Alain Locke (1886-1954)

Alain LeRoy Locke, ca. 1946
Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Fair use image

Alain Leroy Locke, a leading black intellectual during the early twentieth century and an important supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 13, 1886 to Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke.  His parents were middle class educated professionals. A gifted and talented student, Locke attended Harvard University in 1904 where he studied under renowned scholars including Josiah Royce, George Santana, and William James.

Locke excelled at his studies and became the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1907, Locke attended Oxford University where he obtained another B.A degree in 1910. The following year he attended the University of Berlin in Germany.

In 1912 Locke returned to the United States where he became an assistant professor of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., beginning an academic career that would span four decades. He also joined the newly organized Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. In 1916 Locke interrupted his teaching career at Howard to return to Harvard University where he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy. When Locke rejoined the faculty at Howard he quickly rose in rank and in 1921 became the chair of the Philosophy department. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1953.

Locke was known as an engaging, talented, accessible and admired professor by both his students and his colleagues. He was a pioneer in interdisciplinary scholarship as his work transcended standard academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.  Locke also embraced progressive, avant-garde, and, some would argue, unorthodox teaching methods while at Howard which were sometimes viewed with suspicion by more traditionally oriented colleagues and administrators at his institution.

Alain Locke has been widely regarded as the originator of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. His main contribution to both movements was the promotion and emphasis on values, diversity, and race relations.  He challenged African Americans to acknowledge and promote their cultural heritage while at the same time, making the effort to integrate into the larger society and appreciate the mores and customs of other ethnic groups. He also was a firm believer in W.E.B DuBoisTalented Tenth philosophy, yet, unlike DuBois, he remained socially attached to the general African American population and staunchly resisted any form of elitist behavior.

Locke was a resourceful, intelligent, altruistic, and generous man who managed to serve as a mentor and establish close relationships with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Rudolph Fisher, and Zora Neale Hurston. While Locke was never open about his homosexuality, his sexuality contributed to his various sensibilities and would frequently manifest itself in his works.

Alain Locke died on June 9, 1954 in New York City, New York at the age of 68.