Eaton on Alain Locke, ‘Father of the Harlem Renaissance’

By Purnell T. Cropper | February 22, 2011

Editor’s Note: The Bulletin asked Dr. Kalenda Eaton, Assistant Professor of African American Literature, to share two of her favorite poems and a piece of non-fiction with readers. She graciously obliged and went a step further, describing why she prizes the particular texts. Eaton is bringing a version of the African American Read-In to Arcadia University. The event takes place Wednesday, Feb. 23, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in The Chat Performance Area.

Movin’ On Up

By Dr. Kalenda Eaton

“With this renewed self-respect and self-dependence, the life of the Negro community is bound to enter a new dynamic phase, the buoyancy from within compensating for whatever pressure there may be of conditions from without. 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. From this comes the promise and warrant of a new leadership…”

– Excerpt from Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925)

Locke’s The New Negro is an often overlooked but essential piece of writing when considering the effects of the mass migration of southern and rural African Americans into urban spaces. The larger text also speaks to a generational shift, so not only rural to urban, but old to young. With the rising generation came new perspectives, exposure to greater possibilities, and a learned appreciation of folk culture as aesthetically valuable and privileged. What we now think of as “The Harlem Renaissance” is encapsulated in Locke’s words when he describes the “self-expression of the Young Negro.”

Alain Locke anticipates the major cultural, intellectual, and artistic advancements within the African American community, and seems to identify the leaders as emerging out of the populace, from the youth, who are eager for a new day. I have always been struck by the description of “the migrant masses” large in number, in motion, leaving everything behind, determined, yet strong.

Read Eaton’s reflections on  “when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, and “Harriet Tubman,” by Eloise Greenfield.