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The Gay Trailblazer of the Harlem Renaissance: Biographer Jeffrey C. Stewart on Alain LeRoy Locke

The Gay Trailblazer of the Harlem Renaissance: Biographer Jeffrey C. Stewart on Alain LeRoy Locke

Author: Nahshon Dion

July 17, 2018

In his illuminating new biography The New Negro: The Life of Alain LeRoy Locke (Oxford), writer and scholar Dr. Jeffrey C. Stewart explores the life of Harlem Renaissance critic and writer Dr. Alain Locke.

From the publisher:

In The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, Jeffrey C. Stewart offers the definitive biography of the father of the Harlem Renaissance, based on the extant primary sources of his life and on interviews with those who knew him personally. He narrates the education of Locke, including his becoming the first African American Rhodes Scholar and earning a PhD in philosophy at Harvard University, and his long career as a professor at Howard University. Locke also received a cosmopolitan, aesthetic education through his travels in continental Europe, where he came to appreciate the beauty of art and experienced a freedom unknown to him in the United States. And yet he became most closely associated with the flowering of Black culture in Jazz Age America and his promotion of the literary and artistic work of African Americans as the quintessential creations of American modernism.

[….] Stewart explores both Locke’s professional and private life, including his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his white patrons, as well as his lifelong search for love as a gay man.

Stewart earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. A former Director of Research at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum, he also served as a guest curator at the institution’s National Portrait Gallery, and a senior advisor to the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture.

As a young person, I was slightly familiar with the legacy of Alain Locke. In my hometown of Los Angeles, there’s a high school named after him. When did you you first become aware of Dr. Locke’s legacy? 

I must admit that I did not learn of Alain Locke until I was in graduate school at Yale University. Black history was not my undergraduate major at UC Santa Cruz but philosophy; and Locke was relatively unknown as a philosopher in the 1970s. But a professor at Yale, the late historian, John Blassingame, introduced me to him and set me on the trail of his life by sending me to Howard University where Locke’s personal papers rested. I was astounded by what I found.

How long did the research and writing take? 

I also must admit that the research and writing took much longer than I could ever have imagined. I started the research for my Ph.D. dissertation, but that was not a full biography. After completing that in 1979, I was consumed with other projects. It was really in the early 1990s that I invested the time to write a true biography. So, the research has taken at least forty years, especially since I returned repeatedly to Howard University to study the voluminous letters that are the backbone of this biography.

From reading your biography,  Locke appeared to be extremely self-conscious and grandiose, particularly around other Black men. Do you think he had a need to prove his superior intellect? How much of his life do you feel was an act, what percentage was an appearance of respectability?

Dr. Jeffrey C. Stewart

I do believe you’ve hit on something important here.  His life was a performance, to achieve the “appearance of respectability,” as you suggest. I remember interviewing a Philadelphia “elite” person from what I call the Black Victorians. I asked her, “were the Locke’s wealthy?” She replied, “No, they were not; and nobody thought they were.” That kind of severe judgment of one’s economic marginality was typical of the class that he had been brought up in but could never fully participate in—the world of the Black gentleman and lady of independent means—and he did everything to suggest that at heart he belonged.

Who would you say he was most in competition with?

I think Locke was most in competition with W.E.B. Du Bois, who carved out the path of Black public intellectual through stellar intellectual accomplishment, especially at Harvard. In some respects, that’s one of the threads of the book, Locke struggle to separate himself and declare an independent vision of the “talented tenth,” what educated African Americans can contribute to the freedom struggle. Even that phrase, “talented tenth,” is from Du Bois. They struggled with one another throughout Locke’s life, but I believe that each developed a begrudging respect for one another.

You referred to Locke as “a complicated figure,” in that he was closeted about his homosexuality, yet his sexuality was well-known among his circle. He once called it his point of “vulnerable/invulnerability.” Could you talk more about how his sexuality played a role in his assumed paranoia?

I think Locke was relatively unique among the 1920s black arts community for never questioning his homosexuality or masquerading as heterosexual, as for example, Countee Cullen, his young friend did by marrying Yolanda Du Bois. At the same time, he was “paralyzingly discreet,” as he once described himself, someone who was so concerned about his sexuality being revealed that he, for example, as one of his friends noted, constantly changed the name above his doorbell at his home so that visitors did not know that it was his address. I also think it has a deeper impact: sexuality was really what he was most interested in; yet, he could not write about it for publication during his era. In some respects, not being able to write about what really mattered to him stunted his ability to be a creative writer, something he longed to be but never quite achieved. He launched a career as a critic instead of a creative writer as a kind of his compromise, if you will, with the reality that he could never “out” himself in print, even as he lived in an “open closet” as a man.

How did his sexuality manifest in his contributions to social change and the Harlem Renaissance?  

