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The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond.

To be black, male, and an intellectual has not been an easy task in a society where, historically, African American men have been more valued for their strength than for their intellect. To be an African American intellectual, regardless of gender, has also meant occupying a precarious position between black and white America. Some whites fear and despise black intellectuals because they confound their racism and do not fit society's stereo-type of black people as mentally incompetent. Similarly a number of blacks think their peers have betrayed the "race" and fail to "think black" if they are not racial romantics or chauvinists. In the past this tension caused problems between W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey and between Malcolm X and the Martin Luther King wing of the Civil Rights Movement. More recently it has surfaced in the racial ruckus pitting New York City's black shoppers against Korean merchants, Mayor Dinkins, and the black political leadership of the city.(1) These disputes among American blacks indicate that ideas about race have divided the community as much as they have divided black and white Americans.

The word race as I use it here is not the social construct neo-Marxists conveniently invoke to explain the growth of capitalism, maintaining that there was no race or racism before the rise of the market economy. I eschew the Marxist and neo-Marxist technique of folding or incorporating racial dynamics into economic dynamics, for to do this minimizes the relative autonomy of racial conflict in the United States. "Race," for me, refers to a deeply ingrained cultural sensibility varying over time; "racism" arises when that sensibility is ignored, attacked, or undervalued by members of a different race.(2)

The works by Alain Locke and J. Saunders Redding reviewed here reflect the impact of American racism on two black intellectuals. What the books tell us is that these two men transcended the burden of race. They never lost their faith in human progress and at the same time remained true to the critical task of intellectuals. That is, they posited, because they were black and cosmopolitan, an alternative to the American racial status quo. At a time when the United States has entered into another cycle of racial crisis, the republication of Locke's and Reddings' works is timely. This is particularly true for those of us in the academy who are black and believe in the ideal of racial integration; Locke and Redding are examples of black intellectuals who never compromised their individuality by becoming either racial apologists or chauvinists.

Although both men were proud of their race and its accomplishments, neither was entombed in blackness. They took pride in being both black and American. This duality was the source of their intellectual strength and enabled them to see paradox, contradiction, and irony in the society that surrounded them (Locke; Redding, On Being). Locke expressed this ironic sensibility when he wrote: "Hitherto, it must be admitted that American Negroes have been a race more in name than in fact, or to be more exact, more in sentiment than in experience" (7). With the exception of Stanley Crouch, Ralph Ellison, Martin Kilson, Robert O'Meally, Adolph Reed, Jerry Watts, Cornel West, and William Julius Wilson, few black intellectuals writing today would express in print the "imagined" nature of being black in contemporary America.

Alain Locke, who served for forty years as chair of the Howard University philosophy department, was born in 1885 and died in 1954. His life spanned the age of accommodation, World War I, the great migration, black urbanization, World War II, and the first stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement. For Locke and his generation of black Americans, "white supremacy" was not just a slogan, as one Southern historian has recently claimed. Between 1885 and 1894, for example, 1,700 blacks were lynched in America (Fields 156-57, Du Bois 29). These brutal ritual acts of terror were designed to intimidate the black population and dissuade them from exercising their democratic franchise. Moreover, lynching was aimed at both politically active blacks and those who opted for the politics of accommodation as preached by Booker T. Washington.

Washington ultimately failed because he confused culture with politics. Blacks' major problem in the late nineteenth century was not a deficient culture but a lack of political power. Washington's failure forced black Americans to re-evaluate their struggle for racial equality. Some black people, including Locke, opted for the program of racial integration championed by W. E. B. Du Bois and the NAACP. The clearest statement of Locke's commitment to an integrationist or cosmopolitan culture for the United States may be found in his essay "The New Negro," in which he remarked with favor on "the re-establishment of contact between the more advanced and representative classes" of black and white America (10).

