Beyond the New Negro: Alain Locke as a Twentieth-Century Renaissance Man

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Friday, April 16, 2021, 10:30 AM - 11:00 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Intellectual


Alain Locke is best known for editing the 1925 New Negro anthology, but as Jeffrey Stewart’s recent Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of him has shown, no one publication or even time period could ever encapsulate all of Locke’s interests, ideas, and ambitions. Not only did Locke rise through the ranks of Philadelphia’s black middle class and become a student at Harvard College, he later enrolled in some of the most prestigious universities in Europe including Oxford as the first African American Rhodes Scholar. While in these environments, Locke began to develop his own responses to the race problem in America. Specifically, he argued for the validity and necessity of a unique black cultural tradition alongside white American mainstream norms. Locke urged this validity not only as an editor and arts patron, but as a philosopher, archive co-founder, and educator as well. This panel uses Locke’s versatility and foresight as a lens for understanding how three major early twentieth-century movements (pragmatism, the American library movement, and the adult education movement) intersected with African American activism. First, David Weinfeld explores Locke’s theory of cultural pluralism as interpreted through his friendships, faith, and other personal commitments. Weinfeld demonstrates how Locke was able to advocate for such a starkly different philosophy from other prominent ideologies of the era because Locke lived this pluralism in many areas of his life. Melanie Chambliss will be discussing Locke’s role in the 1914 founding of the Moorland Foundation Library at Howard University. Chambliss argues that Locke imagined this collection as one step in his multi-part plan to disprove notions of racial inferiority through documentation. Locke represents how pervasively people believed in the importance of gathering and disseminating information about African Americans, which links Locke to the growing number of libraries and special Negro collections where such information could be found. Locke’s ability to identify emerging intellectual and cultural shifts can also be seen in his work with the adult education movement. Amato Nocera argues that Locke not only created more educational opportunities for African Americans, but he also used this program to push for new definitions of racial liberalism. The flexibility of Locke’s thinking, as evidenced in this panel, makes him a renaissance man worthy of deeper study. Because these papers highlight Locke’s work in the fields of philosophy, history, and education respectively, this panel affirms Locke’s status as one of the most influential black thinkers of the early twentieth century.

Papers Presented

Alain Locke: Cultural Pluralist and Pragmatist Philosopher

Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954) was best known as the dean of the New Negro Movement, also called the Negro Renaissance or Harlem Renaissance. He is also recognized as the first African-American Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he studied from 1907 to 1910. Additionally, Locke was an intellectual pillar at Howard University, where he taught philosophy for four decades. More recently, however, Locke has been celebrated as one of the founders of the idea known as “cultural pluralism,” an ancestor to the more modern notion of multiculturalism. Quite simply, cultural pluralism is the idea that different ethnic groups could and should coexist in a single political entity, enriching each other and the nation as a whole. In the early 20th century, cultural pluralism stood in contrast to racism and nativism, as well as to the idea of the Melting Pot, which insisted upon complete assimilation to an Anglo-Protestant norm. Locke’s Harlem Renaissance advanced cultural pluralism, demanding and creating a place for Black culture within diverse American civilization. This paper explores Locke’s engagement with cultural pluralism beyond the Harlem Renaissance: in his friendship with American Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen, his secular Baha’i faith, and especially his commitment to philosophical pragmatism. Locke’s cultural pluralism was ultimately a tool he used to maintain multiple commitments: to the Black community, to his intellectual curiosity for other cultures, to his friendships and the idea of friendship, and to his unwavering elitism tempered by progressive politics.

Presented By
David Weinfeld, Virginia Commonwealth University

Alain Locke and the Early Years of the Moorland Foundation Library

When Alain Locke arrived at Howard University in 1912 as a junior professor, he was looking for how he could distinguish himself on the institution’s campus. One of the ways that Locke tried to make a name for himself was working with the then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Kelly Miller, on Miller’s push for a Negro Americana collection at Howard. This paper examines Locke’s role in the early years of this collection (later named the Moorland Foundation Library) because of what Locke reveals about the shift in academia towards more research-based scholarship. Although the Moorland Library was founded in 1914, many of the narratives about this collection typically ignore this earlier period before famed librarian Dorothy Porter was hired as curator in 1930. Recognizing this oversight, this paper seeks to accomplish three things—it will reclaim the importance of the first fifteen years of the Moorland Library because this archive was founded to help transform Howard into a modern black university. This paper will emphasize Locke’s often obscured role behind the personality and rank of someone like Kelly Miller who is most often attributed as being the main force behind the creation of this collection. This paper will argue for the role that the Moorland Library played in Locke’s early grappling with the role of documentation and collecting in creating a black historical and cultural tradition.

