It’s of course hard to figure out how to review a 900 page biography of a seminal literary and academic figure without thinking about taking on the subject with an academic sensibility. In all fairness, this biography does in fact both require and deserve a 5000 word review, and in a different life, perhaps one similar to Alain Locke’s I might do that. It’s been a long time since I have written an academic book review, and I don’t think I will make it today.
Without reservation, this is truly a wonderful and earnestly important book. It’s not without its flaws, but even those make a lot of sense save one. Alain Locke is a lot of things. Primarily, he’s known for writing “The New Negro” which basically suggests that Black artists (and I say Black because while he mostly focused on African-American writers, he also expanded his critique to African writers, and in turn was borrowed by and applied to post-colonial critique in Africa), deserve to write beyond the “race question”. This does NOT mean that Black writers should not write about Blackness, White Supremacy, and being Black in White spaces, but that Black writers are not beholden to political (read: Marxist) critiques of Blackness in their art. The primary examples of writers who probably took Alain Locke at his challenge after his life are Ralph Ellison, Gayl Jones, and especially James Baldwin — he seems to have a kind of kinship with Baldwin, both being Queer, Black, and inhabiting small bodies. That said, his critique was not one seemingly felt without tension and conflict.
Among other things Alain Locke was gay in a time (all time?) where that identity limited his public life. The book parallels that with du Bois’s own constant marital infidelites, not in terms of vice, but in terms of how lifestyle interfered with public life throughout their careers.
Regardless, it’s impossible to capture this book in a short review. There’s a lot of life here.