Locke's transcendence of the American racial morass derived from his education and travels abroad. As Michael Winston has noted, he "was nurtured in a genteel and cultivated environment that shaped his interests and choice of career" (399). After graduating from Harvard, Locke in 1907 became the first black American to win a Rhodes scholarship and study at Oxford University. Later he studied at the University of Berlin. Study abroad gave Locke a "new perspective for viewing American society and culture." In Europe, the young black American "developed a global conception of the race problem and a corresponding interest in Africa and the problems of nonwhite colonies elsewhere" (Winston 399). This broadened perspective of the race problem made him an advocate of "cultural pluralism" (Harris 61), committed to the development of an American society that cultivated difference.

When he returned from Europe and began teaching at Howard University in 1913, it was to embark on a career of promulgating his ideas about race and cultural pluralism. Locke thought that Howard should be a center for the study of "race, |culture contact,' and colonialism." At the heart of this program was Locke's belief that the "study of race contacts [is] the only scientific basis for the comprehension of race relations" (Winston 399). Study, travel abroad, and his experience as a black American all stimulated Locke to urge social scientists studying humankind to "abandon as altogether unscientific the conception of physical race groups as basic in anthropology, and throw the category of race into the discard as another of the many popular misconceptions detrimentally foisted upon science" (Harris 164). Race, to Locke, was a social definition, not an immutable biological fact: "We must consider race not in the fascist, blood-clan sense, which also is tribal and fetishist, but consider race as a common culture and brotherhood" (Harris 151, 197-98).

Cultural pluralism was for Locke a way of melding together a heterogeneous nation. As a black American he saw the danger of making culture a "proprietary doctrine," as whites had done in the United States. The primacy accorded Anglo-Saxon culture in the United States contributed to the intolerance and bigotry which pervaded American society after World War I. The growth of the Ku Klux Klan and the rise of religious fundamentalism reflected the inability of some white Americans to conceive of their country as a cosmopolitan state, or what Randolph Bourne has called "Trans-National America." Writing in 1930, Locke observed: "Civilization, for all its claims of distinctiveness, is a vast amalgam of cultures. The difficulties of our social creeds and practices have arisen in great measure from our refusal to recognize this fact" (Harris 203, 74).

Locke's perceptive and cosmopolitan intellect enabled him to see the limitations of fetishizing race and culture, a talent that distinguished him from other black intellectuals of his day. His volume The New Negro proclaimed the birth of a new racial awareness among black Americans and a sense of cultural renewal for black people. Yet despite his prominent role in disseminating the ideas of the Renaissance, in later years Locke distanced himself from that movement and pointed out its failings and limitations. In an article published in Opportunity in 1939, he savaged the phrase New Negro. A badge of honor and pride in 1925, the name New Negro had, after nearly a decade and a half, become "a slogan for cheap race demagogues who wouldn't know a |cultural movement' if they could see one, a handy megaphone for petty exhibitionists who were only posing as |racialist' when in fact they were the rankest kind of egoist, and a gilded fetish for race idolaters who were at heart still sentimentalist seeking consolation for inferiority" (Winston 401). This sense of betrayal and loss persisted in later years. In an essay published in 1950, Locke observed that the "New Negro" movement had died "of a fatal misconception of the true nature of culture" (Harris 232).

Locke's ability to think critically about the nature of race and culture enabled him to see the multifaceted nature of black life in America. Unlike either Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X, Locke was not a racial essentialist - that is, he did not think in terms of an undifferentiated, singular Negro. His essay "Who and What is Negro?" stated eloquently Locke's understanding of the variety of Negroness in the United States:

There is, in brief, no "The Negro." More and more, even as we stress the right of the mass Negro to his important place in the picture, artistically and sociologically, we must become aware of the class structure of the Negro population, and expect to see, hear and understand the intellectual elite, the black bourgeoisie as well as the black masses. To this common stratification is added in the Negro's case internal splits resulting from differential response to particular racial stresses and strains, divergent loyalties which, in my judgment, constitute racial distinctiveness, not by some magic of inheritance but through some very obvious environmental conditionings. For just as we have, for comparative example, the orthodox and the assimilate, the Zionist and anti-Zionist Jew, so in Negro life we have on practically all of these levels, the conformist and the non-conformist strains, - the conformist elite and the racialist elite, the lily-white and the race-patriotic bourgeois, the folk and the ghetto peasant and the emerging Negro proletarian. Each is a significant segment of Negro life.... (Harris 210-11)

