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5.4.1 Who is Negro

In answering the question “Who is Negro?” Locke begins by exposing a common misguided assumption in such queries:

[t]he fallacy of the ‘new’ as of the ‘older’ thinking is that there is a type Negro who, either qualitatively or quantitatively, is the type symbol of the entire group. (WWN 210)

Locke sees this as the unfortunate consequence of the past need to proffer counter-stereotypes to combat demeaning stereotypes of Negro persons. Counter-stereotypes may well contain some element of truth, but they fail to convey the whole truth about as diverse a population of human beings as Negroes in the United States, let alone the Americas or Negroes the World over. There is no distinctive singular Negro type. The answer then to the question posed “who is Negro?” is no Negro in particular. The Negro is a dynamic and multifaceted population admitting of myriad cultural and social forms characterized as those are by variegated linguistic, religious and artistic elements. This is important for Locke to note as the Negro of his day was thought to be classless, undifferentiated, and ethnically homogeneous. In fact, Locke himself thought it possible (and actual) for human beings biologically similar in the way that American race thinking presupposes to be members of different races. A full and accurate artistic portrayal of who is Negro would, Locke argued, have to picture the many diverse Negro strands in their own right, weaving together from these diverse threads a multifaceted presentation of Negro experiences.



5.4.2 What is Negro?

“Turning to the other basic question,—what is Negro,” Locke begins by narrowing the question to “what makes a work of art Negro, if indeed any such nomenclature is proper,—its authorship, its theme or its idiom?” (WWN 211). In other words, what gives a particular work of art its distinctive, if any, racial character: the racial identity of its author, its treatment of themes characteristic of a particular racial experience in a particular place, or its use of styles and modes of expression peculiar to a given people? Of these three candidates for the foundation of Negro art Locke claims each has had its day depending on the social environment that was prevalent at the time. Locke dismisses nearly out of hand the first option remarking that many a Negro artist has produced the most amateurish works of art due primarily to their poor mastery of Negro idioms, and inadequate treatment of Negro themes. What is more, some white (or at least non-Negro) artist have been quite adept in either their use of characteristically Negro styles, or their dealings with Negro motifs. Of course, it stands to reason that artist steeped in the cultural, ethnic and racial environments that give rise to these idioms and themes are most likely to master their use and expression, and that persons who do so are most likely to be members of these communities, having the same racial, ethnic or cultural identities as other members. However, such communal membership is not a necessary condition for the work of a particular artist to count amongst the works that comprise a racially distinctive body of art such as might be called “Negro art.”

6. Philosophy of Race

Locke understood race as primarily a product of social culture. Locke denies as do nearly all contemporary race theorists that races are biologically distinct categories of human beings. Locke maintained that culture and race were distinct, but often overlapping categories. There is no tight causal or otherwise necessary connection between race and culture. The two are mutually exclusive even though they do sometimes vary together or otherwise correspond. Race, for Locke, is not determinative of culture or civilization. Locke's position on race does not deny, as some of his contemporaries concerned with the notion of race and culture did, that there ever is a significant connection between racial and cultural factors, nor does it deny that “race stands for significant social characters and culture-traits or represents in given historical contexts characteristic differentiations of culture-type” (CRASC 188). This is primarily a cautionary observation on Locke's part seeing as how

[i]t is too early to assume that there is no significant relationship between race and culture because of the manifestly false and arbitrary linkage which has previously been asserted. (CRASC 189)

Locke has some hesitation about the prudence and possibility of completely eradicating racial categories. He states,

[i]n some revised and reconstructed form, we may anticipate the continued even if restricted use of these terms as more or less necessary and basic concepts that cannot be eliminated altogether, but that must nevertheless be so safe-guarded in this continued use as not to give further currency to the invalidated assumption concerning them. (CRASC 189)

Locke attributes the original idea that race is a primary determining factor in culture to the work of Arthur de Gobineau, though he thinks the main scientific justification for the view has been offered by those who seek to interpret culture in evolutionary terms such as the social evolutionism of Herbert Spencer. Positing a fixed link between race and culture was useful for such theorists in developing a step-by-step account of the development of cultures. But even in Locke's day, the supposed scientific foundations of such theoretical positions faced challenges. In light of that Locke thinks it understandable for some to want to correct this misinterpretation of the facts by insisting that there is no connection at all between race and culture. We see here again perhaps some of the influence that pragmatist thinkers, in this case Dewey, may have had on Locke, as Dewey was apt to point out on numerous occasions the shortcomings of Spencer's social Darwinism, and chiefly its attempt to offer a universal account of all aspects of human development. Locke worried that extreme cultural relativism

leaves an open question as to the association of certain ethnic groups with definite culture traits and culture types under circumstances where there is evidently a greater persistence of certain strains and characteristics in their culture than of other factors.

