Alain Locke’s Thoughts on Black Art A Century Later

Alain Locke’s Thoughts on Black Art A Century Later

by Shantay Robinson


In 1920, W.E.B DuBois proclaimed, “I think we have enough talent to start a Renaissance.” And Alain Locke picked up the torch to illuminate the way forward. Alain Locke is the father of the Harlem Renaissance, which is also known as the New Negro Movement. He penned a seminal 1925 essay, “The New Negro” and published an anthology titled, The New Negro: An Interpretation featuring several notable writers, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay. The publishing of these texts sparked a movement. Though Locke never wanted to be a race leader as he was being groomed by his father who died when he was six years old, he proved to be a great thought leader who theorized how Black arts served Black people with their aesthetics, as opposed to its political power. He was opposed to using art as propaganda the way DuBois and others thought about Black expression.
Though Locke wrote about a moment in time a century ago, some of the sentiments expressed about that time could be used to consider the salience of the role of art in the contemporary moment. As there is more art being produced now than in any other time in history, what do we make of this artistic momentum?

As a philosopher and Howard University professor, Locke theorized what it meant to be a Negro at a time when so many monumental changes were occurring in the United States. As the Great Migration was underway, in his seminal essay, “The New Negro,“ he writes, “With each successive wave of it, the movement of the Negro becomes more and more a mass movement toward the larger and the more democratic chance—in the Negro’s case a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern.” As African Americans moved out of the south to the north, midwest, and west, their sensibilities changed as well. Locke thought about how all these changes impacted the race along with arts and culture.
In the contemporary moment, a movement is stirring outside of New York City, the art capital of the world, as the audience for Black visual art is developing nationally and internationally. Artist, scholar, and founder of African Diasporic Art Museum of Atlanta (ADAMA) Fahamu Pecou has been trumpeting an art renaissance in Atlanta for a couple of years, but that movement could also be credited throughout the Black diaspora. With initiatives specifically for Black visual art participants, namely Black Artists Retreat in Chicago led by Theaster Gates; the Black Rock Residence in Senegal heralded by Kehinde Wiley; The Last Resort Artist Retreat, an art space developing in Baltimore by Derrick Adams; and the national and international chapters of Black Girls in Art Spaces, the appreciation of art is becoming part of the popular Black ethos. In his introduction to The New Negro, Locke writes, “We have, as the heralding sign, an unusual outburst of creative expression. There is a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart.” The statement could certainly be made about the climate of Black diasporic society today.
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"One of Many" by Jamaal Barber
The Harlem Renaissance was a time for renewal and rebirth for African Americans. The ways they were being depicted changed from stereotypical imagery like Sambos and Mammies to being identified as a distinguished intelligentsia. In “The New Negro,” Locke writes, “The Old Negro, we must remember, was a creature of moral debate and historical controversy. His has been a stock figure perpetuated as an historical fiction partly in innocent sentimentalism, partly in deliberate reactionism.” He claims that the idea of the Old Negro was a myth overshadowing the people. It was a myth perpetuated throughout American culture and even sold on everyday household items from wall clocks to salt and pepper shakers. Depictions of Mammies, Sambos, and Pickaninnies on quotidian objects encouraged a narrative among American society that Black people were shiftless, lazy, and unintelligent. These depictions were used to sell products in advertisements for popular corporations, and it wasn’t until 2020, during the racial reckoning, that two of the most famous stereotypical depictions – Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben – were recalled. The removal of these stereotypical images is testament to the power of the contemporary moment. Locke spoke of the New Negro with a determination that the circumstances that African Americans lived under would not stall their progress as a community. He states, “The intelligent Negro of to-day is resolved not to make discrimination an extenuation for his shortcomings in performance, individual or collective…” Locke was interested in the possibility of change in the perception of Black people. And though they faced discrimination, he had hoped they would not fall victim to the stereotypes so readily available for them to subscribe to.

At the time of his anthology’s publication, Locke writes, “The Negro is being carefully studied, not just talked about and discussed. In art and letters, instead of being wholly caricatured, he is being seriously portrayed and painted.” Black artists in the past couple of years have been using figuration to depict the array of Black life and inserting these portraits in the western art historical canon by being placed in the collections of major museums. Black scholars today are rethinking and refiguring theories of the past. And they are not only being talked about, but they are also doing the talking. While negative stereotypical archetypes thrived in American society for some time, at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, Jeffrey Stewart states that “[Locke] felt the purpose of culture and art was to educate and thus redefine the meaning of Blackness in Western society.” Evidence in the form of the “Doll Test” has shown, stereotypical images perpetuated in society have an impact on self-perception. In the study that moved Brown vs. Board of Education into motion, it was discovered that black children attributed negative features to Black dolls and favorable attributes to white dolls. But with the introduction of the New Negro, Locke felt that what it meant to be Black might change. We know that the negative depictions of Black people impact self-perception. Today Black people have more say in the images that depict them. For content produced about Black people, the creators are more likely Black, so the narratives have changed.
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"The Crown Is Heavy" by Kevin Williams
Though he didn’t believe in art as a political tool, Locke believed in creative expression as a form of liberation. And in his 1928 essay, “Art or Propaganda?” he wrote, “The sense of inferiority must be innerly compensated, self-conviction must supplant self-justification and in the dignity of this attitude a convinced minority must confront a condescending majority. Art cannot completely accomplish this, but I believe it can lead the way.” Instead of using art to enact a political agenda, he thought art could lead the charge in developing the ethos of Black people. Other thinkers of the day like DuBois believed that art could serve as propaganda, but here Locke notes that there would need to be the belief of inferiority among Black people for their artistic expression to serve as a tool of propaganda to convince society of Black people's equality. Locke seems to say, Black people and Black art are equal to that of the dominant art and artists, so there is no need to use their artistic expression as a means to promote the equality of Black people to any other race of people.

In the introduction of The New Negro, Locke writes, “Negro life is not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul.” Locke believed that the moment of this renaissance was “a resurgence of a people” from Egypt, Ireland, Russia, Bohemia, Palestine, and Mexico. He says, “For all who read the signs aright, such dramatic flowering of a new race-spirit is taking place close at home – among American negroes.” It’s as if he were talking about the present where the uprising of people across the globe is featured on our televisions, social media feeds, and newspapers daily. Black people do not exist in silos where they are not being affected by the conflicts occurring around the world. And for artists, their work, many times, reflects what is happening in the global society.
"Southern Porch Blues" by Lamar Bailey

Near the end of “The New Negro” Locke writes, “if in our lifetime the Negro should not be able to celebrate his full initiation into American democracy, he can at least, on the warrant of these things, celebrate the attainment of a significant and satisfying new phase of group development, and with it a spiritual Coming of Age.” This statement begs the question, what exactly is the full initiation into American democracy? At the time of Locke’s death in 1954, the Civil Rights Act had not yet been passed, so in many parts of the country, facilities were still segregated and there were laws prohibiting equality. At this point, we’ve had a Black president and a Black vice president. But we’ve seen extreme backlash to the acceptance of Black people into our democracy. Can the development of a Black artistic ethos depicting a new phase in group development satisfy us as just another spiritual Coming of Age? Or can this new phase of group development precipitate a full initiation into American democracy?

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