SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
Hello. Shereen here with Gene. Hey, Gene.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: What's good?
MERAJI: I was wondering if I could speak for you for a second, if you don't mind.
DEMBY: Are you asking for my permission for once (laughter)...
MERAJI: (Laughter) This never really happens.
DEMBY: ...This time?
MERAJI: Anyway, I just wanted to say that both of us are incredibly grateful for our CODE SWITCH listeners. We love you - the dedicated ones, the new ones. Hey, new listeners. Thank you so much for joining us. We are thankful that you tune in to stories and discussions we're having about race in the U.S. These can be challenging for some people. And we know that some of our listeners are like, it's about time that we're talking about this. To all of you equally, thank you. All right, Gene. Passing the baton to you.
DEMBY: Oh, thank you. Seriously, y'all, thank y'all so much for rocking with us. And if coverage of race in public media is important to you and you find yourself thinking differently about conversations because of the stories that we do on CODE SWITCH, please consider donating to your public radio station. It's easy. Just hit up donate.npr.org/codeswitch.
MERAJI: That's donate.npr.org/codeswitch. And one more time for good measure, thank you.
DEMBY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS JINGLING)
MERAJI: Happy Christmas. If you are celebrating Christmas today, it is December 25, 2019, and you're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. And we've got a very special holiday episode for you about travel and transformation. And it's brought to us by a friend of the show, Bilal Qureshi, who writes about the intersection of art and identity. Welcome back, BQ.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Good to be back. Thank you so much for having me.
MERAJI: Oh, we love having you. And, in fact, I wish we had you on the show more. No pressure. Maybe a New Year's resolution for you.
QURESHI: Well, I'm really grateful 'cause I have a chance to share with you a story that I've been working on this year, which is a story about something I'm really interested in, which is who gets to be an expat and whose sort of travel logs and stories of being an expat do we get to hear, 'cause that's - I've always been really interested in travel. And so this is sort of a story about our relationship with our country and when we leave our country and how it affects how we feel about our identity.
MERAJI: We've been friends for - what? - almost a decade now.
QURESHI: Yeah, that's right.
MERAJI: You've always been drawn to artists and thinkers and people of color whose lives are divided between cultures, so, yeah, this sounds like something that is very Bilal Qureshi.
QURESHI: And let's listen to something that I recorded on the course of reporting this story.
DAVID DIBOSA: As soon as I cross a border, I'm black in a different way.
QURESHI: Shereen, that's the British art historian David Dibosa, whose work is focused on black modern artists. And he says while race is a political fact, it's also a social and psychological construction. And the way it shifts across borders can be the source of creative freedom, especially for artists of color.
DIBOSA: One actually feels it. It's not just something that one has to think about. One feels it. You know, it comes from the airport or wherever and starts to move around a different city. When it's looked in a different way, people come close or don't in a different way. And people address one in a different way. So the ways in which these formations shift and change according to context are really important. They're subtle, and yet, they're palpable in every move that we make.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: Shereen, what David Dibosa is saying really resonated with me because of a year I spent in Berlin, Germany, in 2011, 2012, a few years after we met, and you remember when I was moving. And I formed an ongoing relationship with that city, and I've been going back to Berlin every year for the last few years. And it's not exactly a place that anyone associates with multiculturalism, certainly not with South Asian Americans or Muslim Americans, really, necessarily.
QURESHI: I mean, this is Hitler's city, after all. And while it has become kind of a hipster paradise in some way, I don't think when we think of Berlin or travelogues about Berlin, we think about it being, you know, a really diverse, multicultural place. But in all these years of going, I've really been interested in the fact that there is a small body of literature and stories about previous travelers and Germanophiles of color, like Alain Locke.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERAJI: And for those of you who may not recognize that name, Locke was a queer black intellectual. He was one of the visionaries behind the Harlem Renaissance. But people may not be familiar with his name because he's not as famous as, say, Langston Hughes.
QURESHI: Right. Shereen, I mean, I didn't know much about him myself. And I read about him for the first time last year in a biography called "The New Negro." And his story, it turned out, moved back-and-forth from the boulevards of Berlin to the segregated neighborhoods of D.C.
MERAJI: I can't wait to hear more.