It is “[t]he stability of such factors and their resistance to direct historical modification” Locke thought, which

marks out the province of that aspect of the problem of race which is distinctly ethnological and which the revised notion of ethnic race must cover. (CRASC 190)

6.1 The Concept of Ethnic Race

Locke held that race was in point of fact a social and cultural category rather than a biological one. For this reason he developed the notion of ethnic race or culture group. By ethnic race, I take Locke to mean a peculiar set of psychological and affective responsive dispositions, expressed or manifested as cultural traits, socially inherited and able to be attributed through historical contextualization to a specifiable group of people. The concept of ethnic race is a way of preserving the demonstrated distinctiveness of various groupings of human beings in terms of characteristic traits, lifestyles, forms of expression; without resulting to the scientifically invalidated notion of biological race. “Race,” Locke argues “would have been regarded as primarily a matter of social [as opposed to biological] heredity,” if only the science of his day had reached a more tenable understanding of the relationship of race to culture which would likely have resulted from focusing more on the ethnic; rather than, anthropological factors. The distinctiveness of a given race would be understood as the result of “the selective psychological “set” of established cultural reactions” (CRASC 191). “The best consensus of opinion” on the basis of Locke's study of the past, and for his day current, sociological, anthropological, and psychological scholarship on the subject of race, was that,

race is a fact in the social or ethnic sense, that it has been very erroneously associated with race in the physical sense and is therefore not scientifically commensurate with factors or conditions which explain or have produced physical race characters and differentiation, that it has a vital or significant relation to social culture, and that it must be explained in terms of social and historical causes such as have caused similar differentiations of culture-type as pertain in lesser degree between nations, tribes, classes, and even family strains. Most authorities are now reconciled to two things,—first, the necessity of a thorough-going redefinition of the nature of race, and second, the independent definition of race in the ethnic or social sense together with the independent investigation of its differences and their causes apart from the investigation of the factors and differentiae of physical race. (CRASC 192)

The notion of ethnic race is better able to capture the myriad differences between culture groups in terms of the actual social, cultural and historical conditions that give rise to such variation, and without the scientifically indefensible reliance on biological factors. On this view, race is no longer thought to be the progenitor of culture; instead race is understood to be a cultural product. Locke held that the more objective analysis of culture he advocated would likely result in the development over time of distinctive culture-types for which it may prove possible to work out some principle of development or evolution. This he thought might eventually make it possible to develop “a standard of value for relative culture grading” (CRASC 194).

Nearly every culture is highly composite; consisting as most due in the union of various social and historical influences; moreover, every ethnic group in the unique outcome of a specific social history. A more scientific understanding of man replaces the abstract artifice of biological race, and requires that we deal with concrete culture-types which are frequently complex amalgamations of supposed races united principally by entrenchment of customary reactions, standardized practices, traditional forms of expression and interaction, in sum, the specific history of a given people in a particular place. It is noteworthy and perhaps illuminating of Locke's conception of ethnic or social race that the groupings of human persons formerly thought to constitute “races” in the biological sense such as “Negro,” “Caucasian,” or “Asian” are in fact each composed of several different social or ethnic races. On Locke's view there are many so-called “Negro,” “Caucasian,” or “Asian” races. This revised understanding of culture constitutes in Locke's estimation a fundamental paradigm shift in the study of human cultures ”[s]o considerable…[in] emphasis and meaning that at times it does seem that the best procedure would be to substitute the termrace the term culture group“ (CRASC 194).

Locke quickly notes while the notion of race has been invalidated as an explanation of culture groups understood as totalities, race does help to explain various cultural components within a given culture. “Race operates as tradition,” Locke noted, “as preferred traits and values,” changes in these aspects of culture in a distinctive way by a subset of a culture group constitutes “ethnic remoulding” (CRASC 195). Race becomes a term that designates the specific outcome of the “peculiar selective preferences” in favor of some, and against other, culture-traits of a given group. “Such facts” Locke observed

nullify two of the most prevalent popular and scientific fallacies, the ascription of a total culture to any one ethnic strain, and the interpretation of culture in terms of the intrinsic rather than the fusion of its various constituent elements. (CRASC 195)

Bibliography

Abbreviations of Principal Works



  • [AOP] “Art or Propaganda?”(1928)

  • [CRASC] “The Concept of Race as Applied to Social Culture” (1924)

  • [CRIP] “Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace” (1944)

  • [FVVU] “A Functional View of Value Ultimates” (1945)

  • [PID] “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy” (1942)

  • [NN] The New Negro (1925)

  • [VI] “Values and Imperatives” (1935)

  • [WWN] “Who and What Is “Negro”?” (1944)

Primary Literature

  • Locke, A., 1989. The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, L. Harris (ed.), Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  • –––, 1928, “Art or Propaganda?”Harlem, 1(1): 12–13.

