Negro is not a word that I use often but the experience of people of African descent once they left the continent, has been as diverse as the names by which we’ve been known. Negro, colored, darkies, black people, African- Americans are just some of the names. There are many others, some meant not just to identify and segregate based on skin color, but also to inflict shame at said pigmentation. There are names that we are called and names that many of us call ourselves and each other, we say to take control and disassociate the shame. In the late 1800s to the 1900s, as this part of the world tried to recover from the bruises of slavery, many young black leaders started to seemed to champion for changing what the words meant. If we can’t stop people calling us Negro, how about we change what the word Negro means?
One of those early 20th century writers was Alain Locke and he published a book of essays entitled The New Negro. In the period that we refer to as the Harlem Renaissance, Locke was influential in working with authors and artists, not just promoting the black experience but also changing the narrative. Locke was very well educated and in fact, he was the first African American man to be named a Rhodes Scholar and from studying at the best schools in the US and at Oxford University in England, and from travelling the world and embracing the cosmopolitan culture that he was exposed to, he wanted to replace the popular image of the negro as a survivor of slavery, still slogging away in the cotton fields to earn a dollar, enduring racial discrimination but not doing anything to change it. Locke was a savvy dresser, a well renowned intellectual and considered himself part of high society but he didn’t just want that for himself – he wanted the image of the black intellectual, the black professional, the well-connected black artist, the strong, resilient-until-he became-successful, upwardly mobile person of African descent to be the standard. That’s what he considered the new negro.
Author Jeffrey Stewart just released a giant tome of a biography on Alain Locke’s life and mission – to educate the black population and inspire them to greatness. He called it The New Negro, just like Locke himself titled his book of essays contributed by greats like James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston an Langston Hughes The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance.
A few days ago, I was thrilled to view an exhibit at the Schomburg Library for Research on Black Culture and to attend an author talk where Stewart talked about his book, about Alain Locke, about what he meant to the black experience and what we can learn from him in 2018.
Click to see where I talked about the books and shared my experiences at the exhibits
Buy the books:
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke / Jeffrey Stewart
The New Negro : Voices of the Harlem Renaissance/Essays edited by Alain Locke
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