’s White president by being away almost every other year and every summer since his mother’s death in 1922; but that absenteeism inadvertently confirmed the university’s judgment, coldly expressed by Scott, his campus nemesis, when he wrote that Locke’s “place, among others, it was decided, could be vacated and the work of the University not unduly suffer.” Locke’s sexuality, his need to be away to live and love openly, his need to be abroad to find inspiration to reenter Black America with fresh ideas—all of that combined to make him expendable despite that he was again a household name in educated Negro America.
The tension between Locke and Howard revolved around different conceptions of the meaning of education. Declaring a Negro Renaissance in the Survey Graphic he edited, Locke neglected to mention that a broad transition in the notion of education had also accompanied the emergence of new art during the Italian Renaissance. Educated at Harvard under Irving Babbitt and Barrett Wendell, Locke imbibed the notion that the 15th century in Italy ushered in an educational revolution that consigned scholasticism to historical dustbins and launched humanism as the foundation of modern liberal arts and scientific education. This new education was as important as the new art in launching the new subjectivity of the Italian Renaissance and it was no different in the Negro Renaissance 500 years later. Having struggled throughout his teaching career at Howard against what he believed was an outmoded form of education that suppressed the subjectivity of Negro students as well as Negro professors, Locke saw himself on the side of a renaissance generation, as was exemplified in his freshmen lecture, “The Ethics of Culture,” making self-directed humanism the key to education at Howard.
But Locke also did not mention in the Survey Graphic or The New Negro: An Interpretation that the earlier renaissance was also a period of intrigue, murder of leaders, abuse of power by patrons, and the fractured dismemberment of the city, Florence, that had birthed it. Silenced in Locke’s utopic vision of renaissance was a dark side—colonialism, violence, exploitation, and the need to control the masses of the people so that the few, the gifted, and the anointed could pursue the life of art and humanities. The more contemporary Mexican Renaissance had as its wider goal destroying the vestiges of colonial thinking in its citizens through a revolutionary education system that would enable the “New Man” to emerge. But Locke had not wanted to announce publicly that for a real spiritual awakening to occur among American Negroes, there needed to be a fundamental change in the Negro world of education and the power relations that kept it conservative. His dismissal showed there were those intent on keeping such change from happening.
Most important, by downplaying the protest element in New Negro consciousness in the Harlem issue of the Survey Graphic, Locke silenced the strongest expressions of New Negro subjectivity in the mid-1920s—that of the Black student protest occurring on Negro university campuses! Just one month before the Harlem issue appeared, Fisk University, one of the oldest and most respected Negro universities in the United States, had erupted in a student rebellion against its White president, Fayette McKenzie, and his strict student codes of dress and conduct, and his suppression of student voices on campus. Stoked by the graduation speech a year earlier by none other than W.E.B. Du Bois criticizing the president for his dictatorial rule and questionable use of Black women students to sing at White men’s clubs for money, students disrupted the campus on February 4, 1925. In response, McKenzie sent White Nashville police onto campus to arrest students in their dormitories. Formerly divided over McKenzie’s tenure, because of his success in raising money, the Black community unified in its criticism of the president, forcing him to resign.
Rebellion was endemic on the streets of Harlem, in working-class unions among the newly migrated, and in women’s organizations to fight for the rights of laundresses. While Locke acknowledged such rebellion in “Youth Speaks,” he downplayed its political significance in favor of the spiritual catharsis he favored. But the coming storm in his life would test both his spiritual poise and his avoidance of protest, since art could not save him.
