Jeffrey C. Stewart on the Genesis of Alain Locke’s Transformative “New Negro Aesthetic”
"In putting race and aesthetics in conversation with one another, Locke forever changed our understanding of both.”
Imagine the scene: A middle-aged, still youthful African American sits at an outdoor café on the Italian Riviera, in the town of San Remo, sometime in August 1924. Barely taller than the little children playing in the street before him, the man is dressed in all-white clothes to shield him, barely, from the pounding rays of the summer sun. Tourists saunter by him, taking no notice, while the Italian organ grinder leans in for a tip, which the notoriously parsimonious Alain Locke obliges by giving him a dime. As he soaks up the sun and the scene, however, his mind is somewhere else—in the cafes of Harlem, that inner suburb of New York City, whose speakeasies, nightclubs, and basement dives he also habituates (only at night and often incognito), where Black people are dancing, drinking, and writhing the night away.
For months in the United States, he struggled to find his footing in an assignment to edit a special issue of a magazine, Survey Graphic, on the meaning of Harlem and the new movement of Black creatives who claim it as their spiritual home. Lying in front of him on his outdoor table in San Remo are not tourist guides or restaurant menus but poems, short stories, and essays by these writers who are Black, youthful, sexually ambiguous, and unafraid to identify themselves in print as Negro—the respectful term for African Americans in the 1920s. For Locke, a Philadelphia aesthete, it is difficult to marry his own sense of the aesthetic, the love of beautiful form in all creation, with the particular self-assertion and pride bubbling up in places far removed from the summer splendor of Italy, like Harlem.
Something in Locke’s trip abroad dislodged his Victorian resistance to seeing Black people en masse as inherently creative, as quintessentially beautiful. What changed his perception? Was it getting away from the segregation of America to suffuse himself in the world of art without fear of being denied entrance to cultural events because of the color of his skin? Was it his encounter with Langston Hughes, one of the young poets featured in the forthcoming magazine, whom he had met in Paris and wined and dined throughout Europe only to be dragged into the slums of places like Venice by this young radical in search of the poor people whom Hughes believed were the true artists of any culture? Perhaps Locke did not know.
But something in his summer opened his eyes to seeing Black people aesthetically and not as the victims of social forces that sociologists and political scientists decreed they were. Instead, Locke began to unearth a connection between the young Black creatives he wanted to introduce to America and the Black masses whose agency in leaving the South and pouring into the urban North had transformed Harlem into a “crucible” of diversity that would welcome even queer Black expatriates like himself.Something in Locke’s trip abroad dislodged his Victorian resistance to seeing Black people en masse as inherently creative, as quintessentially beautiful.
Sitting thousands of miles away from Black America, in transatlantic privilege, Locke began to see the papers in front of him with enlightened eyes. He realized that the boldness he found in the writings of these largely middle-class Black writers was connected to the agency of young Black working-class people who had not only left the South but left behind an old identity. These two distinct classes had found one another in Harlem and together were changing what it meant to be a Negro in America.
Searching for a metaphor of that changed consciousness, Locke seized on the term “the New Negro,” habitually if inconsistently used by young Blacks since the end of Reconstruction to describe a manly Black identity, as a metaphor for the new synthesis of agency he saw evidenced in the 1920s in places like Harlem. In drafts titled “The New Setting” and “The New Negro,” Locke would finally be able to say what he could see—that a fundamental swerve in the consciousness of Black Americans had occurred, and the Negroes’ future would never be the same as the Old Negro past.
The New Negro aesthetic was a dance Alain Locke had to learn, ironically, abroad. Only away from the racism and homophobia of America could he fuse his thinking about aesthetics—why art, literature, music, and performance mattered— with his thinking about the Negro experience in the 1920s to offer something new, a conception of Black modernity as a New Negro creativity that would transform America as well as Black people. As he wrote Paul Kellogg, the editor of Survey Graphic, before leaving Italy, Locke was returning to America with a “full kit” of essays. Getting outside of America, Locke had gotten outside of the usual ways of portraying Black people in America and finally been able to see the Negro aesthetically.
The essays and articles collected in this volume are the result of that new attitude and the struggle to inculcate that New Negro aesthetic, as I am calling it here, into the minds of the twentieth century. Locke spent the rest of his life trying to redefine what it meant to be Black in America and to suggest that there were rich cultural rewards that came from realizing that being African American was not a problem at all. Because we tend to associate the word “aesthetics” with a search for the universal principles of art, bereft of the dirty business of race, it is important to recognize that in putting race and aesthetics in conversation with one another, Locke forever changed our understanding of both. For Locke refused to turn the discussion of the New Negro aesthetic into simply an exercise in “art for art’s sake” or deploy aesthetics simply for the purpose of better propaganda for the race.
