Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Alain Locke

1885-1954 / Critic, philosopher, educator

Alain Locke, the first African American to win a Rhodes scholarship, became a philosophy professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Without his backing, many black artists of the 1920s and 1930s might never have achieved the degree of success they did.

Black art and literature, Locke believed, should not conform to the standards dictated by whites; instead, both forms of expression should portray African-American life realistically and without sentiment.

After speaking at Opportunity magazine's first awards dinner in November 1924, Locke was invited by Paul Kellogg, editor of Survey Graphic magazine, to compile a special issue that would capture the creative ferment of the African-American renaissance then under way in New York City. Entitled "Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro," the special issue's publication in March 1925—and its expansion later that year into a book, The New Negro: An Interpretation—helped to launch the careers of writers Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes, as well as artist Aaron Douglas.

Works included in The New Negro reflected Locke's belief that black dramatists, artists, and writers should look to their African heritage—specifically folklore, spirituals, jazz, and African sculpture—for sources of inspiration. In Hurston, Locke found an artist whose roots reached deep into the folk heritage of her native Florida. Locke published Hurston's first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," in The Stylus, Howard University's student literary magazine. He also lauded her talents to Charles S. Johnson, who urged Hurston to come to New York.

Locke continued to serve as a "philosophical midwife" (his term) to black artists throughout his life. Not only did he put struggling black talents in touch with one another, he also introduced Hurston, Hughes, Douglas, and many others to wealthy patron Charlotte Mason, who provided generous financial support of the African-American arts. And as an adviser to the Harmon Foundation, Locke coaxed that organization to subsidize African-American artists.