Locke's advice to racial and cultural essentialists regardless of their color was quite direct: "... we must abandon the idea of cultural truism as a criterion ... just as we have abandoned the idea of a true race under the most scientific and objective scrutiny of the facts of history" (Harris 213). Locke's advocacy of cultural pluralism did not mean that he felt his people were inferior, as black nationalists have often alleged in their critique of integrationists. Integral to his commitment to America as a culturally pluralist society was his belief that the culture and history of black people in the United States was of equal value to those of other groups. Moreover, the propagation and enrichment of their culture was for blacks an important weapon in the struggle against racism - a concomitant to political assertion. This involvement in black culture was the twentieth-century continuation of a crusade begun by free blacks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to "elevate the race."(3) One of its key components was education.

Although he was an advocate of African Studies at Howard University, Locke was not an Afrocentrist.(4) He did not think that black people were "best fitted for" a particular type of college education. Blacks, according to Locke, "like any other constituency, needed an types of education that were not actually obsolete in American educational practice" (Harris 244). Locke thought that the black college of the 1920s was "reactionary" and "old fashioned" in its educational philosophy. The Negro college in the United States, he wrote in 1925, had failed to "produce its own leadership to give it a vital and distinctive program ... to justify it according to its true relation to racial development and advance." This type of college, Locke went on to say, had "failed [to produce] recognized social leadership and reform" (247). As an educator with a cosmopolitan vision of the world, Locke urged black colleges to be self-determining centers of "spiritual autonomy" (280). For Locke, "the highest aim and real justification of the Negro college should be the development of a racially inspired and devoted professional class with group service as their integrating ideal" (249).

But Locke's hope for black higher education was only partially realized. During the 1920s the campuses of black colleges in the North and South were scenes of student and faculty protest.(5) The black students and faculties of these institutions wanted their colleges to be more responsive to the needs of black people. As Raymond Wolters has documented, they resented the fact that their alma maters were run by white boards of trustees, and in some instances had white presidents. The background of these protests, as well as the reasons for their partial failure, is beautifully illuminated by the novel Stranger and Alone.

To Shelton Howden, the chief protagonist of J. Saunders Redding's Stranger and Alone, Alain Locke's expectation that black colleges would produce a professional class devoted to racial uplift was anathema. Redding's book presents a savage portrait of Shelton Howden and black middle-class life in the South during the years between the two world wars. Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, the South was a rigidly segregated place where middle-class black people occupied an anomalous position similar to that of Southern free blacks before the Civil War: Only nominally free, they were "slaves without masters." Denied the vote, middle-class blacks were subjected to the same humuliations as their poorer black peers. Race, not class, bound them, and their professional and intellectual attainments meant nothing in a society where color was a badge of privilege. In his novel Redding shows how some educated blacks failed to assume a vanguard position on the issue of racial uplift, a point often forgotten in the current Whiggish reappraisal of the Civil Rights Movement.(6) What Stranger and Alone enables us to see is the class, color, and educational divisions in the black community before the era of Martin Luther King and Ella Baker. Redding recaptures this period brilliantly in his novel, and provides a devastating critique of what Du Bois called the "talented tenth."

If Redding's novel had been written by a black writer in the nineteenth century, the perfidy of the protagonist, Shelton Howden, might have been explained by the fact that he is a mulatto, with a black mother and white father. Nineteenth-century racial theory argued that mulattoes were unstable because of their mixed racial heritage. Redding does not resort to this line of argument to explain Howden, however. This mulatto is a perfectly modern man, deracinated and on the make. Within the first twelve pages of the novel we learn that Howden is ambitious. "... someday," he reflects, "he'd be somebody .... a doctor or a lawyer or - something. He had no doubt of it. His ambition began to burn steadily again. You couldn't keep a good man down, and someday he was going to prove himself a better man than any of them" (11-12).

