Don’t be intimidated by author and scholar Jeffrey Stewart’s huge book, "The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.” You will find yourself moving from one page to another as smoothly as one chapter transitions to another in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It takes you to the world of a different kind of visionary who wanted the black community to embrace beauty and art as tools for self empowerment and revival. It’s a “meticulous and sensitive biography of the African American philosopher and activist who was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s,” said Jim Logan, on UC Santa Barbara’s website.
On Sunday, Sept. 15, Stewart will discuss his book, "The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” at Reston Community Center’s Center Stage.
Stewart has been a Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Rome, a W.E.B. Du Bois and a Charles Warren Fellow at Harvard University, and a professor at George Mason University. Copies of his book will be on sale prior to and after his presentation, and he will sign them. We had the following conversation over the phone:
Let me start with this. In one of your interviews, you mentioned that if you did not have a black agent, this book would not have been published.
Can you please explain?
STEWART: I mean, let's put it this way, if I hadn't had the agent I had, it wouldn't have been published. So, in other words, she was black, and I didn't really have access to the top literary agents.
STEWART: There are some people who have relatively well-known agents. I was simply a college professor, trying to get my book at Oxford Press. What happened is that I had reached out to, at that time, to Sheldon Meyer, who was the main history editor at Oxford. Afterwards, I learned that he was very much a fan of jazz, and had published a number of books on jazz. He was also the Oxford agent for my former professor, John Blassingame. In any case, I had tried several times, and there was not really anything forthcoming.
I heard from a friend of mine about Marie Brown, and she was one of the few, actually, black literary agents at that time. She had worked at Doubleday. So, part of it is that you become a literary agent often by working in the industry.
STEWART: So, I reached out to her, and she read the proposal, and I think on some level, because she had been at Doubleday, I think she had worked with Tony Morrison on, say, the “Black Book,” and other things. She was very familiar with African American history and could understand the importance of this man. So, she was able to, I guess, pitch it to them in the right way, so that they would understand. Because Locke has not been one of the ... He's like a figure who's been in the closet. Some people know about him, but he's not a major figure of intense historical writing, like say Frederick Douglas or W.E.B. Du Bois, or even Booker T. Washington. So, he's a person whose value had to be sold, in a way, to Oxford... Part of the reason that I was so stuck on Oxford, (there were other presses that expressed some interest), was because Locke had gone to Oxford. So, I thought that it would be, you know, appropriate that Oxford Press would publish his biography, since he was the first African American to be selected as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford.
STEWART: So, that's kind of how it unfolded. I have no proof, that had I not had a black agent, I would not have gotten it. But, I wasn't getting very far without an agent, and she was the only one that seemed to understand the value of the project, I think, largely because she had worked in this field.
How did you become interested in Locke? How did you discover him?
STEWART: It was a long time ago. I was at Yale, in the graduate program, and I'd have these long talks with John Blassingame, to whom the book is dedicated. I had come there to work with other people, like Alan Trachtenberg, and others. But he would always keep after me, asking me what I was working on. So, he would pitch various ideas to me, because John Blassingame, he was one of the founders, really, of black studies. He had a vision of what needed to be done, … the research that needed to be done … he also was interested in this, presenting Locke to me, because he knew I had an undergraduate degree in philosophy. I went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I studied philosophy under Maurice Natanson, who later actually taught at Yale. So, he knew I was into philosophy, and trying to find a way to integrate philosophy into my American studies work, he said, "Oh, Locke is the perfect person." Now, at the time, in graduate school, I didn't realize what a huge project this was. So, even though I did something on him in my dissertation, it really wasn't a biography. And so, after I graduated, I had to, kind of, recommit to the project a little later on. But, he was the one who really introduced me to Alain Locke.
I feel the importance of him, and his work, is that he has a vision for how to overcome racism from within, through art and beauty.
The question is, what kind of art, what kind of beauty can help us connect from within, and reinvent ourselves?
STEWART: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah. Well, that of course...actually, after he sort of announced this theory during the Harlem Renaissance, [the theory of the] New Negro. There ended up being a fair amount of controversy over this as to what kind of art and what kind of beauty. So, I think that that obviously has been an issue. Du Bois had also been very much interested in beauty.
But, he felt that beauty should be a weapon … if you can go back and look at how black people were represented in the media, in the 1920s, it was Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom. There were all these stereotypes and grotesque caricatures. You very seldom saw any image of black people, like a serious portrait, or photograph even. So, Du Bois thought that what we should do is counter the misrepresentation with very formal, sometimes ... My friend, Professor Higginbotham at Harvard, would call it respectability. Respectable images, which would prove that we were human and middle class, like the white people.
So, that was one. That was the art as propaganda. So, all the art that served that propaganda purpose, with Du Bois’ support, Locke felt that that was too narrow and confining. Even though he thought it was good to have representative, as he would call it, images, he said art had a deeper role. That it could discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid, so that it was also a kind of unearthing, and cathartic role that beauty had. And not only would it reveal a different image to whites of what black people stood for, but it also revealed something to black people ourselves.
