Black Is Brilliant (Alain Locke)

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Alain Locke by Jack Coughlin for 'The New Republic.'

Alain Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher

By Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth (University of Chicago Press, 432 pp., $45)

In conversation in London with the British Conservative leader David Cameron this past summer, Barack Obama lamented the frantic over-scheduling that encourages micromanagement and with it the temptation to try and "solve everything and end up being a dilettante." Instead, he concluded, "the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you're doing is thinking." His remark, not meant to be made public but caught on tape, did not make a big splash, but the importance that Obama accorded to the need to stop and think must count as one of the more revealing moments of his campaign, not least because it gives some substance to the tag "intellectual" that the media attached to him this past summer. Obama is a cunning professional politician, but he is also undeniably an intellectual, and that word--along with the cluster of others invariably summoned up: bloodless professorial elitist egghead--became a catchall term of opprobrium. But with his victory came a rehabilitation of "intellectual" as a term of pride: a New York Times columnist crowed that "the second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual." What would W.E.B. Du Bois say?

{josquote}Always a controversial figure ... Locke is now the subject of a first biography that rescues him from caricature and brings alive his distinctive fashioning of the role of black intellectual.{/josquote}

One of the great intellectuals of any color, the prodigious Du Bois comes to mind because, for him, a significant part of being an intellectual was tied up with what Obama spoke of in London--the capacity for, and the luxury of, stepping back from busyness to think. "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not, " Du Bois famously declared, reflecting belief in the "kingdom of culture" as a space of freedom, a realm "uncolored," above the imprisoning veil of the color line. On a fellowship to Berlin in 1892 while pursuing graduate work in economics, history, and sociology at Harvard, where he would be the first black recipient of a doctorate, Du Bois was initiated into aesthetic experience: "I had been before, above all, in a hurry, I wanted a world hard, smooth and swift, and had no time for ... unhurried thought and slow contemplation. Now at times I sat still." He grew inward with Beethoven and Wagner, Rembrandt and Titian.

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