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Alain Leroy Locke: Advocate for African-American Artists

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Alain Leroy Locke: Advocate for African-American Artists

Alain Leroy Locke

Public Domain
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Painting of Alain Locke

National Archives and Records Administration

Overview

As one of the greatest supporters of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Leroy Locke wanted African-Americans to understand that their contributions to American society and to the world, were great. To that end, his work--as an educator, advocate for artists, and published works all promoted the upliftment of African-Americans. Langston Hughes argued that Locke along with Jessie Redmon Fauset and Charles Spurgeon Johnson as being the people “who midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being. Kind and critical--but not too critical for the young--they nursed us along until our books were born.”

Early Life and Education

Locke was born in Philadelphia on October 13, 1886 to S. Pliny and Mary Hawkins Locke. Both of Locke’s parents were teachers and his father, Pliny Ishmael Locke held a degree from Howard University School of Law and taught at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy. Locke received a scholarship to attend Harvard University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated magna cum laude in 1907 won a Rhodes Scholarship, making Locke the first African-American to win such an academic merit. Locke used his scholarship to continue studying at Oxford University in England.

While studying at Oxford University, Locke established the African Union Society for the “leaders of the African Race” to encourage students of African descent to fraternize with one another. One of the goals of the organization was to debunk inferiority myths about Africans and Asians so that its members would understand their importance to the world.

In addition to establishing the African Union Society, Locke studied prominent European visual artists and realized that they were employing elements of African tribal art in their own works. Like these artists, Locke was inspired by African artistry and decided that he wanted to create an avenue for African-American artists to create meaningful connections between their artistry and their ancestry.

In 1918, he received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard University.

 

Career: Educator and Supporter of the Arts

Returning to the United States in 1912, Locke began his teaching career at Howard University and a goal to help African-American artists develop art that glorified their African ancestry.

His first book, Race Contacts and Inter-racial Relations was published in 1916. In 1924, Locke visited Egypt to view the opening of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. After viewing the opening of this tomb, Locke argued in his writings that the first “cultural renaissance” did not take place in Europe, but in Africa. To support his arguments, Locke pointed to the Pyramids of Eygpt, early scientists and mathematicians, and artistry that were present in African civilizations. Locke soon realized that not only were white scholars unable to recognize the importance of African civilization, but neither were African-Americans. As a result, Locke made it a mission to expose the greatness of African and African-American history through the arts.

In 1925, Locke edited a special issue of the magazine Survey Graphic. The issue was entitled, “Harlem: Mecca of the Negro.” The special edition of Survey Graphic sold out two printings. As a result of its popularity, Locke published an expanded version of the magazine issue entitled The New Negro: An Interpretation. Locke’s expanded edition included writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Arthur Schomburg and Claude McKay. Its pages featured historical and social essays, poetry, fiction, book reviews, photography and visual artistry of Aaron Douglas.

In addition to writing, teaching and anthologizing the works of Harlem Renaissance artists, Locke was a consultant for the Harmon Foundation, an organization that made it possible for African-American artists to be promoted to mainstream audiences. Locke also connected African-American writers and artists with wealthy white patrons such as Charlotte Mason. Mason and other patrons provided financial support to artists so that they could concentrate on creating artistry.

Artists such as Aaron Douglas, Sargent Claude Johnson and Richmond Barthe were inspired by Locke’s encouragement and as a result, these men created visual artistry that evoked a connection between African-American culture and history.

Death

Locke retired from Howard University in 1953 and died a year later in New York City from heart disease.
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