Yes, because they can see themselves in the image.
STEWART: Yes, and seeing themselves mirrored in the image, there's a kind of catharsis that occurs, where you feel like, "Okay, I have agency. I have the ability to have an agenda to chart my own course." So, that's the constant theme of the New Negro, the ability to have your own course and chart it, that kind of agency. This is one of the reasons why Locke was very much impressed with what's called "The Great Migration." I don't know if you've heard about that.
Yes, yes, I have heard about it.
STEWART: And so, in 1915 to 1930, about three to five million African Americans migrated out of the rural, largely rural, but somewhat urban, south, into the North to take jobs at Pittsburgh, Chicago, during World War I, in the industry. The signal thing about this, for Locke, is that no one told them to do this. There was a kind of welcoming, in a sense, with the war. The industry was fed up, and some people said, "We want people to come north," and all that.
But, people didn't respond to a leader telling them that. Many times people just packed up their bags and left. And Locke said, "It wasn't just because things were so bad in the South, or things were perhaps going to be so good in the North. It's that the people had a vision of opportunity that there's something better in this world for us. And that we're going to take that opportunity." That's having your own agenda.
Locke felt that the masses of black people were actually carrying this out; this idea of agenda-setting efficacy that he also wanted to see artists participate in, and be a part of. So, that's kind of the New Negro: The person who values himself, or herself, because of beauty, because of accomplishment, because of art. It's not so much dependent on the larger society to confirm that vision of oneself.
The other thing that's kind of interesting about it is that he realized that making art, painting, poetry, theater, but also the music, which African Americans were creating at the time, the spirituals, the blues, the jazz--even though he wasn't that enthusiastic about jazz from a taste standpoint--he realized it was creating an entertainment culture. That entertainment culture would eventually expand, and become a source of jobs, as well as a way to affirm one's beauty.
In that sense, if you think about today, that was very prescient of him, forward looking, or whatever you want to call it. Because nowadays, the entertainment world, and black artists within it ... People like, say, Beyoncé, for example, you know, they're not just providing an image for other black people, they're actually shaping the larger culture as well. I think that's the larger vision implicit in Locke, is that, not only will we reposition, and restate our beauty to ourselves, but then ultimately, in doing that, you will actually have an influence on the larger culture.
So, ultimately, if you think about it right now, black musical artists really are the driving force in the American musical culture, right? With jazz and rap and hip hop, and all that. And then, even in the world of contemporary visual arts, we have a number of black artists who have become quite prominent. Mark Bradford, many others. The visual artists now, who is black, actually are a major figure within the art world.
These areas that were kind of, really small and tiny in the '20s, he celebrated those. He encouraged people to go into those careers at a time when most people thought trying to be an artist was a thankless pursuit.
Those artists, like Langston Hughes, like Jacob Lawrence, like Zora Neale Hurston. Those are some of the major figures now that we think about when we think about literature in America, and art. So, it's partly going to have this cathartic role in the culture, and in the community. But, it's also a new arena of career making that you can become an artist if you have talent, in the 1920s, which was generally not the case for black people before that time.
There had always been African American artists, even back in the 18th century. People like Joshua Johnston, in Baltimore, for example. In the 18th century, he did portraits of the elite, and stuff. But, there were very few. And the thing that Locke said was that, It's great to have some artists, but they need a philosophy, and the philosophy should be enhancing and using the black experience in your art, right.
He said to Lois Mailou Jones, who was a painter, teacher at Howard University. She was doing very nice post-impressionist paintings in the '20s and '30s, and he said, "Why not do something of your own people?"
Some people, some artists rejected this, but she took it up, and some of her most contemporary looking work that she produced on into the 1960s was work that spoke about Haiti, of the Caribbean, black culture, Africa. That was really the key there. I think the last thing I would mention is that he was a modernist. He believed in modernism. He thought that aesthetic modernism was a way to, kind of, liberate us from the Old World thinking of the 19th century.
He wanted artists and black people to be modern. To move out of, what he called, "medieval America," which was the 19th century, Jim Crow, lynching, all of that, to a modern world, in which you were evaluated on the basis of your talent, and not so much on the basis of your skin color.
But the way he looked at jazz, for example, he called it…
STEWART: Primitive. The thing is, is he was a Europhile, OK? He was a person who went to Harvard, he went to Oxford. When he said, "We're going to have a Negro Renaissance," he was talking about the fact that there was an Italian Renaissance, right? That he knew more about, probably, than anybody else in the United States, because he went to Italy to study it. So, his model was European, and so he was kind of caught there. He was a kind of transitional figure. He could see the importance of jazz, but his taste was European modernist classical music.
So, what kind of African art did he value?
STEWART: Well, people like Arnold Schoenberg, for example. Who was a ... I think he was an Austrian, musician. Or people like Debussy, or Ravel, these sorts of people. He loved that kind of music, and he played that kind of music himself. At the same time, he tremendously valued the spirituals.
