Term Paper: Tomorrow / Bright Before Us

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[. . .] In this way Locke emphasizes the hope of the Harlem Renaissance by basing the concept of race on culture and a function of intellect, rather than as a passive result of nature. Thus the Negro transcends the imposed concept of natural inheritence to instead focus on the self-generating concept of cultural inheritance.

It is from this argument that Locke derives the idea of race that is attached to meanings given by human beings in a sociocultural context rather than by nature. Locke combines this concept with physical science when he addresses the race issue in his essay, "The Problem of Race Classification." Here he reveals the shortcomings of science to provide proper criteria according to which race can be classified. Instead Locke stands by the rediscovery of the Negro of the self as a cultural and beautiful entity. Instead of merely physical difference, Locke insists on including culture and spirituality in his concept of race. Thus it is important to him to empower the Negro nation through the beauty of their culture rather than the misery that is perceived as their inheritance through biology.

This distinction is however far from clear, but Locke bravely persists in his view that race is a concept worthy of consideration despite the fact that science and philosophy fail to offer adequate definitions of it. Often such failed definitions of the concept result in an attempt to abandon the term entirely. However, this also is not acceptable to Locke, who condemns it as complacent and refuses to participate as a result of his deep respect and love for his culture, according to which he defines himself and his people. Thus the concept of race assumes a new meaning for Locke. The cultural meaning of race is thus embedded within the Harlem Renaissance, and within the new consciousness cultivated by the Renaissance.

Locke therefore pronounces race admittedly meaningless in terms of the sciences of both biology and semantics, but profoundly meaningful in terms of social thinking and modern culture. To this effect, Locke states:

I am fundamentally convinced that the term "race," the thought of race, represents a rather fundamental category in social thinking and that it is an idea that we can ill dispense with. In fact[,] the more thought of the right kind [that] can be centered in it, the more will the term [race] itself be redeemed. In light of its rather unfortunate history, the only way to treat the subject scientifically is to regard it as a center of meaning.[5]

In terms of both meaning and category then, the concept of race is highly charged while also being highly ambiguous, as seen above. This, according to Locke, is a good thing. It forces the academic to look at the term not only through scientific and defective criteria, but also in terms of its sociocultural context. In this way a clearer and more accurate meaning might be Alain Locke, "The Problem of Racial Classification" in Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, (1989), pp. 165-173.

A arrived at. This helps the aim of the Renaissance and of Locke himself, in bringing home to all Americans the pluralistic quality that might be found in the concept of race. Indeed, the very fact that race is so difficult to define in terms of science points to pluralism. In this way Locke abandons the physical sciences in favor of a philosophical analysis of race in terms of culture.

Locke thus defines race in terms of society and culture. Race as a concept, according to Locke, is directly related to the human emotions and actions that take place around it. White American prejudice against African-Americans for example has long turned this race into an inferior sociocultural construct. This race has been perceived as inferior both by the White race and by themselves to some extent. What Locke is trying to bring home to his audiences is that the concept, being social and dependent upon human beings, is as pliable and subject to change as human beings themselves. In the human celebration of culture that Harlem was therefore, race could be celebrated instead of used as a construct to oppress a physical type perceived as inferior.

Locke emphasizes the idea of the "white" lie of race. This lie refers not to the belief that races exist, but rather the idea that the biological view of race is the only one. Her pluralism is carried further. There are many races, many cultures, and many views that may be applied to each race and each culture. Racism is indeed the result of such a singular biological view of race. Locke acknowledges the changes inherent in the Harlem Renaissance when he asserts:

Thus race has become a social rather than a biological inheritance for Locke. Race is then deconstructed as well as reconstructed, much as the concept of the Negro during the Harlem Renaissance. It is therefore through the change in social climax that the cultural concept of view becomes flexible. The Negro commands a new kind of respect during the Harlem Renaissance. No longer is the Negro good only for slave or factory labor. While there is still a large amount of racism prevalent during this time, it is also true that the social construct of race is changing, and therefore also the concept of race itself. In this way Locke's view of race as a flexible concept is proved through the actual evidence of the Harlem Renaissance, and even beyond that. Race as a negative concept is thus weakened through changes in the American culture that entails a more positive view of pluralism through the pioneering work of people like Locke.

Locke therefore focuses his concept of race on a number of collective practices, values and interests. These are transferred from one generation to the next, and should be preserved for their uniqueness and their beauty. He does not promote conforming to a race different from one's own in order to make headway in a world where White culture has dominated to the exclusion of all others. Instead his pluralism focuses on the beauty that may be found in the above mentioned practices and values that are different among the different races, and that should not be viewed as either inferior or superior as a result. Locke condemns the tendency to conform to standards beyond one's own ethnic origin for the sole purpose of acquiring the things promised by the call of the North.

Again, race as a stagnant physical notion is replaced by a dynamic cultural definition. Of course traditions and values also change with time, but would do so differently among the different cultures. Change in ethnic culture does not mean integrating different cultures to create a homogeneous culture. These changes occur in various ways within each unique culture. This uniqueness is what Locke was trying to preserve.

Locke has been criticized by various theorists for attempting to replace the concept of race with ethnicity. However, Locke does not reject the idea of obvious physical difference. Instead, his style of thinking about race differs from the essentialist physical view. To Locke, being African-American does not mean only the differentiated color of one's skin, although that is the primarily determining factor. What he asserts is that culture and race go hand in hand and should not be separated from each other as concepts. Human beings cannot be classified merely according to their physical difference. The cultural heritage should also be taken into account in terms of shared values, goals and agreements. The problem that Locke addresses here is the view that people are either superior or inferior as a result of their skin color. This makes such inferiority or superiority very permanent and focused on biological difference. What Locke calls for here is a more positive and flexible view. Just as cultural heritage is determined by each generation successively and in different ways, so individuals within Locke's model are allowed opportunities and choices that are as flexible as the times that they lived in.

In short, Locke aimed to turn the concept of the African-American into a people rather than a problem. If race could be seen in terms of heritage which is different but beautiful, it would be possible to view people of different races not so much with a condescending curiosity as with a healthy interest.

Thus, Locke's ideal of race building was integrated in his work with Black writers, scholars and artists of the New Negro Movement during the Harlem Renaissance. Locke was a mentor to many of these artists, helping them to effect the social change that was such a dire need at the time. He therefore supported and advocated the Black visual arts. His views of ethnicity and race are evident in his insistence that the Black artist draw from his or her African roots for themes. Those who subscribed to this ideal… [END OF PREVIEW]

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