Make Black History Personal: #10 Architect of the Harlem Renaissance

Alain Locke was a philosopher, visionary and curator of African-American culture who became known as the “architect” of the Harlem Renaissance or the “New Negro Movement” as he called it. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and social movement that took place during the 1920s in the Harlem area of New York City.

In his early years, Alain Locke was a brilliant student. He attended Harvard University where he achieved Phi Beta Kappa and became a Rhodes scholar. He also attended Oxford and the University of Berlin before coming back to Harvard where he was awarded a Ph.D in Philosophy in 1918.

Portrait of Alain Locke from his book, The New Negro published in 1925.
Portrait of Alain Locke from his book, The New Negro published in 1925.

Dr. Locke taught at the historically Black college – Howard University in Washington, D.C. for forty-one years. During his tenure, both my grandmother and mother attended and graduated from Howard. I believe both of them were influenced by his teachings.

Although I don’t know for sure that my grandmother Hazel took Dr. Locke’s class, I know that after her graduation in 1917, she moved to Harlem for several years even though her home was in Cleveland. My grandparents met in New York and my mother was born in Harlem in 1919. Later my grandparents would move back to a quieter life in Cleveland.

I like to think my Grandma wanted to experience first-hand the cultural and social explosion that was brewing in Harlem when she came out of college. Because she died before I was born, I never had the chance to ask about her life in Harlem – but it something I always wondered about.

As I got older and headed off to college, my mother would reminisce about her brilliant professor, Alain Locke. For her entire life after she graduated from Howard, Mom held onto her textbook from his class – The New Negro. And I still have it.

My mother's worn copy of Alain Locke's book.
My mother’s worn copy of Alain Locke’s book.

The New Negro is an amazing anthology of essays, songs, art, poetry, stories that Dr. Locke curated from the talent in the Black community that became the Harlem Renaissance.

A page from The New Negro in my mother's copy from college.
A page from The New Negro in my mother’s copy from college.

And at our house, my mother made sure we had our own little Harlem Renaissance going on. From our toddler days, Mom made sure we were exposed to as much culture as possible. That took place in the form of:

  • Ballet lessons
  • Tap lessons
  • Regular museum visits
  • Music lessons
  • Exposure to all kinds of history
  • Campfire Girls and
  • Reading Amy Vanderbilt’s book on etiquette

I’ve often wondered where this all came from. I don’t think the experiences Mom provided us were ones she had growing up during the Depression or during college when she existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But I can see my mother being inspired to create that better life for us by these words from her college textbook in Dr. Locke’s philosophy class –

We find the Negro woman, figuratively struck in the face daily by contempt from the world around her. Within her soul, she knows little of peace and happiness.

But through it all, she is courageously standing erect, developing within herself the moral strength to rise above and conquer false attitudes.

She is maintaining her natural beauty and charm and improving her mind and opportunity. She is measuring up to the needs of her family, community and race, and radiating a hope throughout the land.

The wind of the race’s destiny stirs more briskly because of her striving.

How can you make Black history personal? 

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