Howden is a loathsome character, unctuous, self-serving, self-righteous, and duplicitous. He is even more disgusting than Bledsoe in Ellison's Invisible Man. While Bledsoe is a megalomaniac obsessed with his own power and telling "the white folks what to think," Howden is an organizational man who feels uncomfortable around "race men"; that is, blacks concerned about the plight of their people in inter-war America.

As the book begins, Howden is a student at the ironically named New Hope College. When he hears a racist white college professor deliver a series of lectures on the "scientific truth" of black inferiority, Howden is paralyzed intellectually and cannot refute the professor's assertions about the superiority of "Aryans." "|The white race produces the thinkers, the civilization builders, the finders and creators of the useful. Civilization was created and is continually recreated by the white race. Culture, in other words, is due to inborn racial factors'" (43). In America, the professor continues, "|the segregation under which [the Negro] lives, the political, economic, and social discriminations which are his lot are results, not causes'" (45). After hearing these lectures Howden concludes that "negroness [is] a fundamental condition of being which ... nothing [can] overcome." Education means nothing because" the practically universal assumption [is] that the Negro [cannot] be made equal" (47). Devoid of the intellectual and cultural resources to refute his professor's racial nonsense, Howden retreats into fantasy and "wishes to be white" (48). When Howden seeks the advice of New Hope's ordy black faculty member, Professor Clarkson, he is told that "|... it has been twenty years since I have discussed the so-called race problem with anyone. It is possible to live without it, you know. There is a middle ground, a dead center, a place where the outrage and indignity cannot reach you'" (52). This advice from a respected elder reinforces Howden's belief that he does not have to become involved in his people's struggle for racial equality. Somehow, Howden thinks, he can exist apart from the race problem.

Originally Howden plans to be a doctor, but when this plan fails he becomes a faculty member at Arcadia State College for Negroes. In his new position Howden finds himself surrounded by "race men" whom he fears and detests. Howden's aversion toward and fear of such men makes him an ally of Perkins Thomas Wimbush, Arcadia College's president. Wimbush, like Bledsoe in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, is a historical grotesque. Wimbush has great contempt for his people, and in private conversation tells Howden that you can't trust" |a darky's judgment.'" According to Wimbush, black people do not understand that their failings are a result of their own" |sloth and ignorance'" (126).

Wimbush is not merely a creation of Redding's febrile imagination. There were, in real life, black college presidents who thought that their people were inferior and needed a specific type of education. The black president of Georgia Normal College, for example, commenting on the educational needs of blacks in the 1940s, observed: "The educational requirements of people who are only a few hundred years out of the jungle are not the same as those of people who have had thousands of years of civilization. The great mass of our people need to be trained in agriculture, the mechanical arts, the trades and industries, and in the art of homemaking" (qtd. in Wolters 6). Wimbush, like the president of Georgia Normal, acquiesces in the political, economic, and social subordination of his people. To Wimbush "race men" such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Monroe Trotter, and Walter White lacked a sense of "reality." These race men are victims, Wimbush tells Howden, of their own "|frustrations'" and are "|victims of a disease called racial absolutism.'" In a crazy world obsessed with race, Wimbush declares, he and Howden serve as "|equalibrators of the unequal balance'" (134).

Wimbush's conception of the world is fatalistic. "It's only common sense," "he tells his protege," |to accept the world as we find it'" (135). For black Americans to accept the world as they find it, however, is to be consigned forever to the status of second-class citizens. Howden is oblivious to this fact and accepts Wimbush's definition of reality. The black college president's idea of reality is rooted in racial self-hatred. He tells Howden that, in "|the truest sense, my boy, we're the white man's niggers.... There's nothing wrong with being the white man's nigger. We can't help it, can we? And we're conditioned to it, aren't we?'" According to Wimbush, being a "white man's nigger" is biological. "|Our instincts were corrupted at our birth, by the very circumstances of our conception, and the conditioning has been going on ever since'" (136).

