Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dr. Alain LeRoy Locke

Dr. Alain Leroy Locke

"We're going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe."
- Dr. Martin Luther King


As a Philosopher and an intellect, Alain LeRoy Locke was an enormously influential figure of his and any time. His philosophical theory, "Cultural Pluralism" was already matured and influencing many when he received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1918. Almost 100 years later, his ideas and convictions are as applicable, resounding and inspirational. 

He was the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance and his legacy will forever be linked to it and the artists he promoted as well as the cultural awakening it produced and the Civil Rights movement it fostered. As powerful and influential as the Harlem Renaissance was to the African American movement, it is only a fraction of Dr. Locke's accomplishments.

Soft spoken, direct and strong in his convictions based upon his deep intellectual reasoning, he was a persuasive communicator that cast influence upon the consciousness of race in America as directly and with as much benign and gentle force as the moon on the tides.


In the same year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Locke was born into a family that valued education and was blessed with innate intellect.  His grandfather had been a free man and was an educator, himself educated at Cambridge University. His father graduated from Howard University with a degree in law and his mother was a teacher. (Washington)

Alain was their only child, and while his father passed on when he was but six years old, the home environment was cultured and sophisticated. His mother supported herself and Alain with her teaching position and made education a priority for her son. Early in his childhood, Alain fell ill with a fever that damaged his heart and restricted his physical activities. Instead, his childhood was filled with the piano, the violin and voracious reading. (Reuben)

The Genius Revealed

Harvard Graduation, 1918
Alain graduated high school in 1902, second in his class. He then studied at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy becoming first in his class, earning a Bachelors of Arts. He then studied at Harvard; while there he completed the four year program in three, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Magna Cum Laude, earning his second bachelors degree.(Linneman)

The preceding list of accomplishments are extraordinary and rare and made doubly so by the fact that Alain was a black man accomplishing them in the era of Jim Crow Laws.
While many white American scholars were seeking to prove the intellectual inferiority of African Americans to justify racial segregation, Locke became a symbol of achievement and a powerful argument for offering African Americans equal opportunity at white educational institutions” (Carter)

On the heels of his masterful performance at Harvard, he was named the first African American Rhodes Scholar; one of many firsts that Alain Locke would achieve. While at Oxford, he would receive a degree in literature and then go on to study advanced philosophy at the University of Berlin. He would later return to Harvard and earn a doctorate in philosophy in 1918. 


 Locke's philosophy centered on the concept that racial differences were healthy and necessary in a culturaly plural democracy. That each group can and should identify with its own unique culture and history, recognize those values in others, while contributing to the democracy as an equal and contemporary.  (Reuben)
His intellect and mastery of communication and a non-confrontational yet armor clad truth compelled white America to recognize and accept him as an example of "Negro potential" while simultaneously putting black America on notice that they were more than what they had been. It was time for them to shed ideas forced upon them,shoulder the weight of forging new identities and participate in the American experience.

Harlem Renaissance

As per his philosophical creed, Locke believed that the expression of the African American through art, music and poetry would be a liberating influence for both blacks and whites alike. He believed it would open the eyes of the oppressed black youth and give them something to aspire to as well as open the eyes of the whites to the fallacy of their attitudes towards the black community.

He strived to make the black population understand that they were not the things that others had held them to be or had told them they were. He wanted his people to shed those ideas and become themselves, proud in their uniqueness, satisfied with their efforts for personal excellence and secure in their place in the world.

“The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem.” - Locke

His article in "Survey Graphic" reported a movement underway in black Harlem. An emerging middle class that had time on its hands, disposable income and an interest in the arts. The article that later became a book, was the launchpad for the Harlem Renaissance, read by thousands and thousands of black youth.

The "New Negro" became the symbol of a new era, documenting the social and cultural innovations of the younger African American generation. It contributed to a growing race consciousness, self-confidence, and sophistication of an increasingly urbanized African American population. (Carter)

He spotlighted young talents that he was actively supporting and promoting. Artists like; Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora N. Hurston and many others. 



