Alain Locke, a trail-blazing African American philosopher and educator, was a shining symbol of black American achievement during a time when opportunities were limited.
Black History Month affords Americans the opportunity to consider the totality of the nation’s history through the lens of African American contributions. From forced servitude and emancipation, to being granted the lawful and natural right of inclusion in all aspects of a free nation, the history of black America is the history of America itself.
This article explores the life of one notable African American and the great strides he made in the advancement of human knowledge. That man is Alain Leroy Locke and this is his story.
Overview of Alain Leroy Locke’s Achievements
He has been called the father of the Harlem Renaissance. He was considered a black elite who had a preference for personalized stationary at a time when many of his fellow African American brethren could barely read or write. But, more than anything else, Alain Leroy Locke insisted on African American excellence.
He set the highest standards for himself and expected nothing less from others. He believed deeply in cultural pluralism (or, multiculturalism) and expounded on the theory that black Americans possess intrinsic value. Locke reasoned that it was this innate, human value that granted African Americans the power to actualize their natural potential within the democratic society of America, in spite of obstacles to the contrary.
Destined to Succeed
Alain Locke (1885 – 1954) began life as the only child of a prominent and reasonably well-to-do Philadelphia family and spent much of his youth reading books and studying the piano and violin. Locke graduated second in his class from the Central High School of Philadelphia and first in his class at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy.
Locke studied at the University of Berlin and the College de France. Before earning a Ph.D from Harvard in 1918, Locke became the first African American Rhodes Scholar (1907 – 1910).
In 1912, Locke began teaching at Howard University and remained there for more than forty years. He became the Head of the Department of Philosophy, influenced and expanded general education studies, and helped to found the Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1953, Locke was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by Howard University.
Alain Locke on Racial Equality and the Human Value of African Americans
Alain Locke was drawn to academia as a vocation and wanted to teach at the college level. However, being an African American, the laws of segregation denied him the opportunity to teach at white colleges. While waiting for the opportunity to teach, Locke focused his mind on the manifestation of racial discrimination in America, especially the racism that existed in the South.
Locke’s travels throughout Europe, and the years he spent at Oxford, opened his eyes not only to the arts of language, science and philosophy, but also to the ways diverse groups interacted with one another (or, how they did not).
Locke was disappointed by the self-inflicted separation of the races he observed at college campuses and could not understand why different groups chose to isolate themselves from eachother based on class and racial distinctions. He felt there was so much to learn from different people, and to separate meant to deny one the access of opportunity to become enlightened and informed.
Always a pragmatist, Locke’s growing social awareness compelled him to write his Ph.D dissertation on “Problems of Classification in Theory of Value.”
Locke’s Main Thesis: Equality Comes From Within
Locke’s thesis maintained that social bias was subjective and not universal, and asserted instead that racial inequality was the result of opinions. In this manner of thinking, and in terms of black Americans, Locke believed equality existed as a human fact regardless of whether or not it was established by judicial mandate.
He believed that African Americans could attain respect and equality by setting their own standards for excellence, and striving for the same achievements – based on ability and determination- which white Americans similarly hoped to accomplish.
The Harlem Renaissance New Negro
As one the most inspirational figures within the Harlem Renaissance movement, Locke was pivotal in the creation of The New Negro publication. This collection of writings by African Americans included works by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois and Countee Cullen. The primary focus of The New Negro was to uplift members of the negro race, to imbue African Americans with a strong sense of self through political and social awareness.
Locke used this publication to support his philosophy that power came from within a people, not from without. He believed individual power and self value was not contingent on extrinsic value or on man’s law, but on the intrinsic value that rests within all of humanity.
African Heritage and American Citizenry
Locke believed in asserting the cultural identity of black Americans and saw no conflict in such a stance. He understood that African Americans embodied a dual heritage and believed it entirely reasonable for African Americans to embrace their African history while adhering to American values forged from common citizenry.
Locke was also a fierce advocate of racial equality and judged all of humanity to be valuable and worthy without regard to race, color, creed or economic status.
Alain Locke stands today as an inspiration and a model for self reliance and self determination. His is a life worthy of emulation and profound regard, by all Americans – African American and otherwise.
- Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris, Charles Molesworth (University Of Chicago Press; December 2008)