Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 90: How did the shattering of the color barrier for the Rhodes Scholarships forever change the black arts movement?
A few weeks ago, I received an intriguing email from George R. Keys Jr., a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Keys told me about a plan to inter the remains of the first black Rhodes Scholar at a special ceremony to be held at the historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington at 11 a.m. on Sept. 13—this coming Saturday! I was moved but also dumbfounded. Not because the first black Rhodes Scholar isn’t deserving of an august burial—far from it. It was because I knew he had shattered that particular ceiling all the way back in 1907.
One of my Harvard heroes, Alain LeRoy Locke was an exquisitely brilliant black intellectual who, after an enviable career in higher education and the arts, died less than a month after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In other words, 60 years ago!
You may know of Locke as the “dean of the Harlem Renaissance,” and for good reason. He was an impresario of taste and erudition who, at the height of the Jazz Age, chronicled the flowering of the black arts movement. He also was, perhaps, the most visible gay intellectual of his generation. And no one among Locke’s contemporaries was a truer champion of young, unknown writers.
Surveying the scene for Survey Graphic in March 1925, Locke wrote in an essay titled “Enter the New Negro”:
“[T]he mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority. By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation. …
“The migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdle several generations of experience at a leap, but more important, the same thing happens spiritually in the life-attitudes and self-expression of the Young Negro, in his poetry, his art, his education and his new outlook, with the additional advantage, of course, of the poise and greater certainty of knowing what it is all about.”
Several generations have passed since Locke helped midwife the Harlem (or “New Negro”) Renaissance, yet, amazingly, despite his contributions to such a rich cultural legacy, the remains of our first black Rhodes Scholar have remained above ground with few of us knowing anything about it. This column is for him, with an invitation at the end to help lay him to rest.