Despite the popularity of the Harlem issue, various aspects of its new approach to Negro subjectivity angered some in the Black community. Clashes over how the Survey Graphic represented Black people and Harlem erupted immediately after its publication. James Weldon Johnson wrote to Locke on March 10 to complain about how Winthrop Lane’s article, “The Grim Side of Harlem,” had provided ammunition for unfavorable commentary about Harlem in the New York World and the Savannah Morning News. Johnson harangued that more White newspapers would use Lane’s article to condemn the Negro in Harlem, judging it “a serious slip” to have published Lane’s litany of Harlem’s ills—the pervasiveness of policy-playing among poor Blacks, the exorbitant rents charged by Black real estate agents of poor Black migrants, the dozens of quack doctors, incompetent pharmacists, and various hustlers that took advantage, in Lane’s language, of the “childlike” gullibility of the poor Negro migrant from the South—in the Harlem number. This was precisely the kind of mistake that the protest tradition’s tendency to focus on White racism avoided—blaming the victim for the ills of the American social order. Johnson, it seemed, wanted Negro beauty without Negro truth.
“Despite the popularity of the Harlem issue, various aspects of its new approach to Negro subjectivity angered some in the Black community.”
Locke handed the letter over to Kellogg, who responded with a serious rebuttal. He asserted that an objective view of Harlem had to include coverage of real problems, and that the right response was not to blame the messenger, but organize to help social workers and others on the scene eradicate the evils Lane documented. Kellogg welcomed Johnson and John Nail, the Black real estate developer, also incensed by the article, to help social workers deal with these problems, and even welcomed them to submit replies to Lane’s assertions. Neither did, in part, perhaps, because Nail’s real estate operation was accused of charging exorbitant rents, which some said fueled the need for unlawful sources of income. Neither took up Kellogg’s suggestion to clean up Harlem. They were simply angry that Lane had outed Harlem and that progressive organizations like the NAACP were doing nothing to combat the day-to-day problems experienced by the masses of Black people in Harlem. Of course, such exposés as Lane’s helped southern media suggest Blacks stay in the South, rather than risk the “immorality” of northern cities. New Negro “openness” was causing problems.
Luckily, there was no rush of newspapers to join the Savannah Morning News in its indictment. But the deeper question remained: how true was Locke’s forecast of a renaissance of a people in Harlem if the story of success was marred by serious social, economic, and moral failures? Even a Black New York newspaper questioned Locke’s rosy view of Harlem’s prospects. The New York Age argued Harlem was not a site of economic self-determination. Under the headline: “Survey of Business Development on Seventh Avenue,” the Age reported, “colored men own 40 percent of business but whites operate the places that net the largest profits.” That challenged Locke’s assertion that Harlem represented a new phase in Black-White power relations, since from a Marxian perspective, a cultural advance had to reflect a change in economic relations. It also undermined the renaissance analogy, since the Age’s statistics suggested that a true bourgeoisie had not emerged in Harlem. How could an economically marginal people produce beauty on a service worker’s salary? Locke never accepted the defeatism implicit in the anomalies reported by Lane or the Age, but the arguments exposed the economic problem of Black cultural and educational advancement: part of why colleges and universities like Fisk had to have men like McKenzie as president was to beg enough money from philanthropic Whites to keep them afloat. Soon, this would also become an issue for Locke’s aesthetic agenda as well.
More stinging critiques of Locke’s leadership emerged, however, when at a meeting in Harlem, Paul Kellogg was asked by some residents why Locke, a non-resident, had been chosen as guest editor. Kellogg answered that question and received an ovation; but the implication lingered—Locke was barely known in Harlem. Other African Americans criticized some of Reiss’s portraits, especially “Two Public Schoolteachers,” which also appeared in the exhibition of Reiss’s portraits organized by Ernestine Rose, the librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. At a meeting, Elise McDougald wrote Locke, “One Mr. Williams wondered if the whole art side of the issue were a ‘piece of subtle propaganda to prejudice the white reader.’ He told us that ‘Should he meet those two schoolteachers in the street, he would be afraid of them.’ It happened that one of them, Miss Price had come in late with me from another meeting. When an opportune moment arrived, she stood to express her regret that she would frighten him but claimed the portrait as a ‘pretty good likeness.’”