Locke’s critique of the American scene was simultaneously a critique of the Negro scene—the way that reacting against racism had contorted Black thinking into asserting one of two untenable monotheisms: either race had nothing to do with one’s creative expressions as a human being or race completely determined all one needed to know about the humanity of Black people, especially their efforts at self-expression. Art was thus crucially important when discussing the attempt to escape this double bind— epitomized in the notion of a New Negro, a rebel against all old configurations of the Negro streaming out of the nineteenth century— because art was one of the very few spaces in which Negroes, according to Locke, could be completely and utterly themselves.
To be a New Negro poet, novelist, actor, musician, dancer, or filmmaker was to commit oneself to an arc of self-discovery, an exploration of what and who the Negro was— and was “gonna be”— without fear that one would disappoint the White or Black bystander. In committing to that path, Locke asserted, Negro artists would access something inaccessible through the natural attitudes of American racial politics— one would uncover a reality, a domain, a being-in-the-world that was rich and bountiful in its creative possibilities. They could turn off the noise of racism and see people of African descent for whom we really are— an abundantly creative people who have transformed, powerfully and perpetually, the culture of wherever history or social forces have landed us. The New Negro, in other words, need think of herself not as America’s vexing problem but as a crucible of creativity for the whole world.
But why Europe? Why did Locke have to go to San Remo, Italy, to see Harlem and Black aesthetics in their proper light? Six months after Locke’s special Harlem issue of Survey Graphic appeared on March 1, 1925, Josephine Baker would open in La Revue Nègre, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, and become an international celebrity, headlining a series of sold-out shows throughout Europe that would propel her into European society. Nothing like it existed in America. The next year, Paul Robeson would head to London on the start of a European tour performing African American spirituals and, in 1928, he would become an international celebrity for his performance in the London production of Show Boat. By the 1930s, Robeson, now living in London, would be the most famous American abroad. Europe seemed to recognize the Negro as the quintessential artist she in fact was but could not become in America, as Locke suggested in his tribute “Roland Hayes: An Appreciation,” about that Negro singer’s success among highly critical European audiences.To leave the South, to leave the land where one’s ancestors were buried, was an act of reinvention, a fostering of a new self out of a vision of a new future, that redefined what it meant to be Negro.
It was the modernist European dramatist Max Reinhardt who showed Locke and his ally Charles S. Johnso—the editor of Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League, and the publisher of many of Locke’s articles—that Black musical comedy was one of the purest forms of modernist theater he had ever seen. His enthusiasm, as Locke recorded in his article “Max Rheinhardt Reads the Negro Dramatic Horoscope,” went beyond that of Locke and Johnson, who saw Black musical comedy through the lens of their bourgeois upbringing in Black Victorian culture. Europe provided the doorway into a new consciousness that form, rather than sociopolitical content, was in fact the terrain of genius for Black expression. As Locke wrote in “A Note on African Art,” European modernist artists had been the first to view African sculpture as art and as grist for theories of race and anthropology.
But Europeans’ prescient appreciation was not limited to visual and performing arts; African diasporic writers like Claude McKay, René Maran, and Langston Hughes found recognition, awards, and appreciation as artists in Europe that eluded them in America.
African Americans were able to reinvent themselves as artists in Europe, and thus fulfill one of the core values of the New Negro—reinvention through aesthetic form, which had been Black people’s contribution to American culture for over a hundred years. In fact, Locke’s conception of the New Negro, which he began to explore in “Enter the New Negro” but developed over decades of thinking and writing about it, was the most radical conceptual frame for aesthetics that Locke developed in his lifetime. Indeed, the articles “Harlem” and “Enter the New Negro” begin this collection precisely because the Great Migration, on the one hand, and Harlem, on the other, made visible to the public for the first time, according to Locke, that African Americans were fundamentally a people of reinvention.
This was not simply some wild theory of a Black academic. As the literary critic and historian Eleanor Traylor noted, the folk tradition of Black Americans was fundamentally a tradition of creating agency out of the depths of depravity and social death. Locke articulated this first as a social movement when he wrote, in “Harlem,” that the Great Migration had filled northern cities and states with hundreds of thousands of Negroes beginning in World War I not because they were pushed out of the South but because they chose to leave.
Rather than social forces, Locke believed that the Great Migration occurred because of an act of consciousness, a willingness on the part of Black Americans to seize, as he put it, an opportunity for a different future than the present had saddled them with. To leave the South, to leave the land where one’s ancestors were buried, was an act of reinvention, a fostering of a new self out of a vision of a new future, that redefined what it meant to be Negro. In this new conception, to be Negro meant to be a risk taker, a change agent, and a visionary willing to invest in that vision and make it a reality. Rather than a progressive theory of history, the New Negro invoked a cyclical one, a historical imagination inspired by aesthetics displayed as a social reality, asserting that Black Americans could invent a new reality for ourselves as a people by fundamentally approaching our lives as works of art that we can compose.
From THE NEW NEGRO AESTHETIC: Selected Writings by Alain Locke, edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey C. Stewart.