'The New Negro' explores Alain Locke not only as writer but also as a thinker and a fighter
Stewart's impressive new book confronts for the whole of its great length the “two-ness” described often by W. E. B. Du Bois in his masterpiece, "The Souls of Black Folk."
Jeffrey Stewart's impressive new book, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, confronts for the whole of its great length the “two-ness” described often by W. E. B. Du Bois in his masterpiece, "The Souls of Black Folk" – “this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
In describing Locke's life as a black man, a thinker and fighter in social causes, and a homosexual, Stewart, professor of black studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, must in a way describe many different Alain Lockes. That such a gripping and cohesive narrative could be forged out of such fractured material is no mean accomplishment.
Locke was born in 1885 in Philadelphia and graduated from Harvard in 1907. He became the first African-American Rhodes Scholar (although there were quite a few places at Oxford University where he was forbidden by race to enter). In 1910, he went to the University of Berlin, studying the philosophical disciplines that he would pursue for the rest of his life. In 1912, he became a professor at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University; in 1918, he received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard, after which he returned to Howard as chair of the philosophy department, where he wrote and taught until his retirement in 1953.
Stewart's work takes its title from a concept and a book: in 1925, Locke produced "The New Negro," an anthology of black American writings from a wider variety of authors including Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, Charles Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen. "The New Negro" instantly became the seminal handbook of the literary movement Locke would do more to create than anybody else, the Harlem Renaissance; its purpose, wrote Locke, was “to register the transformations of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years.”
Through vision and encouragement, Locke played a pivotal role in the creative careers of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, corresponding with them (Stewart's book is a treasure trove of Locke's correspondence, including some letters the author clearly wanted recipients to burn), advising them, and championing them, seeking always to establish the “new Negro” literary identity, in which African-Americans would both embrace their own cultural heritages and reach out to the culture at large.
Stewart's literary analysis of this movement and its many works, offshoots, and descendants is unerringly sharp and interesting (for instance, about Locke's appreciation for later writers like Richard Wright, he observes: “the real attraction for Locke was Wright's powerful prose, its searing, cutting, angry attack on the whole system of silences that hid the extreme social and physical violence that underlay Jim Crow in Black lives”), and he refreshingly includes as much that speaks against his subject as speaks for him. Locke sometimes irritated or angered even those writers he'd most heavily influenced, and the feuds and backbiting that sometimes resulted are examined impartially in these pages.
But the book's main strength is its investigation of Locke's tangled personal life. A questing motif is easily visible in that investigation; Locke's complex nature guaranteed that he would be forever searching for acceptance, even in 1910 Berlin, which Stewart describes as his spiritual home: “Here was a city with the kind of industrial might and cultural modernity that all twentieth-century cities should offer. The cleanliness, orderliness, punctuality, and obsessiveness of the Germans matched perfectly Locke's own fastidious temperament.” Teaching at Howard and living in Washington, DC, Locke had to deal with the “gossip, innuendo, and scandal that dominated social relations in Black bourgeois Washington” – an environment that once again kept him an outsider: “Locke knew he could never feel completely comfortable in Washington, because no matter how much he excelled academically or socially his sexuality made him an outsider to its patriarchal culture.”
Stewart excavates details of Locke's experience from countless letters. The Black Washington of his day was “defined” by heterosexuality; Locke's discretion had to be ironclad. Berlin offered slightly more freedom in this regard, but the pressure of Du Bois' “two-ness” was never very far away.
This is a lavishly detailed study: every period of Locke's life is studied at length and readers follow that life through Europe and Washington and Harlem right down to Locke's death in 1954. In the concept of the New Negro, Stewart writes, Locke “put his finger on the often-ignored but absolutely crucial feature of the African American experience – the capacity of an oppressed people to reinvent itself time and again in the most mean circumstances one could imagine.” Locke himself was constantly re-inventing in a life that defied easy categorization. Jeffrey Stewart has written the definitive study that life has always warranted – and, fittingly, he's made it excellent reading in the process.