My ninety-second podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jeffrey Stewart about his new biography of the early 20th century African American scholar and critic Alain Locke (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
Though regarded as the "dean" of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke's name is not one that usually comes to mind when most people think of the movement. Yet it was the Philadelphia-born philosopher who provided much of the intellectual framework for it, most notably with his concept of the "New Negro." That Jeffrey Stewart uses the name as the title for his in-depth biography of Locke both highlights its role in defining Locke's legacy and the degree to which it was a product of Locke's own life and experiences.
The only child of middle-class parents, Locke grew up in Gilded Age Philadelphia. Stewart stresses the predominant role Locke's mother Mary played in his life, particularly in inculcating a passion for education. Graduating from Harvard, Locke became a celebrity among African Americans by becoming the nation's first black Rhodes scholar, though he was frustrated in his efforts to complete his degree there. Returning to America, he started teaching at Howard University, moving from education to philosophy after earning his doctorate at Harvard. Yet it was his work on race that would endure, particularly with his promotion of African and African-American culture in both art and literature. Though the Renaissance as a movement declined by the end of the 1920s, Locke had succeeded in redefining African American identity in ways that embraced their heritage while reaffirming its place in American life.
Locke's role in this has long deserved its due, and Stewart has provided it. His biography provides readers with a deeply perceptive study of Locke's life and achievements, one that situates them both within his time and the circumstances of his life. His is especially good at describing the central role Locke's homosexuality played in his life, which is no small achievement considering the degree to which such matters often went unspoken back then. That doing so requires a degree of supposition on Stewart's part is understandable, but his judgments are reasoned and well-argued. Together it makes for a masterful achievement, one that gives Locke the recognition he deserves for his many accomplishments.
I read this for the Winter Solstice square. I am not at all familiar with the Harlem Renaissance period, so I went in with no expectations or background knowledge other than I knew Hughes was a poet from this era.
Most of the work in this book is short; I could not really get the full picture of what Hughes was describing. I think part of my problem was how the book was sectioned; I really enjoyed the Magnolia section, but the Madam series and the Dream Deferred set were tedious to read after a while. Hughes writes to a beat that is hard to flow from one poem to the next. I'll be honest and say the most I enjoyed of his poetry is when he is talking about race and racism - he really got to the heart of the matter without fussy details and still had historical details to give context and more meaning behind the poem. Many of these poems dealt with the lingering consequences of slavery and the Civil War with the present day of Jim Crow and the migration of Southern blacks to the north and west during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Because there was no unifying theme to the book, it felt like the poem's subjects were all over the place and there was no feel to poems connecting to create a big picture. As an introduction to Hughes work, it worked okay but I think it would be better to read his single published work rather than an omnibus.
Zora Neale Hurston approaches this moving memoir like a master storyteller, with wonderfully lyrical prose that reminded me a lot of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Loved it.