Presented By
Melanie Chambliss, Columbia College Chicago

Alain Locke and the Concept of African American Adult Education: An Examination of the Harlem Experiment, 1930–1935

This paper examines Alain Locke’s role in an “experimental” program in African American adult education that took place at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library in the early 1930s. The program, called the Harlem Experiment, was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE)—white funders who believed in the value of liberal adult education for democratic citizenship—and in 1933 Locke was hired to evaluate it. In this role, Locke developed an interpretation of African American adult education that tested the limits of 1930s racial liberalism. Specifically, he argued that black culture, politics, and protest that had developed in 1920s Harlem, and dominated the Harlem Experiment’s curriculum, could be incorporated within the funder’s “elite liberalism”—an approach to philanthropy that emphasized ideological neutrality, scholarly professionalism, and political gradualism. Using the Harlem Experiment as a case study, I argue that Locke saw African American adult education, with the backing of white philanthropy, as a pathway for the New Negro Renaissance, and black cultural expression more generally, to move into the American mainstream. In so doing, he sought to demonstrate the capacity for a broader definition of (historically white) liberal citizenship. While the program was ultimately abandoned in the mid-1930s, Locke continued to promote this vision of African American adult education, first as the director of the Carnegie-funded Associates in Negro Folk Education and, in 1946, as the president of the AAAE.

Presented By
Amato Nocera, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Davarian L. Baldwin, Trinity College
Davarian L. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Founding Director of the Smart Cities Research Lab at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (UNC, 2007) and co-editor (with Minkah Makalani) of the essay collection, Escape From New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (University of Minnesota, 2013). Baldwin is currently at work on two new single-authored projects, The Long Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Taking Control of Our Cities (Nation Books) and Land of Darkness: Chicago and the Making of Race in Modern America (Oxford University Press). In addition to teaching and writing, Baldwin sits on the Executive Council of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE). He serves on the Editorial Boards for the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of African American History, and the American Studies Journal. Baldwin is also co-editor of the Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy book series for Temple University Press and in 2015 was appointed a Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians.

Presenter: Melanie Chambliss, Columbia College Chicago
Melanie Chambliss is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Columbia College Chicago. She earned her PhD in African American Studies and American Studies from Yale University in 2016. Her in-progress manuscript, “Saving the Race: Black Archives, Black Liberation, and the Making of Modernity,” explores the founding and impact of early twentieth-century black archives. Melanie argues that because scholars, writers, students, and artists all used black archives for their research and reading, these sites provided the spaces and frameworks for people to work in and think through to re-make our modern understanding of race. Melanie has a forthcoming essay in the edited collection The Unfinished Book about the early years of the Moorland Foundation Library at Howard University. Melanie’s research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. Lastly, Melanie has taught courses on nineteenth and twentieth-century African American history, the afterlives of slavery, and black artistry and the archive.

Presenter: Amato Nocera, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Amato Nocera is a doctoral candidate in history of education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research focuses on several broad questions, including: 1) What role has education played in radical movements for racial justice?; 2) What role has liberalism played in shaping the way race is represented and taught?. He is working on a dissertation titled Teaching the New Negro: Race, representation, and the campaign to bring black radicalism to America’s public schools, 1915 -1945. Amato’s most recent publication is “‘More than Equivalent to a Year of College’: Hubert Harrison and Informal Education in Harlem’s New Negro Movement,” Teachers College Record 122, no. 3 (2020). His research has also been published in the History of Education Quarterly and Education Policy Analysis Archives. In the fall, he will begin a position as an assistant professor at North Carolina State University in the department of Teacher Education and Learning Sciences.

Presenter: David Weinfeld, Virginia Commonwealth University
David Weinfeld is a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, where he also holds the Harry Lyons Chair in Judaic Studies and is director of the Judaic Studies Program. He earned his doctorate in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University. His book manuscript, titled, "An American Friendship: Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, and the Development of Cultural Pluralism," is under contract with Cornell University Press. Dr. Weinfeld has published articles in the Journal of American History and the American Jewish Archives Journal. His research focuses on American Jewish history, especially intellectual history and Black-Jewish relations. He has previously taught at University of Toronto, Queens College, Temple University, and NYU. Born and raised in Montreal, Dr. Weinfeld writes a monthly column for the Canadian Jewish News.