Alain Leroy Locke was born in Philadelphia on September 13, 1885. He was the son of Pliny Locke who had a law degree from Howard University. Locke was one of the first black undergraduates to attend Harvard University, earning his BA in 1907. He then became the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, using his scholarship at Oxford from 1907 to 1910. Locke earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard in 1918, and taught at Howard University from 1912 until his retirement. He died of heart disease in 1954.
Alain Locke is closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance and the idea of the 'New Negro.' He edited a book entitled The New Negro in 1925 (which started life as a special issue of Survey Graphic, a magazine of sociology) that featured many of the rising stars of the Harlem Renaissance. These included: W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, and Aaron Douglas. The volume contained essays, fiction, poetry and art work that expressed the new arts and politics of this vibrant New York community. The Harlem Renaissance flourished in the 1920s, before the depression of the 1930s. Harlem became a prime locus for creativity and activism in the black world at this time.
As a philosopher, Locke believed that philosophy should be practical, that it should relate to real world, contemporary events and problems. The philosophy of the New Negro was posed against that of the Old Negro. While the Old Negro was a fictitious figure, primarily presented by whites as a caricature of blacks, the New Negro was a much more liberatory notion. The New Negro moved towards fulfillment and true democracy, toward social development and cultural autonomy. These ideas were particularly resonant at the time of the Harlam Renaissance.
Locke supported many other political and social movements beyond the Harlem Renaissance itself, such as the Niagara movement and DuBois's promotion of the Talented Tenth. His works were published in many journals, from activist publications such as Crisis to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He maintained a respected position as an academic philosopher, whose works are still studied today, while retaining his activist credentials.
Locke was a major supporter of the arts. He established the art gallery at Howard University, which has become a major national art collection. Locke was a strong proponent of the study of African art, for its cultural as well as its artistic implications.
As a philosopher and scholar, Locke broke many of the barriers to the white academy and encouraged and fostered the growth and diffusion of the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance. His philosophy of the New Negro is still widely read and incorporated into political and cultural writings.
Russel J. Linnemann, Ed. Alain Locke: Reflections on a Modern Renaissance Man Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1982