Locke reacted swiftly to the challenge made to his editorial authority in selecting Reiss to portray Harlem. Published in the May 1925 issue of Opportunity, “To Certain of Our Philistines,” Locke called Reiss’s critics “Philistines,” who were not reacting out of an aesthetic judgment, but out of their own prejudice against the dark-skinned figures in the portraits. Their internal race prejudice “distorts all true artistic values,” he wrote, “with the irrelevant social values of ‘representative’ and ‘unrepresentative,’ ‘favorable’ and ‘unfavorable’—and threatens a truly racial art with the psychological bleach of ‘lily-whitism.’ This Philistinism cannot be tolerated.” Defending Reiss’s portrait of the teachers, he wrote: “It happens to be my particular choice among a group of 30 more or less divergently mannered sketches; and not for the reason that it is one of the most realistic but for the sheer poetry and intense symbolism back of it. I believe this drawing reflects in addition to good type portraiture of its sort, a professional ideal, that peculiar seriousness, that race redemption spirit, that professional earnestness and even sense of burden which I would be glad to think representative of both my profession and especially its racial aspects.” It did: both teachers clearly wore Phi Beta Kappa keys with an open magazine, perhaps Opportunity, in front of them. As usual, it was their skin color and their unassimilated Negro features that caused the bourgeoisie to recoil.
Being gay, Locke could see the bankruptcy of the Black bourgeoisie’s conception of what and who is “representative” in a different light. A Black middle-class viewer of Reiss’s portraits might perceive “A College Lad” as representative, because the very light-skinned, Anglo-looking man wearing a suit, and a serious pose, epitomized a Black Victorian ideal. But if this bourgeoisie knew that he was also sometimes a lover of Countee Cullen, then for most of them Harold Jackman would cease to be “representative.” By contrast, the teachers, with their dark skin color, tired-looking faces, and relaxed clothing, were perhaps more “representative,” on the basis of conventional heterosexual morality, than “A College Lad.” Locke saw the irony of such categories and the inability of those who might seem representative in one set of values to live up to all of the criteria the aggressively assimilated imposed on those who “represented” them. The irony of the New Negro movement was that it was led by those like Locke, Cullen, Jackman, Hughes, and Walrond, to name only a few, who were “representative” only because they lived an open secret. Locke, who always hated skin color prejudice among Negroes, knew it was just another indication of the pressing need for a new vision of the ideal society for Black people.
Locke also dismissed the notion that a Negro American artist would have produced better portraits of the Negro. Since American society characterized Black people as lacking in beauty, “Negro artists, themselves victims of the academy-tradition,” they tended to avoid serious artistic study of them. Instead, modern European artists, such as Reiss and Auguste Mambour, had developed “a new style or at least a fresh technique” in order to adequately portray a “new subject”—Africans and people of African descent. As a transnationalist, Locke realized that the outsider had something profound to contribute, especially to highly provincial societies. For Locke, that justified his decision to go with Reiss, for being from Europe and having grown up outside of American racial iconography gave him a unique perspective and access to European modernist traditions with which to depict a New Negro, one that transcended even American Negro aesthetic notions of “representativeness.”
Beyond simply defending a particular drawing or his choice of Reiss, Locke made an ethical argument. He claimed that the emergence of the New Negro meant the birth of a new set of ideas. One of those was that African American life had moved away from aggressive emulation of White American values toward the search for an alternative, healthy, more self-accepting value system. Another was that the quest for a better life among Blacks was not exclusively racial, that Whites were part of this process, and that progressively minded allies existed among Whites who were critical to the unfolding of a new way of being Black in the world. Perhaps most profoundly, Locke was asserting that Black life and values themselves were going to have to change. The focus on the pigmentation of those who represented the Negro bourgeoisie (or whether they lived in their neighborhoods) had to give way to focus on whether their consciousness enhanced Negro identity and culture. What Locke was attempting with the New Negro was very subtle and perceived by some as dangerous—to stimulate an awakening among Black Americans to their unique cultural particularity, but also demand that that particularity lead to a broader universality and acceptance of internal and external difference than was common in provincial Black communities. National awakening could not be allowed to become knee-jerk essentialism.
From The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke. Used with permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey C. Stewart.