Langston Hughes

''I swear to the Lord
I still can't see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.''
Jim Crow's Last Stand -1942



 Countee Cullen

       ''Not yet has my heart or head
        In the least way realized
        They and I are civilized.''
          My Souls High Song, c. 1927



 Zora Neal Hurston

“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder, so much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937

The Professor

A few years before the publication of the "New Negro", Dr. Locke had accepted a full time position with Howard University as Professor of Philosophy. At this time the University had an all-white board and president. Dr. Locke, the faculty and student body all shared a vision of making Howard University the preeminent black university in America; however the board wanted to maintain its traditional non-racial status.  The difference in visions for the future of Howard University lead to Dr. Locke, and others, being dismissed. However he did return to Howard in 1928 with the installation of the university’s first black president. Locke chaired the Philosophy department until his retirement in 1953. (Carter)

Between 1940 and his retirement, he was in demand on the lecture circuit and as a visiting scholar. During this time, he made New York City a second home accepting visiting scholar positions at the New School for Social research and later at City College of New York. After 1948 he began to teach at both City College and Howard concurrently. He retired from teaching in 1953, and counted as one of his last major accomplishments, the installation of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Howard.  (Carter)
In retirement, he had intended to devote his full attention and energy towards a work that he hoped would become his opus, the work he would be most remembered by titled, “The Negro in American Culture”. He would not finish it. 

His Faith

It has been uncovered through research that Dr. Locke converted to the Baha’i faith in 1918. There have been several letters found between Locke and the leader of the Baha’i discussing philosophical and spiritual topics.

As Dr. Buck states in his book “Alain Locke; Faith and Philosophy”, “As the youngest independent world religion, the Bahá’í Faith was clearly a leader in advocating racial harmony and full integration during the Jim Crow era.” Factors that would have surely drawn Dr. Locke to this faith.
The Great Symbol of Baha'i
 According to the Baha'i website;
"Bahá’ís believe that there is one God, that all humanity is one family, and that there is a fundamental unity underlying religion. They recognize that the coming of Bahá'u'lláh has opened the age for the establishment of world peace, when, as anticipated in the sacred scriptures of the past, all humanity will achieve its spiritual and social maturity, and live as one united family in a just, global society.…the Bahá’í Faith brings new social principles appropriate to the needs of a global society, such as the oneness of mankind, the equality of rights and opportunities for men and women, the abolition of all forms of prejudice, the essential harmony of science and religion, universal education, the need for a universal auxiliary language, and the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth."


The year after his retirement he fell ill. It was his heart that had been damaged as a child by rheumatic fever. For most of 1954, he was in and out of several hospitals in New York seeking treatment, but finally on June ninth, he succumbed in Mount Sinai Hospital. Visited regularly by friends and luminaries, he reportedly knew the grim prognosis and was prepared. That same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board, ending public school segregation. 


Dr. Christopher Buck:
Without Locke, there may not have been a Martin Luther King. The New Negro movement, for which Locke was the chief architect and spokesman, was singularly responsible for inculcating and cultivating the requisite group consciousness and solidarity necessary for the mobilization of African Americans during the Civil Rights era. 
 W.E.B Du Bois:
His quest for truth and logic was no easy task. It was often contradictory and disappointing. It either appealed in vain to understand or found no understanding to which it could appeal. It was a thankless task….And yet its faithful pursuit is more than living. It is more than death.
 Ralph J. Bunche:

He is gone, but somehow I cannot fully believe it. Too few, perhaps, well understood or adequately appreciated Alain Locke. Those of us who did have lived a richer life for it. Philosopher he was, thinker and writer, an intellectual; a man of conviction with courage of his convictions. The American society has lost a noted scholar and an outstanding citizen. Negro Americans have lost a great pioneer and a fervent protagonist. I have lost a good friend.


Works Cited

Buck, Christopher. Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy. Los Angeles, CA: Kalimat, 2005. Print.

Carter, Jacoby Adeshei, "Alain LeRoy Locke", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Linneman, Russel J. ed. Alain Locke: Reflections on a Modern Renaissance Man. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1982. 

Reuben, Paul P. PAL (perspectives in American Literature): A Research and Reference Guide. Turlock, CA: California State University, Stanislaus, 1993. Print.

Washington, Johnny. Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism. NY: Greenwood Press. 1986. 





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