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The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke
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Archive: Other Books > The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey Stewart - 4 Stars [Trim]

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Jeremiah Cunningham | 717 comments The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey Stewart
4 Stars
944 Pages
January Trim

A tiny, fastidiously dressed man emerged from Black Philadelphia around the turn of the century to mentor a generation of young artists including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jacob Lawrence and call them the New Negro -- the creative African Americans whose art, literature, music, and drama would inspire Black people to greatness.

In The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, Jeffrey C. Stewart offers the definitive biography of the father of the Harlem Renaissance, based on the extant primary sources of his life and on interviews with those who knew him personally. He narrates the education of Locke, including his becoming the first African American Rhodes Scholar and earning a PhD in philosophy at Harvard University, and his long career as a professor at Howard University. Locke also received a cosmopolitan, aesthetic education through his travels in continental Europe, where he came to appreciate the beauty of art and experienced a freedom unknown to him in the United States. And yet he became most closely associated with the flowering of Black culture in Jazz Age America and his promotion of the literary and artistic work of African Americans as the quintessential creations of American modernism. In the process he looked to Africa to find the proud and beautiful roots of the race. Shifting the discussion of race from politics and economics to the arts, he helped establish the idea that Black urban communities could be crucibles of creativity. Stewart explores both Locke's professional and private life, including his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his white patrons, as well as his lifelong search for love as a gay man.

Stewart's thought-provoking biography recreates the worlds of this illustrious, enigmatic man who, in promoting the cultural heritage of Black people, became -- in the process -- a New Negro himself.

"Locke was a chameleon who changed constantly to adapt to his context, because he feared becoming outdated, irrelevant, forgotten, a kind of living death he feared more than actual death."

First, before I begin the substance of this review let me explain my 4 star rating. The 4 star instead of 5 star rating is purely a reflection of the length of this book. At 944 pages the book is extremely well researched and very well written, but is, in my opinion, entirely too long. It is my opinion that Stewart on multiple occasions could have made the point he was seeking to make in a more succinct manner. The details are fascinating, but just too much in many places.

As to the book and its subject. This is truly an excellent biography of a man that even in literary and arts circles is largely unknown. The quotation above from Stewart describing Locke is quite likely the most accurate description as to why a man with so much influence is so unrecognizable today. He was a man who touched an indescribable and unimaginable amount of people and activities in his life and yet was not fully committed to any one thing or person in such a way as to define a legacy.

There is no way to summarize a book of this length in a short review. However, as just a sampling of the life of Alain Locke this is a African American man who attended Harvard not once but twice receiving a PhD in philosophy, attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, traveled countless times to Europe, was involved in the excavation of King Tut's tomb, was a father of the Harlem Renaissance, was a renowned art critic, and the list goes on. The people he was personally involved with both in relationships and as a mentor is impressive as well: Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B Dubois, Ralphe Bunche, etc..

As I was reading this book I could not help but wonder how one man could have all the experiences he did. And yet, he was never able to accomplish a feeling of success or security in his life, either professionally or personally. That is the ultimate idea behind this book for me. Yes, on the outside he was involved in shaping the African American world of the 1920's and 1930's but on the inside he was devoid of all that he desired.

The book is long but it is definitive and well written. If you enjoy well researched biographies this is certainly a book that is well worth the read.

message 2: by Jgrace (new)

Jgrace | 2938 comments It sounds very interesting, but 900+ pages are daunting! Thanks for this review.

message 3: by Meli (new)

Meli (melihooker) | 3391 comments I am interested in this book but I had no idea how long it was!
Maybe for summer break when I am feeling more ambitious.

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