Philosophy professor Alain Locke put forth the theory of "cultural pluralism, " which values the uniqueness of different styles and values available within a democratic society.
The preeminent African American intellectual of his generation, Alain Locke was the leading promoter and interpreter of the artistic and cultural contributions of African Americans to American life. More than anyone else, he familiarized white Americans with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, while encouraging African American authors to set high artistic standards in their depiction of life. As a professor of philosophy, he expounded his theory of "cultural pluralism" that valued the uniqueness of different styles and values available within a democratic society.
Locke was born into a prominent Philadelphia family in 1886. His grandfather, Ishmael Locke, was a free African American and teacher. The Society of Friends (Quakers) sponsored his attending Cambridge University in England for further education, after which Ishmael spent four years in Liberia establishing schools. While in Africa, he married an African American educator engaged in similar work. Returning to the United States, he became headmaster of a school in Providence, Rhode Island, and then principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia.
Alain's father, Pliny Locke, graduated from this institute in 1867, then taught mathematics there for two years before leaving to teach newly freed African Americans in North Carolina. In 1872, he enrolled in Howard University's law school while working as an accountant in the Freedmen's Bureau and the Freedmen's Bank and serving for a time as the private secretary for General O. O. Howard, the head of the Freedmen's Bureau. Completing law school in 1874, he returned to Philadelphia to become a clerk in the U.S. Post Office. Mary Hawkins, Alain's mother, was a descendant of Charles Shorter. A free African American, Shorter had been a soldier in the War of 1812 and helped to establish an educational tradition in his family. Mary continued this tradition by becoming a teacher.
Pliny Locke and Mary Hawkins were engaged for 16 years, not marrying until they were middle-aged. Alain, their only child, was born in 1886 and nurtured in an urbane, cultivated home environment. Six years later his father died, and his mother supported her son through teaching. Young Alain contracted rheumatic fever early in his childhood. The disease permanently damaged his heart and restricted his physical activities. In their place, he spent his time reading books and learning to play the piano and violin.
Locke attended Central High School, graduating second in the class of 1902, and then studied at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy, where he moved up to first in his class. Entering Harvard University, he studied under William James and some of the other leading American philosophers on the faculty. Locke completed Harvard's four-year program in three, graduating magna cum laude in 1907, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and winning the school's most prestigious award, the Bowdoin Prize, for an essay in English.
It was a remarkable achievement for anyone, not to mention an African American during this highly segregated era. 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.
Continuing his intellectual accomplishments, Locke was named a Rhodes Scholar, the first African American chosen for this distinguished award, and sailed to England in 1907 to attend Oxford University. He studied philosophy, Greek, and Literae Humaniores, receiving a bachelor of literature degree in 1910. From Oxford he moved to Germany for advanced work in philosophy at the University of Berlin from 1910 to 1911.
Europe at that time was the acknowledged center of Western civilization, and Locke's years there proved vital to his intellectual development. His exposure to modern literature, music, art, and dance, along with his meeting many Africans and other nonwhites from around the world, created new perspectives for viewing American society and culture. Racial discrimination, he realized, was a global problem.
Became an Educator
Returning to the United States in early 1912, Locke was faced with an unusual dilemma. Given his academic training and intellectual experiences, he was more qualified than many white college professors. But because of his race, he was unable to teach at a white college. Yet this same level of achievement set him vastly apart from his fellow African Americans.
Being unusually introspective and perceptive, Locke recognized these limitations. To better familiarize himself with the everyday segregated world of America, he took a six-month tour of the southern states. Witnessing widespread prejudice and discrimination, he decided that only by setting high standards and demonstrating similar accomplishments as whites could African Americans gain respect and equality. By teaching at the college level and promoting African and African American culture, he would further this goal.
That September, Locke was appointed an assistant professor of English at Howard University, an African American college, in Washington, DC. He set about to establish Howard as the country's preeminent African American university, a training ground for African American intellectuals, and a center for African American culture and research on racial problems. But the school's board of trustees twice refused to approve his teaching courses on comparative race relations or African American studies, maintaining that the Howard was a nonracial institution.
