New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse

By Australia Tarver; Barnes C. Paula | Go to book overview

What was Africa to Him?: Alain Locke,
Cultural Nationalism, and the Rhetoric of
Empire During the New Negro Renaissance

John C. Conn

ALAIN LOCKE, RENOWNED CULTURAL CRITIC AND HOWARD UNIVER sity philosophy professor, is best known for his role in defining and publicizing the “New Negro,” the most salient emblem of African American modernity in the first third of the twentieth century.1 Sociologist Charles Johnson dubbed Locke the “Dean” of the New Negro Renaissance, a role that culminated in his editing of, and contributions to, the famous 1925 collection The New Negro. Locke used this collection as an opportunity to trumpet the profound “internal” changes that he saw taking place among African Americans, ones that signified an unheralded “race spirit” (xvii). These internal changes amount to more than a new attitude; rather “the galvanizing shocks and reactions of the last few years are making by subtle processes of internal reorganization a race out of its own disunited and apathetic elements” (emphasis added xvii). Central to the development of this “racial awakening” (xvii) is a “new internationalism,” which Locke describes as “primarily an effort to recapture contact with the scattered peoples of African derivation” (14– 15). For Locke, a new yet instinctive “love and respect for Africa” is a key component of the New Negro’s defining “selfrespect” and unprecedented “self-expression” (xv).

While numerous scholars have noted Locke’s interest in “Africa,” thus far there has been little analysis of how Locke’s status as a westerner—as a Harvard and Oxford trained member of the western intelligentsia, and one committed to the fuller integration of Negroes into American society—shapes the content and function of his Africanist writing (what I call his “Africanist discourse”) during the New Negro Renaissance. In this essay I will explore how Locke’s ideological influences, allegiances, and

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