QURESHI: Shereen, I walk by a house very often in my D.C. neighborhood that has a plaque to mark where Alain Locke once lived. And this is what it says - Alain Locke, 1886-1954, a leading 20th-century intellectual and the nation's first black Rhodes scholar was a central figure in the New Negro - sometimes called Harlem - Renaissance. Locke edited "The New Negro," 1925, an anthology of poems, prose and art that helped define this critical cultural movement. Once upon a time, before the condos and relentless gentrification here, black intellectuals and artists from D.C. helped inspire a revolutionary movement in the 1920s. Then called the Negro Renaissance, it was a movement that stretched from Harlem to Washington but is now simply known as the Harlem Renaissance.
E ETHELBERT MILLER: A lot of people walk back-and-forth down these streets. They don't know who lived or who died there, and that's sad.
QURESHI: E. Ethelbert Miller is a Washingtonian and a self-professed literary activist. He has helped the city put historical markers where Duke Ellington once played, where Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes wrote, and where one man in particular helped bring the Harlem Renaissance to life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: To be honest, I didn't know who Alain Locke was or what exactly he had done. His life had become another silent plaque from D.C.'s fast-fading history. That is, until last year and a landmark new book about his life.
JEFFREY C STEWART: This idea of the New Negro is someone who can stand in the fire and not be burned.
QURESHI: Jeffrey C. Stewart is the author of "The New Negro: The Life Of Alain Locke." He's a professor of African American history at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Jeffrey Stewart's biography of Alain Locke won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In a renewed age of white supremacy and the politics of hate, "The New Negro" became an urgent story for our times about how black artists first reclaimed their voice and their story a century ago.
My own journey to trace the footsteps and the legacy of Alain Locke begins with his biographer, Jeffrey Stewart.
STEWART: People realize, especially after the presidency of Barack Obama and, you know, what we've gone through, is that politics is not enough. I think that was something that Locke, at some times, was criticized for - that he wasn't more of an activist, more of a protest person like Du Bois. But I think Locke was saying, well, OK, that's fine, but there's something else that you have to do.
There's almost a kind of decolonization of the mind that has to go on in Western culture, and also even in people of color, to essentially clear out these notions that we are not beautiful, that we are inept, that we are not as talented as other people, because after all, all of that ideology was put together to control us.
QURESHI: Before the Harlem Renaissance, black Americans had been depicted in popular culture through and by the white gaze as apes, caricatures and minstrels. Dr. Alain Locke was having none of that.
In the 1920s, both D.C. and New York were buzzing with creative confidence, the music of black poetry and prose, jazz and blues, fur coats and brownstones and just so much swag. Alain Locke's "New Negro" anthology included poems like "The Black Finger" by Angelina Grimke, read here by New Orleans-based artist Stephanie Yawa de Wolfe.
STEPHANIE YAWA DE WOLFE: I have just seen a most beautiful thing, slim and still against a gold, gold sky. A straight black cypress - sensitive, exquisite, a black finger pointing upwards. Why, beautiful still finger, are you black? And why are you pointing upwards?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: Pointing upwards and forwards was the central message of "The New Negro." The novelist Darryl Pinckney tells me that the key to understanding the Harlem Renaissance lies in the aftermath of the first world war.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: It was an extraordinary period, and it was certainly a reaction to the end of the war - the end of the first world war, like the war itself, was a worldwide event - and that so much had changed.
QURESHI: As the war ended in 1919, black soldiers had fought on the front lines in Europe and experienced the possibilities of a freer life. They were coming home to America transformed by their experiences, as the writer E. Ethelbert Miller explains.
MILLER: Here were people who might've been in the rural areas of Mississippi or someplace in the South, now on the world stage in cities like Paris. They're becoming urban people. They're becoming new people. They're becoming, actually, the modern man because if you go before, you know, the early 1900s, you're almost into people who had felt the lack - you're dealing with, you know, Reconstruction. So here in the 1900s, you begin to see this new idea.
QURESHI: As Professor Jeffrey Stewart explains, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Great Migration was underway.
STEWART: The idea of leaving the South for the North in the early part of the 20th century occurs, Locke says, not because of social or economic forces, but because of a psychological change and a vision of oneself as possibly being a new kind of person in a new place.
QURESHI: Alain Locke was already someone who refused to stay in his place. A brilliant student from Philadelphia, he studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford as the first African American Rhodes Scholar. By the time he arrived in D.C. to teach at Howard University, he was supremely self-confident and an unapologetic snob.
STEWART: He wanted you to know he was different and also superior.
QURESHI: Again, biographer Jeffrey Stewart.
