Alain LeRoy Locke was born in Philadelphia, where he attended Central High School and the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy. In 1907 he graduated from Harvard University after three years of study there. From 1907 to 1910 he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, the first black person to achieve that distinction. Having earned a B.Litt. degree from Oxford, Locke went to the University of Berlin to study philosophy for a year. He returned to Harvard in 1916-1917 in order to write his doctoral thesis, “The Problem of Classification in Theory of Value.” In 1912, before returning to Harvard, Locke had already begun teaching English and philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He taught philosophy at Howard until his retirement in 1953. He also taught as a visiting professor at Fisk University in Nashville, at the University of Wisconsin, in Haiti, and elsewhere.
While at Harvard, Locke studied under William James, professor of philosophy and brother of novelist Henry James. William James espoused a philosophy called pragmatism, which is contrary to Platonic idealism. According to pragmatism, there is no absolute truth or ideal; rather, the truth is constantly changing, so there are many possible truths. James’s pragmatism helped Locke justify his exaltation of African American culture during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. Locke encouraged African Americans to take pride in their culture, which he believed should exist parallel to, and simultaneous with, Anglo American culture. This concept of cultural and philosophical pluralism is the very essence of pragmatism.
Another Harvard professor of philosophy who influenced Locke was Josiah Royce, who taught the importance of group memory and group hope. According to Royce, the strongest communities were populated by individuals who accepted certain past events as a common heritage of all members of the community; likewise, these individuals sought common goals for the future. When Locke applied Royce’s teachings to the African American culture, he concluded...
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