Frustrated, Locke turned his attention back to philosophy. In 1916, he received a one-year appointment as an Austin Teaching Fellow at Harvard and began his dissertation under the idealist philosopher, Josiah Royce. Two years later he received his doctorate degree and returned to Howard as a full professor of philosophy. He would chair this department until his retirement in 1953.
Stressed Blacks' Contribution to Egypt
Locke became one of the leading members of the Howard faculty as well as a major inspiration to the student body and the growing national African American self-awareness movement of the 1920s. In 1924, he took a sabbatical leave to work with the French Oriental Archaeological Society in Egypt and the Sudan. His experiences there, including his presence at the reopening of Tutankhamen's tomb, reinforced his belief in the strong historic and cultural roots of African civilization. Lecturing widely upon his return to the United States, Locke stressed the contribution of Africans to Egypt's multiracial society, the world's first advanced civilization, a contribution not widely acknowledged by white scholars.
Locke's return to Howard coincided with a power struggle between the predominantly black student body and faculty, who desired a more African American-oriented institution, against the university's white president and board of trustees who sought to maintain its traditional nonracial status. Along with several other professors, Locke was dismissed in 1925, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. That September, he expressed his views in a Survey Graphic magazine article, "Negro Education Bids for Par, " stating that African American education, "to the extent that it is separate, ought to be free to develop its own racial interests and special aims for both positive and compensatory reasons."
A storm of protest by the student body, alumni, national African American press, and fellow academics compelled the board to eventually reinstate him with full pay. But Locke did not return to teach on campus until 1928 with the installation of Howard's first African American president, Mordecai W. Johnson, who shared his goals of creating a predominantly African American university.
These years of temporary release from his academic duties proved to be among Locke's most productive periods. A major contributor to Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life and Survey Graphic, he edited a special issue of the latter publication devoted to the Harlem Renaissance, the flourishing of African American art, literature, and music in New York City during the 1920s. Expanding it into a book and shifting the focus from Harlem to overall African American cultural life, Locke authored The New Negro: An Interpretation in 1925. It was an outstanding anthology of the leading African American fiction, poetry, drama, and essays by himself and others describing the changing state of race relations in the United States.
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. In his foreword, Locke asserted that African American life was "not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul." He compared this movement with similar efforts taking place around the globe in Russia, India, China, Palestine, and many other countries.
Because of his efforts, white critics began to take African American writing seriously, and African American writers saw themselves for the first time as part of a broad but unified literary movement. Most Harlem Renaissance artists sought not only to develop their work into high art, but also to use it as a means to better race relations and American society.
With the success of The New Negro, Locke became the leading authority on contemporary African American culture and used his position to promote the careers of young artists and authors like Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. He encouraged them to seek out subjects in African American life and to set high artistic standards for themselves. Writing in a Black World essay entitled "Alain Locke: Cultural and Social Mentor, " Richard A. Long stated, it is "no exaggeration to say that the Harlem Renaissance as we know it is marked strongly by the presence of Alain Locke, and would have been something rather different without him and the role of mentor which he filled with modesty and elegance."
Resumed Academic Career
Locke's growing reputation put him into close contact with many influential white patrons of the arts. One in particular, Charlotte Mason, financially supported much of his work during the 1920s. With her help, Locke was able to regularly visit Paris, at that time the center of the art world, and begin to create one of the leading collections of African art in America.
As a pioneer collector, Locke was one of the first Americans to write about the significance of African art, demonstrating its importance far beyond an influence on the cubists and other members of the European artistic avant-garde. He wanted all African Americans, in particular contemporary African American artists, to seek inspiration and take pride in their rich artistic heritage. To this end he lectured, organized numerous exhibitions, and wrote the introductions for several landmark catalogs of African art.