STEWART: Locke was probably the most highly Europeanized or Europhilic (ph), let's say, of the African American intellectuals of the early 20th century.
QURESHI: Defying all conventions for where and what a black man could be in the early 1900s, Alain Locke, 4'11" and less than a hundred pounds, would set sail for the old world whenever he had the chance. He was following in the footsteps of his contemporary and sometimes rival W.E.B. Du Bois.
STEWART: Luxuriating in the world of European universities and fashions, both of them had so completely adopted the German representation of Herr Professor in their dress and manner. So if you look at these photographs of Du Bois and Locke, I mean, they're always dressed in an extremely formal style, walking with a cane, always having a three-piece suit on. That's a little bit odd in a place like Washington, even a place that's fairly formal like Washington.
QURESHI: Regardless of his Europhilic (ph) and, quote-unquote, "respectable tastes," Alain Locke was still an American negro, physically confined by segregation, even if his mind and imagination refused to be closed in. Michonne Boston (ph) is a Washingtonian and a cultural historian. I've come to meet her outside Alain Locke's former home.
MICHONNE BOSTON: Where we're standing would have been part of segregated Washington. So I've said in my tours, it was a city within a city. There were places black people could go, and there were places white people could go. Now, here's the caveat. White people could go to the black establishments and clubs, but black people couldn't go to the white establishments and clubs.
STEWART: So on one hand, there's a vibrant African American educated community. On the other hand, it's in a colonial relationship with the rest of Washington, D.C., in the area he most cares about, which is the area of art, literature, music and culture. So he has to navigate a world that always has barriers for him.
QURESHI: As Jeffrey Stewart explains, his movement was confined to the city within a city.
STEWART: But he also, you know, is walking through. He's very small, very highly dressed, almost like a little jewel walking down the street in a city that, on the one hand, has a lot of middle-class white people, but also has a lot of poor people - recent migrants from the South who must think, who is this guy, right?
QURESHI: His arrogance may have been a product of his intellectual prowess, but it was also a defense mechanism. Alain Locke intentionally lived at an angle from his community. He was a gay man in a time and a place that identity was almost impossible.
STEWART: He's called himself, at times, paralyzingly discreet. But the discretion was necessary to survive in an intensely homophobic world and in a black bourgeois world that, you know, knew he was gay, but was going to really react negatively if he did anything that drew their attention publicly to him being gay.
QURESHI: Jeffrey Stewart says Washington's black community in particular was built on the foundations of respectable marriages and family life.
STEWART: The sexual tension is always there for him, and what I feel it produces in him is a level of alienation because he will never actually have the support of this community.
QURESHI: In 1922, we're talking about somebody, you know, in segregated America - resource issues, pre-air travel...
QURESHI: ...Even the physical movement of somebody small and black...
QURESHI: ...And, you know, to kind of Europe on the Grand Tour - I guess I think of the Grand Tour and I don't think of a small, gay, black man...
STEWART: Yes. Right.
QURESHI: ...From America on that tour.
STEWART: Exactly. Well, you know, it was interesting you say that because I'm really talking about this in my class that - one of the few benefits, let's say, that African Americans get out of emancipation and the Civil War is mobility. You don't get the right to vote. You don't get the right, really, to earn a lot of money. But you do get the right to move. So that right of mobility becomes almost a metaphor of black life. That's why so much of the blues songs are about trains and riding in trains and walking and riding - the "Wandering Blues," right?
So that mobility is something that's cherished. It's not something taken for granted. So for Locke, then, the mobility to go to Europe, and continually so, is a right. It's sort of like his declaration of independence. He knows it's not set up for him, but at the same time, he'll take advantage of it.
QURESHI: In 1922, Alain Locke's mother died. She was his sole family, and he was devastated. He gathered himself and set sail for the city he loved most - Berlin, Germany. So I followed Alain Locke back to Berlin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: Berlin - the romantic capital of cafe society, academics and endless reinvention.
STUART BRAUN: As I started to research that era, I realized there were so many interesting people who'd no one had ever heard of.
QURESHI: I've come to a cafe in Berlin to meet the journalist and writer Stuart Braun. He's written a book called "The City Of Exiles" that traces the generations of outsiders who have called Berlin home.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL LINCKE SONG "BERLINER LUFT")
BRAUN: We're sitting on Paul-Lincke-Ufer on the canal here in Kreuzberg. And Paul Lincke was a composer back in the late 19th century, and he wrote a famous song called "Berliner Luft."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BERLINER LUFT")
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in German).