Could you give me some examples?
STEWART: The songs like, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," those religious songs that were created out of slavery. I think, what he liked about those, and maybe it reveals his taste, is that he thought they were serious. He thought they were spiritual, right? Yeah, there was a spiritual message of upliftment, and transcendence in that music, whereas, with jazz, he couldn't hear that in jazz of that time.
I also think that he was a little handicapped by the fact that the jazz of the 1920s was a very, kind of, aggressive, almost staccato type of music. It was grating to some people's ears, certainly it was grating to his ears. The person who he really liked as a jazz musician, however, was Duke Ellington.
Duke Ellington created symphonies, almost, on jazz. He was always serious. He also didn't engage in types of behaviors that were considered by some people, like Locke, embarrassing. Like, from the mensural tradition, in which black people would grin, and act up, and play the fool. So, he found that to be bothersome. But, fundamentally, there's no person who one can completely embrace, right? I mean, he had his limitations of visions, but what he saw, even in forms of art he didn't like, was its tremendous uniqueness. The fact that there was nothing else like African American cultural production in the 1920s and '30s in the United States.
Because, not only was it the case that black people were engaged in the poetry, or the music, or whatever, but white people seemed very drawn to it. It wasn't really folk music that was really being produced. It was really American music by black people.
That's why jazz took off during the 1930s, even during the Depression, with swing, and became a huge national phenomenon. But unfortunately, I don't think Locke actually saw this, but later criticized it ... It was mainly whites who commodified, and took jazz and turned it into swing. So that people like Benny Goodman, for example, could play in hotels, and restaurants, and get radio contracts, that somebody like Fletcher Henderson, who was actually writing the arrangements for Benny Goodman, couldn't play in those places.
So, segregation continued to structure the world of black artists, even though their creativity was recognized. It still wasn't enough to get you into the best places. And often, many of the works of genius, that these black musicians created, were taken and utilized by others. So, the coaptation of black art is actually something that he eventually had to face, that just saying, "Oh, art’s going to be our means for liberation." Yeah, but we're still in a structure in which you don't have enough power to actually benefit as much as you should from the music.
You know, you think about blues, and rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, all of these musical forms, it was Elvis Presley who became the person everyone thought was such a great artist. It shows on various documentaries, whatever, is that he basically was listening to black music, and then going in the studio and recording it in his voice.
It's a struggle, and what Locke was doing was trying to make artists aware of their power, even if they decided to do something different than what he thought. They should see themselves as having an art that was of tremendous value. And you see, at the time, there was nobody else saying that to artists. There was nobody else really saying, "Oh, people who created the spirituals were geniuses; they're just unknown to us," and that “our art can be American art, as well as being African-American art, without it being a contradiction.”
I think he was a very good press agent, and advertising man, and promoter.
Is this why you think your book is important for us now?
STEWART: Well, I think it's important because we can look back to see where some of the things that we see today were the foundations, were laid by him in the 1920s. Particularly the idea that, we hear a lot of negative things about black communities in the dominant media. But, the reality is that these black communities in Chicago, in New York, in Harlem, in Pittsburgh, in Washington D.C., and even in Baltimore, have been the sources of musical and cultural creativity that has been very powerful. And, it's often been located and germinated in, what I would call, African-American urban enclaves.
When we look at the black experience from an aesthetic platform, rather than always looking at it from a sociological, or political one, I think we see black culture and black life differently. That's what he wanted to do, and I think that's one of the values of the book. I also think the book is very important for suggesting how you survive as a queer, black intellectual at a time when it was not like it is today, where there's general tolerance, if not acceptance of that, and the way in which he was marginalized, at the time, and the way he worked around it.
Because, one of his character traits that I think is really important, is that while he got discouraged at times, he never gave up. He never gave in. He never accepted, Oh, poor me. Why did I have to have all these burdens? He just said, Okay, I'll find another way. So, if you go through the book, the later chapters, like Bronze Books and Gold Art, or Warner Brothers, or others, you see how skillful he was at getting around those who initially opposed him, and still advancing his projects.
One of his incredible things, to me, is that he launched this thing called Bronze Booklets, which is a series of books that he published with money from the Carnegie Corporation: books on literature, on plays, on sociology, on race theory, on the Caribbean, books that were very inexpensive that he sold to the masses of black people during the Depression, outside of the regular publishing network, and outside of the university system. He did that as a single person, having it generated out of a post office box in Washington D.C.
The books went out to prisons, and other places that brought knowledge. That was knowledge by Howard University professors to the masses of black people, as an individual person. So, to accomplish that, he didn't wait around and say, "Well, gee ... because Howard doesn't want do it, or Harvard doesn't want to do it, I just won't do it." He just said, "I'll do it myself, because I have a vision, and I have the ability to realize that vision." I think that's the most affirming message: that you can actually do it, if you're actually relentlessly committed to your agenda.