After spending the 1927-1928 academic year as an exchange professor at Fisk University, Locke returned to Howard. He became a close adviser of university president Johnson, urging him to implement a detailed African studies program to examine African anthropology, art, culture, ethnology, and history. His hope was that such a course of studies would reeducate African Americans about their African past and recreate their lost sense of cultural identity.
Once again Howard failed to act, not establishing an African studies program until 1954, one year after his retirement. Undeterred, Locke continued his efforts to create a forum at Howard to critically examine the African American experience. In 1935 he helped organize the university's social sciences division, incorporating his department of philosophy within it. This new division then began to sponsor annual conferences on racial issues.
That same year, Locke took a leading role in reforming Howard's liberal arts curriculum, integrating all the university's major academic disciplines into a general education program, similar to changes recently incorporated at Columbia and the University of Chicago. This new curriculum reflected his lifelong belief in the importance of critical analysis for determining values to guide human conduct and interrelationships.
During this time, he was becoming more involved in the adult education movement, serving as secretary and editor of the newly established Associates in Negro Folk Education. Between 1936 and 1942 this organization published nine "Bronze Booklets" written by leading African American scholars. Locke wrote two of these, Negro Art: Past and Present and The Negro and His Music, and edited a third, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art. The latter was the most significant and comprehensive work in its field, re-emphasizing his longstanding belief that African American artists should look to the works of their African ancestors for subject matter and styles to apply to modern painting and sculpture.
Despite his many other interests, Locke continued his work in philosophy, actively promoting his theory of cultural pluralism. Simply put, it sought to determine specific values to produce a new and humane world order, chief among these a respect for the uniqueness of each distinct ethnic, cultural, or religious group within one nation. This interest led to his pioneering 1942 social science anthology, co-edited with Bernhard Stern, When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts, an examination of dominant and minority populations in various countries around the world.
In the same vein, Locke edited a special issue of Survey Graphic in November of 1942 entitled "Color: Unfinished Business of Democracy." By putting racial discrimination in the United States within the larger context of the Allies' avowed democratic war aims in the fight against fascism, he stressed the need for eliminating segregation at home and European colonialism in Africa and Asia. He continued along this theme the following year when, as an inter-American exchange professor in Haiti, he wrote Le Role du Negre dans la Culture Americaine about African Americans in American society.
In Demand as a Visiting Scholar
When World War II ended, Locke was one of the best known African American scholars in the country. A regular contributor to many magazines, journals, and reference works, he was a member of the editorial board of the American Scholar and, in 1945, the first African American elected president of the American Association for Adult Education, a predominantly white national organization.
As American universities slowly began to desegregate in the North and West, Locke was suddenly in great demand as a visiting scholar. During the 1945-1946 academic year he served as visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. The following year he was a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in what had become his second home for many years, New York City, and held a similar appointment the next year at the City College of New York (CCNY).
After 1948 he began teaching concurrently at CCNY and Howard. As he neared retirement, Locke reviewed his long career at Howard, proud of his success in using philosophy to stimulate critical thinking among his students, helping to create an African American intellectual elite, and his hard work in transforming a small segregated college into the nation's leading African American educational center. His final achievement was to secure a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at the school in 1953, a major milestone in the history of African American education.
Locke retired later that year and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Howard, a rare expression of esteem for a faculty member. He moved permanently to New York City and continued working on his magnum opus, The Negro in American Culture, a definitive study of the contribution of African Americans to American society. Unfortunately his recurrent heart problems returned in the spring of 1954, causing his death that June. He bequeathed his extensive collection of African art and all his papers to Howard University. His unfinished manuscript was completed by Margaret Just Butcher.
Further Reading on Alain Locke
Butcher, Margaret J. The Negro in American Culture: Based on Materials Left by Alain Locke, Knopf, 1956.
The Critical Temper of Alain Locke, edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart, Garland, 1983.
Linnemann, Russell J. Alain Locke: Reflections on a Modern Renaissance Man, Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Washington, Johnny, Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism, Greenwood Press, 1986.
Black World, November 1970, p. 87-90.