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story behind the book | kate tuttle

What you need to know about Alain Locke

david wilson for the boston globe

The name Alain Locke is sometimes absent from the list of luminaries in the Harlem Renaissance; Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and others are more widely known today. In a new biography, the scholar Jeffrey C. Stewart hopes to reintroduce the man whose work as a writer, critic, and anthologist put him at the center of black artistic and literary history.

Stewart, who first encountered Locke’s work while a graduate student at Yale, said that too often, black history is taught solely in terms of “the political, the economic, the sociological.” Locke, whose 1925 anthology “The New Negro” gave voice to a generation of African-American writers, urged that black identity be understood and expressed through the arts.


In “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” Stewart chronicles Locke’s extraordinary academic and scholarly success — he was the first black Rhodes Scholar, the first African American to earn a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard — as well as his lifelong project of an aesthetic understanding of black life and culture.

Locke’s own times, Stewart pointed out, were not that different from ours. In the shadow of Jim Crow, Stewart said, Locke “would really be looking for the hidden resources of black efficacy, of creativity and the arts, that can be emphasized and built on, and not attending so much to what the megaphone of white racism is saying.” In Locke’s conception, artistic expression wasn’t so much an escape from racism but a rebuke to it, an obstinate refusal to be distracted by it.

“People look back on the 1920s as the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties,” Stewart said, “and they tend to forget that it was an intensely conservative time politically, a very reactionary time. Part of the reason I’m really glad the book is coming out now,” he added, “is that I do think it speaks to now.”


Stewart will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.