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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,143


This is the grave of Alain Locke.

Born in 1885 in Philadelphia, Arthur Locke (he changed his first name in 1901), Locke grew up in the Black middle class. In fact, his father was the first Black employee of the Postal Service, which would soon became a repository of good Black employment in a country where that was just so rare. The young boy was encouraged to learn and was soon an academic superstar. He finished near the top of his academic class at Central High School in Philadelphia and then went to Harvard, where he graduated in 1907. He was a philosophy major at a time when William James, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, and George Santayana had made this a real thing in America. Locke was a big Santayana guy, even though the latter was the only non-American.

After graduation, Locke then became the first Black Rhodes Scholar and in fact was the only one until 1953, when two were selected (including John Edgar Wideman). There is a lot of question whether the Rhodes officials knew Locke was Black, but either way, he lived a lonely life at Oxford, isolated, uninvited, discriminated against on a routine basis. That many of the Rhodes Scholars were southern whites very much added to his isolation. These racists were outraged that a Black man was part of their cohort.

A tiny little dandy man who was under five feet tall, Locke did eventually find his way at Oxford and remained there until 1910. Then he went to the University of Berlin to study philosophy. Howard University hired him to teach philosophy in 1912. He stayed there for a few years, then went back to Harvard to write a dissertation, then he returned to Howard as department chair. Howard was a Black university but these institutions often reflected the racism of the time. At the time, Black and white faculty did not get paid equally. Whites got more. So Locke led a fight against this. For that, he was fired in 1925 though brought back in 1928 when his friend Mordecai Johnson became the school’s new president.

Locke soon became the philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance. He wasn’t actually that political in his life, but was tremendously influential on that movement nonetheless. But he believed in Black cultural liberation and the aesthetics around that. In 1925, he published The New Negro, an edited volume of the cultural work coming out of Harlem. This put the Renaissance on the American cultural map and was a tremendously influential contribution to American culture. What Locke absolutely opposed was the uplift politics of the Black middle class. He and W.E.B. DuBois feuded constantly about this. DuBois, who was a major snob, believed that Black culture should provide uplift for the race, by which was meant middle class standards. Locke rightfully saw this as complete hogwash, that the art was valuable for the art’s sake and that pure art like this would do more for the race anyway. Among the people he mentored through this period was Zora Neale Hurston, another of the great artists of the period who had no interest in DuBois’ theories.

Locke also saw race as cultural and not biological, which was a minority view in this era of scientific racism and also helps explain his overall project of promoting Black art, which he saw as equal to any other art on the planet. But that did not mean he was political. In fact, his father had hoped the brilliant boy would become a political person, but he refused this staunchly. He eventually sort of fell into the NAACP orbit, but his rejection of uplift politics and his preference for aesthetics over the street made a political life unlikely for him.

In 1918, Locke converted to Baha’i, which was an unusual move for the time but one that is perhaps not that surprising given his generally searching nature. Locke was also a gay man in a hard era to be gay. This meant that he wasn’t exactly out of the closet but it was also a situation where everyone basically knew that he was gay. He also mentored a lot of gay artists in Harlem during the Renaissance. Locke also tended to fall in love with a lot of artists who were not gay. For example, in 1924, he showed up in Paris and looked up Langston Hughes, not that well known yet. He showed Hughes the town, paying for everything and since Locke knew Paris well, it was quite a time. But Locke also wanted something more from this and Hughes most definitely did not. This was pretty common in his life. He was also basically controlled by his mother until her death, to the point that this was really the major relationship in his life. But he did have a long-running if occasional affair with Countee Cullen, before Cullen married DuBois’ daughter and lived as a heterosexual.

Locke was an enormous promoter of Black art, both African and disaporan, and became a major collector of it, one of the first in the United States. He was one hell of a collector. In fact, it was more than a little obsessive. In fact, when he died and his executors were going through his effects, they found in a box a big collection of semen samples, one from various of his lovers. To say the least, they destroyed that pretty fast! Part of what made The New Negro such a big deal is that Locke had huge hopes for the younger generation to move beyond what he saw as the stilted politics of the past to blow the world away with the Black aesthetic. And it’s hard to argue against him to a certain point; certainly the contributions of the Harlem Renaissance are as important to the modern world as the Black politics of the time, but then the Renaissance itself wouldn’t have been the same without the leftist politics that Locke disliked almost as much as the uplift politics. That didn’t mean that Locke denied the reality of Black oppression. Not at all. He just thought the best was to overcome it was through art.

The 1920s was the peak of Locke’s influence. By the Great Depression, which just decimated Harlem, he was forced to live on the largess of the strange white woman named Charlotte Mason who wanted to redeem the white race through what she saw as pure blackness. She was demanding and odd and demeaned him and she replaced his mother as the key figure in his life, much to the disgust of a lot of the other Renaissance figures. The rise of fascism did force him to engage in politics in a bit more of a real way. But when he tried to write politically, it was so wishy-washy that his friends, such as E. Franklin Frazier, would tell him that his politics were just terrible. He was a lot more effective at promoting Black artists such as Jacob Lawrence, which he did a lot during these years. After World War II, he attempted another giant collection to follow The New Negro, but he never finished it.

Locke had a bad heart and that finally forced him to retire from Howard in 1953. He died the next year in New York. He was 68 years old.

Alain Locke is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

The grave is actually pretty new. His ashes were considered lost for many years. It turned out that they were in a research center at Howard where they were discovered again in 2007. So after a significant period of debate when Howard tried to figure out just what to do here, he was buried in his new grave in 2014.

There is a newish biography of Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart, titled The New Negro: The Life of Alain C. Locke. It is very, very, very long but I learned a lot when I read it last year.

If you would like this series to visit other figures of the Harlem Renaissance, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Zora Neale Hurston is in Fort Pierce, Florida and Countee Cullen is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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