BRAUN: And it was all about the allure of Berlin's air - of course not being, you know, oxygen, but being this kind of intangible essence of Berlin that once you breathe it, that it draws people in, you know? It's once you get a sniff of the Berliner luft (laughter), you know, it's intoxicating.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BERLINER LUFT")
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).
QURESHI: Germany in the 1920s was at the center of an intoxicating experiment. Shattered and destroyed by the loss of the first world war, the country emerging from the ashes of 1919 was a fragile and hopeful democracy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: On the sidelines, the Nazi machine was forming. But for those short-lived years after World War I, Berlin was the capital of a society defined by experimentation.
STEWART: Berlin in the Weimar period is a place with spectacular promise.
CLAUDIA VONDERHEIDE: It was the spirit of the Enlightenment, really. That's what they tried to put into the new constitution for this new democracy, this new republic.
QURESHI: Claudia Vonderheide (ph) is a guide with the Weimar Classic Foundation in the city of Weimar. In the plaza outside the Weimar National Theater, students are skateboarding around the statue of Goethe and Schiller, the writers who defined German Romanticism.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
QURESHI: It's the monument outside the place where politicians gathered a hundred years ago to draft the constitution of a new republic.
VONDERHEIDE: They had to pass this monument every day when they went to work. And it's kind of natural that they tried to incorporate some of the spirit of this epoch into their work and into the constitution. And they chose the name Weimar Constitution for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: As America entered its jazz age - the Roaring '20s, as it were - Berlin became Babylon Berlin, the throbbing, industrial and cultural heart of the Weimar years - the Golden '20s. And this was the extraordinary moment in time into which Alain Locke arrived from Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ULI HANISCH: Imagine yourself in a surrounding where everything around you kind of changes on a daily base in a way which you have never seen before. And nobody was able to tell you about it before because it didn't exist before.
QURESHI: Uli Hanisch is one of the artists behind the award-winning German television series "Babylon Berlin." He's a production designer and has led the team that meticulously recreates Weimar Berlin for one of the most expensive TV shows ever made in Germany.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HANISCH: Jazz music obviously has been invented entirely somewhere else. But if you listen to jazz and you have - and again, you have the same motifs. You have the speed. You have the improvisation, the innovation to turn everything upside down, try something else, exactly in the schemes of what was happening here.
QURESHI: Again, Uli Hanisch and the writer Stuart Braun on the spirit of 1920s Berlin.
BRAUN: It went from 400,000 people, it went up to 4 million by 1930. And that was fueled by this massive influx of people.
HANISCH: It was, like, growing, you know, like a virus.
BRAUN: It was so vibrant. There were so many gigs, you know? There was a lot of money around.
HANISCH: People go to work very early, would come home, redress, go out, dance all night, go back to work, meet people, go from one bar to the other, then again to a museum or whatever - or an exhibition. And then it's another dance performance and another thing. And everything is like - every time, all the time, something is up. I think people must have been (laughter) really crazy.
BRAUN: And you had all these really transgressive clubs and this whole underground world (laughter) right here in Kreuzberg. You had Alain and Isherwood and those guys go into these bars where, you know, they felt they could be themselves.
STEWART: Locke seldom has that experience in the United States.
QURESHI: Alain Locke's biographer Jeffrey Stewart is talking specifically about gay sex and the life that was denied to him at home in America. In the summer of 1922, Locke dove into Berlin's music scene, its galleries, the modernist theatre and the literature. He lingered in cafes, wrote criticism and indulged in the pleasures of the flesh as well. As Jeffrey Stewart explains...
STEWART: Berlin is experimental in a way in which Washington never is. Washington is always going to follow the tried and true. Berlin, though, adds that extra element that your identity is being uplifted, that you're being fueled by the possibilities of a new civilization, a new culture coming into existence that is racially tolerant, that is sexually tolerant and that essentially is an aesthetic world.
QURESHI: At the forefront of defining the aesthetic world in Weimar Germany was the emergence of the legendary Bauhaus school for art and design. This year marks the 100th anniversary of what many art historians consider the birthplace of 20th century Western modernism and design.
CLAUDIA PERREN: My name is Claudia Perren. And we're meeting at the Bauhaus in Dessau. So this is actually the original school building built 1925. And 100 years ago, Germany was, you know, first democracy, first time a woman could vote and was also first time woman could actually study. So in that time, a school was set up that really wanted to contribute to a totally new society, to really go forward, to choose a always progressive way and not looking back.