  • –––, 1924, “The Concept of Race as Applied to Social Culture,” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissanceand Beyond, L. Harris (ed.), Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 188–199.

  • –––, 1944, “Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace,” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, L. Harris (ed.), Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 69–78.

  • –––, 1945, “A Functional View of Value Ultimates,” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, L. Harris (ed.), Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 81–93.

  • –––, 1942, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy,” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, L. Harris (ed.), Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 53–66.

  • –––, 1935, “Values and Imperatives,” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, L. Harris (ed.), Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 34–50.

  • –––, “Who and What Is “Negro”?” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, L. Harris (ed.), Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 209–228.

  • –––, (ed.) The New Negro. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

  • –––, Race Contacts and Interracial Relations. Edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1992.

  • Locke, A. and Stern, B. J. (eds.), 1946, When Peoples Meet: A Study of Race and Culture Contacts. New York: Hinds, Hayden & Eldredge, Inc.

  • Locke, A. and Brown, S. A., 1930, “Folk Values in a New Medium,” in Folk-Say: A Regional Miscellany, 1930, Botkin, B. A. (ed.), Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 340–345.

Secondary Literature

  • Bernasconi, R., 2008, “Ethnic Race: Revisiting Alain Locke's Neglected Proposal,” in Race or Ethnicity?: On Black and Latino Identity, J. Gracia (ed.), Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 123–136.

  • Cain, R. J., 1995, “Alain LeRoy Locke: Crusader and Advocate for the Education of African American Adults,” The Journal of Negro Education, 64 (1): 87–99.

  • Carter, J. A., and Harris, L. (eds.), 2010, Philosophic Values and World Citizenship: Locke to Obama and Beyond, Lanham: Lexington Books.

  • Eze, C., 2005. The Dilemma of Ethnic Identity: Alain Locke's Vision of Transcultural Societies, New York: Mellen Press.

  • Green, J., 1999, Deep Democracy, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

  • –––, 1999, “Alain Locke's Multicultural Philosophy of Value,” in The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke: A Reader on Value Theory, Aesthetics, Community, Culture, Race and Education, Harris, L. (ed.), Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

  • Harris, L. (ed.), 1989, The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  • –––, 2004, “The Great Debate: W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Alain Locke on the Aesthetic.” PhilosophiaAfricana, 7 (1): 15–39.

  • –––, 2002, “Universal Human Liberation and Community: Pixley Kaisaka Seme and Alain Leroy Locke,” in Perspectives in African Philosophy, Sumner, C. and Yohannes, S.W. (eds.), Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University.

  • –––, 1999, The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke: A Reader on Value Theory, Aesthetics, Community, Culture, Race, and Education, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

  • –––, 1997, “Alain Locke: Community and Citizenship,” The Modern Schoolman LXXIV: 337–346.

  • Harris, L. and Molesworth, C., 2009, Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Kallen, H. M., 1957, “Alain Locke and Cultural Pluralism,” Journal of Philosophy, 54 (5): 119–127.

  • Linnemann, R. J., (ed.), 1982, Alain Locke: Reflections On A Modern Renaissance Man, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.

  • MacMullan, T., 2005, “Challenges to Cultural Diversity: Absolutism, Democracy, and Alain Locke's Value Relativism,”Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 19 (2): 129–139.

  • Seme, P. K., 1993, “Regeneration of Africa,” in SemeFounder of the ANC, Rive, R. and Couzens, T. (eds.), New Jersey: Africa World Press.

  • Stewart, J. C. (ed.), 1983, The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture, New York: Garland.

  • Washington, J., 1986, Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism, Westport: Greenwood Press.

  • Watts, E. K., 2002, “African American Ethos and Hermeneutical Rhetoric: An Exploration of Alain Locke's The New Negro,”Quarterly Journal of Speech 88: 19–32.

  • Zoeller, J., 2007, “Alain Locke at Oxford: Race and the Rhodes Scholarships,” The American Oxonian XCIV (2): 183–224.

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Related Entries

Africana Philosophy | Dewey, John | Du Bois, W.E.B. | James, William | pragmatism | race | relativism | value theory

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Jacoby Adeshei Carter <
jcarter@jjay.cuny.edu>

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