As a member of the caste, Howden is destined to be a success. But his social mobility is purchased at the cost of self-respect, as Howden becomes a spy for Wimbush and reactionary Southern whites opposed to improving black education. Working for the forces of reaction, Howden joins black organizations and reports on their actions and plans to his superiors. In the final chapter of the book Howden learns of a plan to register black people as voters, and rushes off to report this act of racial assertion to his white masters. Redding calls the last part of Stranger and Alone "The Time on the Clock of the World," a prescient title that emphasizes the crucial role of the 1940s in the development of black racial consciousness and self-confidence. Howden is unaware of the depth of black antipathy to segregation and disfranchisement and thus casts his lot with the forces of reaction.

Redding's novel is a powerful indictinent of the black bourgeoisie. Although Shelton Howden's lack of principle in Stranger and Alone is attributed to racial self-hatred, this explanation is a bit too easy. Howden hates black people because he hates himself.(7) But an equally plausible explanation of Howden's swinishness lies not in race but in modernity. Howden is a modern man devoid of principle, oleaginous, self-obsessed, and loyal to no one but himself. This temperament, as history has shown, exists independent of race.

Both of the books discussed in this essay present black intellectuals who thought critically about the problem of race and integration. In their commitment to a colorblind society, Locke and Redding told the truth. They pursued the ideal of racial brotherhood at a time when it was unpopular and dangerous. The integrity and questioning intelligence of these two men stand as an inspiration to all American intellectuals regardless of their color. Finally, Leonard Harris and Pancho Savery are to be congratulated for bringing these works back into print, and for providing them with insightful introductions that contextualize and illuminate the thought of Alain Locke and J. Saunders Redding.


(1) See my essay "The Virtuoso Illusionist"; Weisbrot 81-82; Jacoby. (2) For an extreme neo-Marxist statement about race, see Fields. My critique of this point of view appears in "How Many Niggers Did Karl Marx Know?" See also Banton ch. 5. (3) See Sweet Walker, Rock ch. 1. (4) For the concept of Afrocentrism, see Asante, Afrocentric and Afrocentricity. For Locke's interest in African studies, see Winston 402. (5) See Wolters regarding black college protests of the 1920s. Anderson examines black education in the South from 1865 to 1935. For some contemporary comments about black college education, see Watts. (6) Divisions within the black community over the Civil Rights Movement are examined in Branch, Colburn, and Moody. For what I call the Whiggish interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement, see Carson and Morris. (7) The problem of racial or ethnic self-hatred is analyzed in Gilman.



Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988. Asante, Molefi Kete. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1987. ____. Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. Buffalo: Amulefi, 1980. Banton, Michael. Racial Theories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon, 1989. Carson, Clayborne. "Civil Rights Reform and the Black Freedom Struggle." The Civil Rights Movement in America: Essays. Ed. Charles W. Eagles. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986. 19-37. Colburn, David R. Racial Change and Community Crisis: St. Augustine, Florida, 1877-1980. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. Du Bois, W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. 1940. New York: Schocken, 1968. Fields, Barbara J. "Ideology and Race in American History." Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. 143-77. Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986. Harris, Leonard, ed. The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989. Jacoby, Tomar. "Garvey's Ghost." New Republic 2 July 1990: 16-22. Locke, Alain. "The New Negro." The New Negro. An Interpretation. Ed. Locke. 1925. Now York: Atheneum, 1969. 3-25. Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dial, 1968. Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York. Free, 1984. Redding, J. Saunders. On Being Negro in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs, 1951. ____. Stranger and Alone. 1950. Boston: Northwestern UP, 1989. Sweet, Leonard I. Black Images of America 1784-1870. New York: Norton, 1976. Walker, Clarence E. Deromanticizing Black History: Critical Essays and Reappraisals. Knoxville: U of Tennesse P, 1991. ____. "How Many Niggers Did Karl Marx Know?; or, A Peculiarity of the Americans." Deromanticizing 2-33. ____. A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982. _____. "The Virtuoso Illusionist: Marcus Garvey." Deromanticizing 35-55. Watts, Jerry. "Dilemmas of Black Intellectuals." Dissent Fall 1989: 501-07. Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York, Norton, 1990. Winston, Michael R. "Alain L Locke." Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Ed. Rayford W. Logan and Winston. New York. Norton, 1982. 398-404. Wolters, Raymond. The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of do 1920s. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.
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Author:Walker, Clarence E.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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