The Harlem Renaissance was an era of great advances in creativity in literature, music and art within black America. One of the works of literature that defined that era was John Locke’s The New Negro. Written in 1925, The New Negro was an anthology of works by black American artists, intellectuals and scholars. It included works by some of the leading writers and artists of the movement that has become known as the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, according to some, The New Negro and its editor, John Locke, was not necessarily a fair look at the movement and indeed misrepresented the ideals of the movement. Many important voices were left out of the anthology, giving the reader a view of the movement that was not a fair representation of what was actually happening culturally. In his article The Book that Launched the Harlem Renaissance author Arnold Rampserad discusses the shortcomings of The New Negro and its editor John Locke.
While The New Negro centered around the artists and personalities that were coming out of Harlem in the 1920’s, the editor, John Locke, was not himself a product of Harlem and in fact had never lived there at all. Locke has been given the title of the father of the Harlem Renaissance yet, according to Langston Hughs “Locke was only one of the three ‘midwives’ of the movement, along with Charles S. Johnson and the literary editor of The Crisis magazine, Jessie Fauset (Rampersad 87).” During the Harlem Renaissance, Locke was an assistant professor at Howard University in Washington, a historically black university. While working on his anthology, he spend time getting to know the young writers of the movement, such as Langston Hughs, as well as older members of the movement such as the much respected W.E.B. DuBois. In his enthusiasm for creating a work that would allow the Harlem Renaissance to gain notoriety and prestige, Locke left out many of the important personalities in the African cultural revolution that was taking place in order that the movement reflect what he saw as being the most important aspect, which was an artistic one.
Rampersad cites noted historian David Levering Lewis, who wrote When Harlem Was in Vogue, to back up his argument against Locke. He says, “David Levering Lewis has challenged not only the idea of Locke’s centrality to the movement but also the general wisdom of what Lewis identifies as Locke’s key assumption – that the race’s ‘more immediate hope rests in the revaluation by what and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective (Rampersad 90).” His desire to create a unified image of the movement that reflected his personal values and ideals, Locke left out some of the leaders in other African cultural and social movements that were defining to the time period. For example, he failed to include Marcus Garvey in his anthology. Garvey was the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. He was a Jamaican journalist and entrepreneur who worked to create a Pan-African philosophy, focusing on the empowerment of the African that went beyond national alliances. He dedicated much of his life towards the creation of the free African state of Liberia. Garvey, however, was an opponent of DuBois, and so therefore Locke left Garvey and his important social movement out of his anthology.
The movement that has become known as the Harlem Renaissance actually extended far beyond the boundaries of that famous New York city. It took many shapes and many forms, from radical socialism to more conservative artistic endeavors including poetry and painting. To define the entire movement by the works put forth it the anthology, The New Negro, limits the importance of what was occurring during this time. Africans across the world were coming into a new place in the social strata. Movements were occurring on a political, social, cultural and economic level all over the world. The young writers coming out of Harlem, such as Langston Hughs and Countee Cullen, both of whom were represented in The New Negro, represented an important part of that movement but their ideas did not define the movement itself. While The New Negro was an important work to come out of the Harlem Renaissance era, it is really a small part of a much larger picture that was dramatically redefining the black community both in America and around the world.