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Alain Locke and the National-Popular

Thu, Oct 6, 2:00 to 3:50pm, Richmond Marriott Hotel, Richmond Marriott Hotel Salon B-AV Room


When Alain Locke lectured before undergraduates at Howard University in the 1910s, he underscored the hazards of “race-destined” discourses. Locke’s lectures from these years, especially those he developed under the heading of “Race Contacts and Interracial Relations,” are sophisticated critiques of dominant racial thinking, drawing upon the rethinking of the “race” concept then underway by such figures as Franz Boas, while also offering original perspectives on the pervasiveness of racial ideology. This paper examines Locke’s theorizations of racial ideology and argues that they were part of a larger dynamic in his work, namely, an effort to rethink national belonging as such. In order to underscore the far-reaching implications of Locke’s project, I make use of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the “national-popular” to interpret Locke’s layered political vision as a reconfiguration of “nation” and “race.” For Gramsci, the making of a national-popular culture, that is, a sense of national belonging not constructed by elites and not merely serving the interests of the state, meant generating new ideals. Locke’s enunciates new ideals as he seeks ways to dissolve “race-destined” discourses and imagine a national-popular culture in which race thinking has an altogether minimized status. The paper shows how Locke’s work in the 1910s (but also into the 1920s and beyond, via specific examples) may be read as a national-popular project that sought to give theoretical and practical heft to the idea of national belonging. The paper incorporates material from many of Locke’s writings, including “The American Temperament,” “Race Contacts and Interracial Relations,” The New Negro, and select essays from the 1940s.