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«A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School Of Cornell University In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of ...»

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A Dissertation

Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School

Of Cornell University

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy


Michelle Renée Smith

August 2009

© 2009 Michelle Renée Smith



Michelle Renée Smith, Ph.D.

Cornell University 2009 Better representation of ‘the black’ and of ‘black life’ in ‘public’ and recognition of black culture are often assumed to be necessary parts of any political project on behalf of black people. Major black artists and black artistic movements are, therefore, commonly understood to re-represent black identity and, through their renovation of ‘blackness,’ to justify black participation in public life. This dissertation investigates the writings of the black philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke. In a series of inter-related essays that both situate Locke in a particular context (by examining his relationships to his contemporaries) and bring his work into conversation with current debates in political theory (by comparing/contrasting his theorizations of race and culture with those of contemporary theorists), I suggest that Locke’s critical approach to ‘black’ artwork was novel because it refused to demand that artwork renovate black life or reduce its variety to a black identity worthy of recognition. While Locke’s refusal to pursue better representations of blackness has been, in some circles, called ‘naïve’ and ‘a- political,’ I argue that Locke’s criticism of art is informed by a rich and subtle theorization of ‘race’ as an identity-producing center of meaning and of ‘race thinking’ as a particular form of ‘dogmatism,’ which prevents both intellectual and political democracy.


Michelle Renée Smith was born in Cleveland, OH in 1974, the eldest daughter of Cathy and George and sister of April. She has (thus far) lived in eight, mostly northeastern states and Berlin, Germany. Michelle majored in Africana Studies and minored in Political Science at Rutgers College. Her

undergraduate honors thesis was entitled “(Re)defining Black Identity:

Reading Zora Neale Hurston.“After receiving her B.A. degree in 1997, Michelle worked for The Princeton Review, Prudential, Microsoft and Amazon.com before deciding to pursue graduate study in Political Theory.

She received her M.A. in Government from Cornell University in 2006.

Michelle taught college level courses at Auburn Prison, Auburn, NY and is a founding member of the Cornell Prison Education Board. Beginning in Fall 2009, Michelle will be an Assistant Professor of Political Theory at University of Florida.

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I would like to thank my committee, Professors Isaac Kramnick, Richard Bensel, Jason Frank, Susan Buck-Morss and Anna Marie Smith for their thoughtful advice and encouragement, Professor Mary Katzenstein for inviting me to teach in and learn about Auburn Prison, my parents Cathy and George Smith and my sister April Smith for their love and support, and my many friends at Cornell and in Ithaca and from my Microsoft and Princeton Review days, who have buoyed my spirit along the way.

–  –  –

I. Scope and Objectives This dissertation examines how Alain Locke, the philosopher and art critic best known as the chief interpreter of the Harlem Renaissance literary movement and editor of its preeminent text, The New Negro: an Interpretation, articulated the plurality of black life in his art and literary criticism. Locke argued that ‘race’ and ‘race-thinking’ had ascribed a false identity to black people, which foreclosed the recognition of black plurality. He saw in “modernity” hints that black people were abandoning this falsely ascribed identity in favor of self-expressiveness and argued that the artistic products of self-expression would enter the cosmopolitan realm of culture, where they 1 Norns are goddesses who rule the fates in Norse mythology. Locke’s use of “Norns” here is interesting, for it suggests that until the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, certain modes of thinking and practice—the ‘knowledge’ of black life provided by the social sciences, the (perhaps questionable) patronage of white philanthropists and political leadership based on the racial identification of the group—had determined the circumstances of black people.

During the Harlem Renaissance period, Locke suggests, something new was afoot that even the best science, the most generous gifts and the most familiar political practices failed to adequately understand or benefit from. Artwork, Locke makes clear in the essays he wrote for the New Negro: an Interpretation, captured these changes.

2 Alain Locke, The New Negro: an Interpretation (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925) 1 would serve as sources of self-cultivation for all people. I want to suggest that Locke’s primary significance to (black) political thought is that he envisioned the “black imagination” freed of the misrepresentations of the past without imposing what I see as a new constraint— a reconstituted black identity that was to arise from black art. In part, this is because though Locke recognized the negative impact of racism and ‘race thinking’ on the black imagination, he did not suggest that these effects could be repaired by recourse to a new identity or by public recognition of black culture. Rather, with time, new forms of group relations arise. The constellation of developments, events and ideas that was ‘modernity’ would usher in the possibility of ‘expression’ in black Americans and the influence of ‘race theory and thinking’ would wane.

Locke suggested that black artists were becoming liberated from externally imposed expectations of black art and, just as important, from the social and political duty to represent ‘the race.’ Against W.E.B. Du Bois among others, Locke insisted that black artists (and for that matter, white artists who depicted black life) should neither serve political objectives in artwork, nor be forced to portray black people positively. Writing about and on behalf of black artists, Locke refused the responsibilities and limits of politics in artwork in favor of ‘expression.’ He argued that the purpose of black artwork was not to correct white supremacist misrepresentations of black life or history or to ‘demonstrate’ that black people were, in fact, worthy of social and political inclusion. (That he took for granted, just as he should have.) Rather, Locke thought that (black) artwork should be “expressive of” ‘Negro life,’ in all its variety and vitality. Expressiveness was for Locke the mark of the most successful modern art.

