Alain Lock, leading philosopher, proponent of Black music and literature

Alain L. Locke
Mon, 1886-09-13

This date marks the birth of Alain Locke in 1885. He was an African American philosopher, intellectual, and educator, and credited with defining the Harlem Renaissance.

Born into Philadelphia's Black elite, Alain Leroy Locke was the only child of an established free Black family. By high school, he was an accomplished pianist and violinist. In 1907, Locke received a B.A. in philosophy magna cum laude from Harvard.

That same year Locke became the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which he used to further his study of philosophy at Oxford University and the University of Berlin. Locke returned to the United States in 1911, and in 1912, joined the faculty of Howard University as a professor of philosophy and of English, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Alain Locke has been called one of the most important philosophical thinkers of his day. His best-remembered accomplishments come from his scholarship on literature and art. In 1923, Locke was contributing essays on a range of subjects to the journal of the National Urban League. These gained him even wider prominence and in 1925, he edited the March issue of the Survey Graphic, a national sociology magazine. This special issue was devoted entirely to race, and Locke turned it into a showpiece for the gifted young African-American writers then gathering in Harlem. The issue was an outstanding success. Locke expanded it into a book, and included poetry, fiction, essays, and artwork. The book was widely interpreted as a resounding rebuttal to the argument that African Americans were not capable of great literature and art.

Like many Black intellectuals of his day, Locke was intrigued by the question of just how much influence Africa had on African American culture. As a result, Locke became a leading critic and collector of both African and African American art. Locke also became a scholar on Black folk music, and was also among the earliest critics to argue for African-American music's importance to American music as a whole.

He established the Associates in Negro Folk Education, which published scholarly books on African-American subjects geared towards adults.

In 1935, at the age of 50, Locke published his first article on philosophy. In 1942, Locke coedited an anthology on global race relations, "When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts," which is considered the best legacy of his later intellectual work.

He planned an even larger volume entirely on African American cultural identity, but he died from complications from heart disease in June 1954.

Locke made a career of thinking about Black culture in innovative ways, and in the process, he became one of the most important black intellectual leaders of the 20th century.

Black Heroes of The Twentieth Century
Edited by Jessie Carney Smith
Copyright 1998 Visible Ink Press, Detroit, MI
ISBN 1-57859-021-3

To Become a Professor

Person / name: 

Locke, Alain