The Genius of Alain Locke

By Leonard Harris

Alain Leroy Locke was born in Philadelphia on September 13, 1886 to Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke. The young Alain attended the Central High School of Philadelphia and the School of Pedagogy. Entering Harvard College in 1904, he studied under the celebrated faculty in philosophy that included Josiah Royce, Hugo Munsterberg, George Santayana, and William James. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named a Rhodes Scholar in 1907. Locke pursued studies at Hertford College, Oxford University, from 1907 to 1910, and at the University of Berlin for the academic year 1910-1911. He received the Ph.D. degree from Harvard in 1918 in philosophy after a successful defense of his dissertation on “Problems of Classification in Theory of Value.”

Locke’s career as a teacher began at Howard University in 1912 and extended over a period of forty-one years. In 1921, he became Head of the Department of Philosophy and held this position until his retirement in 1953. In that year, Locke was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by Howard University. His career as a teacher and writer covered a wide range of interests in the humanities and the social sciences. His thinking on social and ethnic problems was informed by a philosophical view which he set forth as cultural pluralism. He was the author and editor of many books, including The New Negro, The Negro in Art, and When Peoples Meet: A study in Race and Cultural Contacts (with Bernard J. Stern).

Locke had a significant part in the development of the curriculum of the College of Liberal Arts at Howard University, particularly the program in general education. He advanced the study of philosophy, both as an independent discipline and as an ally with the social sciences in the analysis of social problems. He was one of the founders of Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Howard University. Locke was the architect of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, the focus of which was the promotion of black art and culture. His philosophical interests were focused primarily on three issues: values and valuation; cultural pluralism; and race relations. On cultural pluralism, Locke’s view can be summarized thus: each culture group has its own identity and it is entitled to protect and promote it. In the particular context of America, the claim to cultural identity need not conflict with the claim to American citizenship. On race relations, Locke felt that if we can do away with prejudice and pride, we might be able to reconcile nationalism and internationalism, racialism and universalism.

Note: written on the occasion of The National Conference on Philosophy and Race, a celebration of Locke’s life and contributions to philosophy in general, and African philosophy in particular on the 80th anniversary of his receipt of the Ph.D. degree in philosophy from Harvard.