2 But Locke did not ‘demand’ autonomy for black artists. Rather he observed its expression in contemporary black artwork and exhorted black artists to pursue it. Several indicators attracted Locke’s attention: in poetry, writers turned from argument and exhortation to (self and group)

representativeness, taking advantage of modern developments in poetic form:

–  –  –

No longer forced to ‘protest,’ engage in moral argument or to write in black dialect, black poets could express themselves as they wished. A (new) ‘Negro’ poetry was born. Though black poets found themselves freed of representative responsibilities and thereby able to produce authentic ‘Negro’ poetry, there was “…no unity of style or school [but rather] a unity of spirit and sense of tradition…”4 If unity of style was to arise (and Locke certainly does not call for it), it would derive from both a modernist spirit (open to various styles) and a sense of the past, vis-à-vis modern interpretations of ‘Negro’ folk art. In painting, the ‘Negro’ subject was being seen and represented anew by black and white artists alike. Referring to Austrian painter Winold Reiss’s5 “Harlem types,” Locke wrote, 3 Alain Locke, “The Negro Poets of the United States,” in The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture, ed. Jeffrey C. Stewart, vol. 8, Critical Studies on Black Life and Culture (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc.), 43 - 49.

4 Ibid.

5 Winold Reiss, an Austrian painter, provided the artwork for “Harlem,” a special edition of Survey Graphic magazine, published in March, 1925, dedicated to ‘black life’ in Harlem. Alain Locke edited this issue, which became the basis for The New Negro: an Interpretation. Reiss’s artwork appeared in The New Negro along with Aaron Douglas’s.

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Not only were black poets ‘freed’ up to be self-expressive, but the black subject was also receiving better treatment in painting. Winold Reiss revealed the variety of black life (multiple “patterns”) by allowing his subject to suggest his style. Instead of confronting black life with new (or for that matter already established schools of painting), by Locke’s reading, Reiss presented it as it was (one of many results of ‘nature’s creativity.’) The new variety of black artwork (in terms of theme, form, voice and style) reflects two developments that were significant for Locke: first, black artists (and by extension the black imagination) were becoming unbound from externally imposed imperatives and second, the black subject was beginning to receive new and better treatment, which reflected the variety and particularity of black life. For Locke, this meant that black artists achieved autonomy from earlier representational demands and standards and that the black subject was freed from its one-sided representation as “caricature.”7 New representations of black life became possible. I am interested in exploring the political theoretical significance of Locke’s account of these new representations.

6 Ibid.

7 Locke wrote, “[caricature] has put upon the countenance of the Negro the mask of the comic and the grotesque, whereas in deeper truth and comprehension, nature or experience have put there the stamp of the very opposite, the serious, the tragic, the wistful.” Ibid. 18 4 This dissertation is by no means a full, intellectual history of Alain Locke’s life, interests or intellectual development (indeed, I focus almost solely on his Harlem Renaissance era writings and earlier texts that I believe influence his art criticism). While I characterize the “great debate” between Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois over the function of artwork, I do not attempt to situate Locke in the “black intellectual tradition.” And though I compare/contrast Locke’s theorization of culture/cultivation to that of the German sociologist Georg Simmel, one of his teachers, I do not exhaustively trace the rich and varied intellectual traditions—American Pragmatism, Austrian Gestalt Psychology, German Sociology and the Bahá’í faith among others—that inform Locke’s work on race, culture and artwork. Locke is an incredibly rich subject, no doubt worthy of each of the projects I have described. Instead, I suggest that Locke’s articulation of black plurality, though synthesized from various intellectual traditions, can best be grasped in view of contemporary theories of recognition and difference/identity. As “midwife” to the Harlem Renaissance and the chief representative of its artists

and artworks, Locke sought to articulate the Renaissance’s ‘future’ impact:

intellectual and political democracy made possible by pluralistic thinking. As I see it, Locke is a useful partner in today’s political theoretical accounts of the relationship between personal identity and democratic politics. As I read Locke, he is interesting because he offers a critical theoretical account of ‘race thinking’ as a form of identity-thinking, which influences an understandable, if not defensible “counter-jingoism” among “submerged groups,” while at the same time recognizing that “counter-jingoism” (i.e.: defensive parochialism) is just as much a danger to democracy as is the ‘race thinking’ that elicits it.

–  –  –

I. Biography of Alain Locke Before further clarifying the theoretical scope and purpose of the project, I turn to Alain Locke’s biography. It is, of course, not exhaustive. It outlines his life and work, with a particular focus on his influences and activity on behalf of black artwork.

Alain Leroy Locke was born in 1885 to Pliny and Mary Hawkins Locke in Philadelphia, PA. Both teachers, his parents inspired a lifelong love of learning in Locke. He graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia and attended Harvard University, where he took part in courses taught by Josiah Royce, George Herbert Palmer and Ralph Barton Perry.9 Locke graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1907 after just three years of study. He was the first black to receive the Rhodes Scholarship.

Several Oxford colleges refused to admit Locke because of his race but he was 8 Alain Locke and Leonard Harris, The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989), p. 51 9 Ibid. 3 Harris includes Hugo Muensterberg among Locke’s Harvard philosophers and Muensterberg did teach at Harvard. Nevertheless, records show that Locke did coursework with Muensterberg at Berlin Universitaet during his year of study there.

6 finally accepted by Hertford College. At Hertford, he studied Classics and philosophy but never completed his MA degree. In 1910, Locke moved to Germany and became a (non-matriculated) student at University of Berlin.

There, Locke studied modern continental philosophy. He did course work on epistemology, philosophy of the 19th century, an introductory course on the philosophy of aesthetics, a reading course on Kantian Idealism, a seminar on Kant’s Antinomies, foundations of science, modern culture and a psychology course on the will. Among his professors in Berlin was philosopher and social theorist Georg Simmel, who, as I will argue in Chapter Three profoundly affected Locke’s thinking on culture and modernity.

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