I think that being gay made Locke distant and skeptical of the logic of Black protest that was the dominant form of Black aesthetics in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Protest literature was largely the bailiwick of the NAACP and such writers as Du Bois, Angelina Grimke, others. I think that Locke felt that constantly focusing on race and white racism at that left unexamined those aspects of Black life that did not fit the protest frame. I also believe he felt that protest and NAACP cultural politics were heteronormative and marginalized stories that did not fit the NAACP strategy to craft Black stories that affirmed that Blacks were as middle class as other Americans. Being gay opened Locke to modernism, because it was in modernism that voices like his could be heard. I also think that Locke’s sexuality made him suspicious of certain forms of Black nationalism that excluded anyone who did not fit a romantic notion of triumphant Black manhood. Locke sought a roomier notion of Black identity that could allow the queer and the unfixed notions of sexual identity to lurk if not flourish. Locke did not want Black America to create an alternative to White America that was as repressive and puritan as the mainstream.

What were his relationships to writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston? 

In many respects, Langston Hughes was the unrequited love of Locke’s life and his pursuit of a love affair with Hughes both energized and destroyed his efforts to support Hughes as a writer. Locke spent time with Hughes in Europe romanticizing him, only to be abandoned by Hughes after a moment of intimacy. But this had an important effect, for I believe that the love of Hughes opened Locke’s eyes to what Hughes loved—the working class Black people; so that love catalyzed an awakening in Locke and allowed him to identify with Black people more than he ever had. Locke’s relationship with Zora Neale Hurston was more complicated even than that. Zora was the one female writer of the Harlem Renaissance that Locke genuinely respected and sought to advance through a complicated patron scheme that also brought money to Hughes. But Locke lost control of the situation, especially after Hughes and Hurston became enemies over a contested play, “Mule Bone.” At some level, Locke could never fully invest himself emotionally in the promotion of a woman artist’s career as he could for a male artist. Hurston produced a triumphant work of fiction in the late 1930s, There Eyes Were Watching God. Yet Locke trashed it in a review. In one of the more humorous scenes in the book, Zora wrote to the editor of the journal in which Locke’s review appeared to say that she would send her toenails to debate Locke on the nature of folklore, so low an opinion did she have of his knowledge of the subject on which he criticized her. So, these were fierce enemies as well as trenchant allies in the struggle to create art that would endure.

Let’s talk about the talented tenth, and what that meant to intellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Locke. What type of progression were they looking for within the Black race? How did they substantiate their beliefs? 

The talented tenth, as I mentioned, was Du Bois’s concept, really a breakthrough in American intellectual history, as it created a rationale for the contribution of intellectuals to public life beyond simply their love of ideas or employment of their intellect in their professions. It was a progressive notion that those of the Black group who achieved academic distinction had an obligation to do something for those left behind, the ‘9/10s,’ not only to help uplift them but also to fight the discourse of public racism that suffused the sciences, religion, public life generally. Locke took that concept and turned it into something new—that the real talented tenth was the cadre of Black artists, who until him, were not foregrounded in discussions of Black politics, and made these artists the vanguard of change. That’s because Locke believed that it was in the realm of the imagination, in literature, visual art, theater, film, and music that a new idea of the Negro—the New Negro—and of America—a New America—could emerge. So, Locke can be credited with being the first member of the intellectual talented tenth to argue and define a role for the artists as members of the talented tenth whose art could make a difference for the masses of Black people.

After reading your biography, I was left with the impression that Locke enjoyed being in the public eye, and spent a lifetime seeking prestige. Would you say that it was validation and acceptance that he sought or did he really model himself as an influential intellect?

I think both were motivators for him—to be validated and accepted—recognition being so difficult to achieve for a talented Black person, then and now—and the desire to be an influential intellectual. Really, Locke, after Du Bois, was the first to suggest that intellectual brilliance was a road to fame—one seldom taken in America, as we can see from our current cultural moment.

Locke stated, “In giving me that Rhodes Scholarship, that’s the least Rhodes can do since he stole so much wealth from Africa.” Is it fair to say had Locke not received the Rhodes award he wouldn’t have later in life had the amount of respect and such a grand platform as well as a large audience to educate and entertain?

Certainly, wining the Rhodes Scholarship and being the first African American to do so put a stamp on him of intellectual prestige that made him singular and famous. At the same time, it imposed a burden to continue to live up to a standard of academic achievement he could not meet. His failure to get an Oxford degree created a painful sense of failure in him that he carried to his grave.

During his travels abroad, he enjoyed freedoms that seemed unattainable in America with regards to his race and sexuality. Although he stated “If things work out for me, America may never see me again,” he remained fixated on the struggles taking place there. He believed art to be a political act, as expressed in his essay  titled “Enter the New Negro”. In what other ways would you say that his travels affected and/or influenced his life and works?

