Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Posnock, Ross. "Black Is Brilliant." THE NEW REPUBLIC April 15, 2009.

Harris, Leonard, and Charles Molesworth. Alain Locke: the Biography of a Philosopher. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Locke remains best known as a prime catalyst of the blossoming of black literary and artistic life in 1925 known as the Harlem Renaissance, which he showcased in his landmark anthology The New Negro. Always a controversial figure--"the high priest of the intellectual snobbocracy" was not an untypical reaction--Locke is now the subject of a first biography that rescues him from caricature and brings alive his distinctive fashioning of the role of black intellectual. Like Du Bois, Locke studied at the University of Berlin before taking a Harvard doctorate. And as they returned from the relative freedom of Europe, both men would wrestle with "unreconciled strivings," as Du Bois called the tension between race man and aesthete, between puritan and pagan, between the pursuit of social justice and the self-cultivation embodied in their cherished German ideal of Bildung. It was a homegrown figure, William James, whom Du Bois and Locke held in common as an intellectual touchstone. Of his Harvard mentor, Du Bois had declared in his autobiography: "God be praised that I landed squarely in the arms of William James." James had pretty much retired from teaching by the time Locke entered Harvard, but when he lectured at Oxford in 1908, Locke was a most receptive member of the audience. James's pragmatism spoke with particular urgency to these black thinkers. Along with Franz Boas's anthropology, which was another crucial influence on both Du Bois and Locke, pragmatism was a tool that virtually stood alone from turn-of-the-century behavioral and social sciences in opposing the theory and the practice of white supremacy. Pragmatist pluralism, like Boasian contextualism, dismissed what James called "all the great single word answers to the world's riddle, such as God, the One ... Nature" and "The Truth," as "perfect idols of the rationalistic mind!" Locke possessed a cool detachment that was the source of a remarkable self-awareness and absence of self-pity, qualities that allowed him to minimize and to manage the pathos that inevitably afflicted an American of his gifts, ambitions, and color. Like all black intellectuals of his era he found himself "trapped between two worlds," but unlike many others Locke seemed to resolve the frustrations. Unlike Du Bois, he did not make a career out of them. He would never be capable, at least in public, of the flamboyant histrionics that Du Bois displays at the start of his autobiography: "Crucified on the vast wheel of time, I flew round and round with the Zeitgeist, waving my pen ... to see, foresee and prophesy." The audacity of Du Bois's mind set him apart, and eventually made him a worldhistorical figure. Locke knew his own limits and was guided by a stoic steadiness and an irony about himself that helped him to persevere and thereby to avoid becoming one more burned-out case, the fate of many of his famous Harlem friends. Refusing to be a "problem," Locke instead led a life "in the key of paradox, " as he retrospectively remarked. And his cultivation of paradox has always kept him out of focus. Contemporary scholars tend to simplify by casting him either as a race man or an apolitical aesthete. Yet in fact, as Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth show, Locke kept up the pressure on both roles, as his thought continually refined itself and deepened. Though he wrote excellent literary journalism, he was primarily an academic philosopher, and the slim amount of his published work reflected a pace customary in his discipline. If and when he is read these days it is for his introduction to The New Negro. . . . Read the whole review here:

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