Adam Kirsch in Harvard Magazine:
In the autumn of 1924, Alain Locke was enjoying the beauties of San Remo, Italy. But his mind and heart were back home in the United States—specifically, in Harlem, which was fast becoming the unofficial capital of black America. Locke—A.B. ’08, Ph.D. ’18—39 years old and a professor at Howard University, had been a leading light of the African-American intellectual world for almost 20 years, ever since he became the first black student to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. Now he was engaged in guest-editing a special issue of a magazine called Survey Graphic that would be devoted to Harlem. He enlisted as contributors some of the nation’s leading scholars and creative writers, black and white—from the historian Arthur Schomburg and the anthropologist Melville Herskovits to the poets Countee Cullen and Claude McKay. The issue was shaping up to be a major event: a quasi-official announcement of what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Now, vacationing in Italy, Locke set to work on his own contribution, an essay that would explain the meaning of this cultural moment. Like so many American writers, he found that being in Europe freed him to think in new ways about his country. (In the same year, Ezra Pound moved to Rapallo, where he would carry on his campaign against the status quo in American poetry.) The Harlem Renaissance, for Locke, was another expression of the modernist spirit; and modernism was a revolution in society as well as in art. For black America, it took the form of an intellectual liberation that, he believed, would be a precursor to social change.
The title of Locke’s essay, “The New Negro,” heralded that revolution. “The younger generation,” he announced, “is vibrant with a new psychology, the new spirit is awake in the masses.” The key to this newness, he argued, was a rejection of the old American way of thinking which made “the Negro…more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place’, or ‘helped up.’” Rather than being the object of others’ discourse, African Americans—and particularly, for Locke, African-American artists and intellectuals—were insisting on what a later generation would call “agency,” the right to be the protagonists of their own history. “By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem,” Locke wrote, “we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation…the decade that found us with a problem has left us with only a task.” With the Survey Graphic issue—which would later be expanded into a landmark book, The New Negro—Locke was positioning himself as the philosopher and strategist of a movement.