Alain Leroy Locke (September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954) was an American writer, philosopher, and educator.
Distinguished as the first African-American Rhodes Scholar in 1907, Locke was the philosophical architect —the acknowledged "Dean"— of the Harlem Renaissance. As a result, popular listings of influential African Americans have repeatedly included him. On March 19, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed: "We're going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe."
Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau
Locke stimulated and guided artistic activities and promoted the recognition and respect of blacks by the total American community.
Having studied African culture and traced its influences upon Western civilization, he urged black painters, sculptors, and musicians to look to African sources for identity and to discover materials and techniques for their work. He encouraged black authors to seek subjects in black life and to set high artistic standards for themselves. He familiarized American readers with the Harlem Renaissance by editing a special Harlem issue for Survey Graphic (March 1925), which he expanded into The New Negro (1925), an anthology of fiction, poetry, drama, and essays.
Locke edited the Bronze Booklet studies of cultural achievements by blacks. For almost two decades he annually reviewed literature by and about blacks in Opportunity and Phylon, and from 1940 until his death he regularly wrote about blacks for the Britannica Book of the Year. His many works include Four Negro Poets (1927), Frederick Douglass, a Biography of Anti-Slavery (1935), Negro Art—Past and Present (1936), and The Negro and His Music (1936). He left unfinished materials for a definitive study of the contributions of blacks to American culture. His materials formed the basis for M.J. Butcher’s The Negro in American Culture (1956).
A humanist who was intensely concerned with aesthetics, Locke termed his philosophy “cultural pluralism” and emphasized the necessity of determining values to guide human conduct and interrelationships.
Locke was the guest editor of the March 1925 issue of the periodical Survey Graphic titled "Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro", a special on Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance, which helped educate white readers about its flourishing culture. In December of that year, he expanded the issue into The New Negro, a collection of writings by African Americans, which would become one of his best known works. A landmark in black literature (later acclaimed as the "first national book" of African America), it was an instant success. Locke contributed five essays: the "Foreword", "The New Negro", "Negro Youth Speaks", "The Negro Spirituals", and "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts".
Locke's philosophy of the New Negro was grounded in the concept of race-building. Its most important component is overall awareness of the potential black equality; no longer would blacks allow themselves to adjust themselves or comply with unreasonable white requests. This idea was based on self-confidence and political awareness. Although in the past the laws regarding equality had been ignored without consequence, Locke's philosophical idea of The New Negro allowed for fair treatment. Because this was an idea and not a law, its power was held in the people. If they wanted this idea to flourish, they were the ones who would need to "enforce" it through their actions and overall points of view.
While his own writing was sophisticated philosophy, and therefore not popularly accessible, he mentored others in the movement who would become more broadly known, like Zora Neale Hurston.