I think that Locke was a true cosmopolitan, a kind of transnational who traversed borders, especially between America and Europe and later in life between North America and the Caribbean, and doing so allowed him to escape the typical frames of race-based thinking that existed in America. It also allowed him to nurture his desire for sexual freedom and to have love affairs that healed him enough, usually during the summers, so he could return to his teaching job at Howard University renewed. Unfortunately, such travel did not produce the great novel he hoped it would. But it did contribute what I call “ocean values” to his musings back in America and often catalyzed his breakthroughs in criticism if not in poetry or fiction.

What brought Locke back to the states?

For practical reasons: his only long term job was as a professor at Howard University, but secondly because America was where the struggle was. At some deep level, Locke chose to make the race struggle his primary contribution to public life.

Fatherless since age eight, Locke’s mother was a central figure in his life. Please describe their relationship and its complexities. Would you say she was aware of his sexuality?

His mother was the mother he needed, the kind of mother who would enable a difficult, talented, egotistical son. She nurtured him to be a genius, to never question his own motives, to push forward regardless of what others thought—to really look down on others who got in his way. That, of course, was the downside of his mother: she had a hand in creating a narcissist, and then in the early 1900s tried to get him to dial it back a bit. She was the person who could get him to consider the reality of others in his calculating quest for fame and treasure. To what extent she knew of his homosexuality remains unclear. He told others that she knew and that they discussed it openly and she approved. At the same time, I found letters where she seemed not to understand that he was acting out of his homosexuality in romantic situations. What she did do is produce a man who did not think his homosexuality was wrong or that it should be amended or defended. She gave him the confidence to be who he was and care nothing of what others thought of that. While that had costs, it was also a gift that carried him to success in difficult times.

If Locke was the dean and father of the Harlem Renaissance, is it fair to define his mother Mary Locke as the godmother? 

Mary Locke was the true godmother of the Harlem Renaissance, more so that the later “Godmother” Charlotte Mason who sought such influence. What Mary Locke brought to that movement was the Black Victorian culture of Philadelphia that saw life as requiring us to educate ourselves in the world of culture, not settle for what racism handed out to Black people as appropriate pursuits. She attended downtown lectures in art, music, and literature, and modeled the life of the mind that Locke created for himself. But her death was important in helping Locke break from the stultifying nature of that culture—that it was only interested in Culture with a capital C, and unwilling to see or hear working class Black culture as art. Her death threw him out on the sea of life with no one steering him, and forced him to chart a course to cultural advocacy without the Victorian culture as his model. Her death made him embrace modernism.

Throughout Locke’s life, he had a number of financial supporters, but also accumulated enormous debt in several countries. Would you say he employed charm and charisma to fund his cosmopolitan lifestyle, or did he believe his own hype?

Locke was a hustler, a self-promoter at the same time that he promoted the Harlem Renaissance as a group awakening. He saw financial matters as a kind of game he played quite well. He stated that he was singular in having no sense of guilt. So, if he stiffed a landlord in England when he was penniless after he was sent down from Oxford that was ok. But at the same time, he gave away a lot of money to young artists who themselves were penniless in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Money also was a lever in his sexual relationships, gaining him access to young lovers at times, but also leaving him suspicious that many sought him out romantically only because of the potential financial rewards. Money contributed to his crushing sense of loneliness.

Locke’s behaviors could appear rigid and/or controlling at times. What would you say were his motives or reasons?

Yes, he was a control freak, and that controlling temperament destroyed some of his relationships. Locke had difficulty simply “hanging.”

What was Locke’s underlying wish for African-Americans? Do you think he’d be pleased by current day artistic expression?

In the concept of the New Negro, Locke created an open metaphor of what he believed was absolutely necessary for African Americans—to cultivate a sense of freedom and reinvent oneself out of the resources of one’s life with good taste and aplomb. While the New Negro was America’s quintessential artist in his formulation, he also believed that the New Negro was unfinished—it was not one thing, but could evolve, to become, for example, as today, the Black Panther, a scientifically-engaged leader from Africa, because for Locke the greatest asset African Americans have is our imagination. He wanted all Americans to embrace their capacity to imagine a different future for themselves beyond what the society at large bequeathed them. I hope that is the message take away from this biography.

Featured image: Portrait of Alain Locke by Winold Reiss
Nahshon Dion photo

About: Nahshon Dion

NAHSHON DION is a multi-talented, award-winning nonfiction writer, teaching artist, writing mentor, video editor, emerging filmmaker, producer, grant writer, grants panelist, community organizer, fundraiser, disability advocate, and arts patron from Altadena, CA. Most of all, she's a survivor! Nahshon's the recipient of dozens of grants, fellowships, artist residencies, honors, and awards that provided ammunition and support towards creating her forthcoming memoir. She's developing a documentary film based on her life, survival, and artistic journey. The film shows marginalized youth the importance of self-respect and how to reach their full potential and shine with dignity when their rainbow is blurred.

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