Reviewed by Carlin Romano
Inquirer Book Critic
When Philadelphia-born Alain L. Locke (1885-1954), the first African American to win a Rhodes Scholarship, wrote home to his mother shortly after beginning undergraduate life at Harvard, he didn’t exactly express solidarity with his few black student peers.
According to Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth in their superb, eye-opening biography of the man they call “the most influential African American intellectual born between W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Locke complained that he couldn’t understand how his peers “come up here in a broad-minded place like this and stick together like they were in the heart of Africa.”
Having grown up four blocks from Rittenhouse Square as a member of Philadelphia’s free-born black elite – a community that, the authors write, “did not look with special indulgence on lower class people from any race” – Locke found many of his Harvard classmates “coarse,” a flaw he believed his fellow black students compounded by their separatism.
“[By] common consent,” Locke wrote to his mother about dining-room habits at Harvard, black students had “unanimously chosen to occupy a separate table together. Now what do you think of that? It’s the same old lifelong criticism I shall be making against our people.”
Like many a philosopher, Locke knew himself. His future work, now seen as the fount, in African American thought, for what came to be called “multiculturalism,” would celebrate cultural pluralism, both philosophically and personally.
From his early postgraduate studies in Oxford and Berlin to his embrace of the Baha’i faith, vast collection of African art, and decades (from 1912 on) as a professor and head of Howard University’s philosophy department, Locke more or less created the image of the black cosmopolitan emulated by black Americans from jazz artists to professors.
Yet how did such an elitist aesthete, fond of fine things such as personalized stationery, sufficiently enamored of French literature that he changed his name from Allen to Alain, also become the famous catalytic editor of The New Negro (1925), the groundbreaking anthology that both established “the Harlem Renaissance” as an epochal moment in American cultural history and stirred renewed respect for black folk culture?
That fascinating story is just one of many unpacked by Harris, a philosopher at Purdue University regarded as the top expert on Locke’s thought, and Molesworth, a literature scholar at Queens College. This long-overdue book – astoundingly, the first full biography ever of a thinker for whom schools, prizes and societies across America are named – closes a project the two men decided to do together after originally embarking on separate lives of their subject.
Why has it taken so long for a definitive biography of Locke to appear, when works on comparable black intellectuals abound? It’s a backstory that sheds light on a practical truth: Fascinating subjects for biographies can be the most difficult to take on.
Locke scholar Russell J. Linnemann once offered a celebratory explanation. Noting Locke’s extraordinary interests in “anthropology, art, music, literature, education, political theory, sociology and African studies,” Linnemann speculated that few “potential biographers” possessed the “intellectual breadth” to “fulfill the task properly.”
Yet Harris and Molesworth also draw back the curtain on other factors. Perhaps the largest is that Locke was gay and closeted, though people of any acuity understood his sexuality.
It was an orientation that created tensions between him and homophobic parts of conservative black culture, while also moving supporters to keep his life under the biographical radar. Entries on him in such standard reference works as The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and Africana Arts and Letters do not mention his homosexuality.
Harris, in a courageous 2001 essay titled ” ‘Outing’ Alain L. Locke,” accused some Locke scholars of merely mentioning Locke’s gay life in passing, inaccurately leading readers to believe that “Locke’s sexuality was irrelevant to his intellectual and personal history.”
Harris and Molesworth close that gap, not going into Locke’s intimacies with the detail of Harris’ essay, but explaining how they shaped the philosopher’s prodigious aesthetic sensibilities.
The third important obstacle to a Locke biography was its subject’s personality. Harris and Molesworth’s adjectives for their subject, such as “aloof” and “elitist,” confirm that Locke, as they report, “did not suffer fools gladly,” and was always more respected than loved.
Harris and Molesworth’s book thus unfolds as no hagiography, but a critical, contextualized understanding of a singular thinker who did not fit the stereotype of many black intellectuals.
As Harris has said elsewhere and demonstrates, with Molesworth, in this crowning achievement, Locke was not a black activist with a political solution for every problem. He was not a black Christian. He was not a foundationalist with simplistic answers to epistemological questions, a family man like Du Bois, or a “poor black man who works by candlelight to become successful.”
Rather, Locke struck most as an erudite genius and elegant networker whose championship of African American work in theater, sculpture, painting, literature and music helped the Harlem Renaissance’s glow solidify into a permanent spotlight on African American art at the center of American culture.
A memo, then, to students, teachers and staff at Philadelphia’s Alain Locke Elementary School, their colleagues at all Locke schools elsewhere, and to winners of the Alain Locke Prize at Harvard, given to the student with the highest GPA in African American studies:
That “Alain Locke” with his name on the wall was also a living, breathing, peculiar character at the very top of his talented tenth. This, finally, is his story.
Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or firstname.lastname@example.org.