UC Santa Barbara Black studies professor and author Jeffrey Stewart won a Pulitzer Prize on April 15 in the category of biography for his work The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke chronicles the life and works of Alain Locke, a Black intellectual and patron of the arts known as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.”
The biography is the culmination of decades of work, Stewart said in an interview with the Nexus.
Stewart began research on Locke in 1977 while in graduate school at Yale University. He dropped the project for a long period of time but resumed writing the biography in 1992.
“I went away from it because it was so challenging … It was a very complex project. I didn’t feel like early on, coming out of graduate school, I could write the book. I had to grow as a writer,” he said.
Stewart made use of Howard University’s exhaustive collection of Locke’s personal correspondences to paint a picture of Locke’s philosophy, life experiences, conflicts and interpersonal relationships.
A professor at Howard University, Locke left the bulk of his letters with the institution, where they were compiled in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Stewart pored over thousands of documents in the process of writing The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.
“He has voluminous letters. He had probably 5000 letters to his mother alone… He would report on what he did and where he went almost like a diary.”
Unlike historical counterparts such as Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois, who focused on social advancement through economic efficacy and protest respectively, Locke looked at the arts and saw an opportunity to connect white audiences with Black creators, Stewart said.
“He’s like a facilitator. He’s like a producer of these things. He did it out of a belief that art was a way to advance the situation of race relations more positively than through other avenues,” he said.
Locke popularized the works of Black artists and authors such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and others who “started doing poems and short stories and novels about the Black experience,” Stewart said.
Locke believed that “art was a way to advance the situation of race relations more positively than through other avenues.”
“Almost like a Trojan Horse, [art] could be rode into the citadel of American culture and there would be poetry and art and all about Black people which would humanize how people thought about Black people.”
Locke faced challenges relating to his disposition, his size, his sexuality and his focus on art over other forms of activism. In the greater Black cultural narrative, Stewart believes Locke was overlooked because of these peculiarities.
“Take somebody like Frederick Douglass. He’s independent, a leader, a spokesperson. He’s heterosexual, he has a family. It’s like it’s the mirror of the white world, but Black. Locke was small. He was 4’11″. He weighed 99 pounds. He was into art, which is not typically the focus of Black politics. He was a difficult personality.”
Locke’s challenges gave him a unique perspective on life, and his success and resilience in the face of dismissiveness from other activists inspired Stewart.
“He never let the opposition from other people stop him, whether it was gendered or sexual, or racial, or even the issue of his size, or those people who thought that art was ridiculous to be concerned about when you’re in the midst of a racial struggle.”
Also significant to Stewart was Locke’s faith in the Black cultural capacity for change and reinvention, away from the ideals and standards imposed by white people.
Locke believed that in altering one’s conception of oneself and embracing one’s innate qualities as a Black person, one could “acquire and gain a sense of self-esteem and agency that [one could] never acquire by trying to get what the other people have,” Stewart said.
“So there’s a narrative of self-sufficiency and self-determination through art.”
However, Locke also led a life of lonesomeness which intensified after the death of the most prominent figure in Locke’s life: his mother.
“Much of his life was after her death in 1922, a search for someone to replace her… and he never found that,” Stewart said.
This was coupled with a desire for a meaningful relationship with a man, which Locke could never fulfill, Stewart said.
“He had relationships but never anything that was really permanent. He felt people would get with him because of what he could do for them, they used him. He was a means, not an end.”
However, Locke was a perpetual optimist deep down, even in his dying moments. In every aspect of his life, whether it be romantic pursuits, academic ambitions or social activism, Locke never let seemingly insurmountable disadvantages discourage him, Stewart said.
Stewart believes young people can learn from Locke.
“That kind of relates to today, I think. A lot of young people come out and look at the situation. There’s a lot of controversy… but [Locke] was always hopeful, always thinking that by contributing you could make a difference.”
“This signature concept of The New Negro is that Black people reinvented themselves in the 20th century, away from slavery… There’s this idea that wherever you are in your life, whatever has happened, you still have the capacity for a new version of yourself,” Stewart said.
“His whole thing is, well, if you believe you can change, then maybe you can.”