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Alain Locke

Celebrating Black History Month with Alain Locke

By Jan Clarke

A New Beginning

The Harlem Renaissance was the revitalization of a culture that existed for centuries before slavery. It was the reminder of the richness and royalty of a people that was stripped of their identity. It was the first real move toward equal rights for blacks because it was the first time they were allowed to understand their own history.

The man who started it all, Alain Locke, coined the term, “The New Negro.”  The New Negro is the Negro as who he is: cultured and intelligent. He wasn’t who he was portrayed to be in white society.

“The Old Negro is a shadow that had become more real to the Negro, an attempt to deny who he is.” (Alain Locke, The New Negro) According to Locke, the Old Negro was a myth; he was a formula rather than a human being. The Old Negro was who most whites during the 1920’s believed  was: poor, uneducated and hopeless. In his essay, he argued that Negros were making themselves an issue to be discussed [along with whites] rather than understanding who they are.

He was there to revolutionize their mindsets. Born in Philadelphia in the year of 1886, Alain Locke was destined to be great. Much like his parents, he set his hopes high on education and he prevailed. The issue of race was never an issue for the Locke family. They were considered the elite of Philadelphia. His father, Pliny Locke, taught at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy and his mother was also a teacher at Mount Vernon Grammar School. Alain attended Harvard University and in 1907 (the same year he graduated) he became the first African American to receive the Rhodes Scholarship and the only one for 60 years thereafter. He studied at Oxford University and in Berlin before teaching at Howard University.

In 1925, Alain was given the task of editing the black issue of the Survey Graphic, a white sociological magazine. This issue focused on The New Negro. He featured articles and pieces from persons such as, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and a large number of other influential writers. This issue also included art work by Winold Reiss. Each piece portrayed African Americans as educated and insightful, redefining who the Negro was.

His great influence on the academic and social worlds shaped our perception of black culture and intelligence. We’re able to enjoy an entire history of music from folk to rap, with poetic lyric that opens our minds to different ideas. We’re able to read and analyze pieces about a heritage and society that was once a mystery. Alain Locke provided insight and prompted African Americans to dig deeper into their ancestry past enslavement and to see the beauty in being black.

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