Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer edits a collection of Alain Locke's influential essays on the importance of the Black artist and the Black imagination
A Penguin Classic
For months, the philosopher Alain Locke wrestled with the idea of the Negro as America's most vexing problem. He asked how shall Negroes think of themselves as he considered the new crop of poets, novelists, and short story writers who, in 1924, wrote about their experiences as Black people in America. He did not want to frame Harlem and Black writing as yet another protest against racism, nor did he want to focus on the sociological perspective on the "Negro problem" and Harlem as a site of crime, poverty, and dysfunction. He wanted to find new language and a new way for Black people to think of themselves. The essays and articles collected in this volume, by Locke's Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, are the result of that new attitude and the struggle to instill the New Negro aesthetics, as Stewart calls it here, into the mind of the twentieth century. To be a New Negro poet, novelist, actor, musician, dancer, or filmmaker was to commit oneself to an arc of self-discovery of what and who the Negro was—would be—without fear that one would disappoint the white or Black bystander. In committing to that path, Locke asserted, one would uncover a "being-in-the-world" that was rich and bountiful in its creative possibilities, if Black people could turn off the noise of racism and see themselves for who they really are: a world of creative people who have transformed, powerfully and perpetually, the culture of wherever history or social forces landed them.
The late philosopher Locke (1885–1954) tracks the evolving aesthetics of Black art in the first half of the 20th century in this dynamic collection. In "Enter the New Negro," Locke introduces the thought that was emerging in Black art and culture in the 1920s, that "the mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority." In an excerpt from The Negro and His Music, Locke defends jazz, arguing shrewdly that the genre represents "the serious possibilities of the Negro's music" and that it has "educated the general musical ear to subtler rhythms, unfinished and closer harmonies, and unusual cadences and tone qualities." The collection contains well-crafted introductory essays by the editors, Pulitzer Prize–winning Locke biographer Jeffrey C. Stewart and Henry Louis Gates Jr., who situate Locke's perspective within his historical era while also discussing how his work is relevant to the present: "Locke uncovered that Black art was an economy that would create outsized careers for African Americans of talent, who would also have the opportunity to shape the entire culture at large," Stewart writes. This is a comprehensive but accessible compendium, a perfect introduction to a titan of Black American thought.