QURESHI: The term modernism and modern is a term that we now use about this period. But I'm wondering in this school and when the masters were here and the administration, what language would they have been using? Would they have been using words like modern, progressive, I mean, radical? Like, these are the things that we now use to describe...
QURESHI: ...What they were doing. But I'm curious what the language and the vocabulary of their ethos was here.
PERREN: Yeah. That's actually a good question. They used a lot new. So it was about new design and new school and even new people, new times. So everything needed to be new.
QURESHI: So the term was new. New was really the word - yeah.
PERREN: New was really the word. Yeah.
QURESHI: Among the clean lines and minimalist white walls of the new Bauhaus museum in Weimar, my guide, Claudia Vonderheide (ph), tells me that the Bauhaus vision for design was not based on an aesthetic sensibility, but it was about a philosophical question.
So we're looking out here at this...
CLAUDIA VONDERHEIDE: Yeah.
QURESHI: ...Idea of the new man...
VONDERHEIDE: The new man, yeah.
QURESHI: ...Yeah. Tell me a little bit about this.
VONDERHEIDE: Yeah. Well, the idea of the new man has been around since about 1900 because people felt that life had changed so much and that the challenges of modern life were to be met. And they were asking themselves if it didn't need new man to actually do that and achieve that. And there were different approaches, so we have here a little gallery of different ideas. For example, there's...
QURESHI: So in the 1920s, Germany was in the midst of an intellectual awakening. Bauhaus-trained artists were designing for a society after a war that could be defined by the built values of democracy - equality, access and sustainability. It was precisely that spirit that the Nazis crushed when they shut down the Bauhaus and burned the Weimar Republic to the ground.
But in those exciting utopian first years, Alain Locke had a front-row seat to the making of a cultural renaissance. He realized that for there to be the new man in Germany, there had to be the death of the old. For there to be a New Negro in the United States, there had to be the death of the silenced and repressed old negro. Jeffrey Stewart tells me that Locke's letters home to Washington from Germany reveal that while he was enjoying his exile, he knew he had to come home to the United States.
STEWART: I'm over there. It's great. In the summer, I'm living this lifestyle. And, yes, it is true he has a job here, so he has to return for that reason. But also, the work to be done is here. And there's something he gets out of doing that work that simply being in exile in Europe would never really satisfy.
QURESHI: So Alain Locke returned to Washington in the fall of 1922.
MICHONNE BOSTON: Well, one thing about traveling slow - it gives you a lot of time to think and process. And it also gives you a sense of distance, you know, of where you're coming from and where you're going.
QURESHI: Again, cultural historian Michonne Boston (ph).
BOSTON: Having no airplane travel at that - you know, at least trans-Atlantic for regular passengers at the time, it gave Alain Locke a lot of time to process what he wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish.
QURESHI: And what he wanted to accomplish was hugely ambitious. He wanted to build a black artistic movement in the spirit of what he'd seen in Germany - modern, progressive, stylish, freed from white supremacy and its caricatures, undeniable in its exuberance and self-confidence.
BOSTON: One thing that has always inspired me is that he did build the negro arts movement, as it was called, here in Washington, D.C.
QURESHI: Locke traveled back and forth between Harlem and D.C., assembling salons and seducing new writers with his charms - Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes among others.
MILLER: So you've got Jean Toomer here. You got Alain Locke here. You got Georgia Douglas Johnson here. You got Langston here at that time. So that's when you begin to say, OK, this is a New Negro movement.
QURESHI: The writer E. Ethelbert Miller says, Locke was an editor on a mission.
MILLER: When you're an editor and say how I've seen the big picture and making comparison and maybe interacting with people's work, that's a different thing. You know, you might say, OK - blah. Write more of this. Claim that. What are you trying to say here? Give me more. You know, no different than your Duke Ellington telling somebody, OK, stop here. Let's play that again because I - you know, I need you to get that deeper sound out of your horn.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: Locke became the curator, the convener and the guiding force of the Harlem Renaissance. He gathered writers and their words for a landmark anthology. The final table of contents included pieces like this poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson, read here by the singer Priska Neely.
PRISKA NEELY, BYLINE: (Reading) Ho, my brother, pass me not by so scornfully. I'm doing this living of being black. Perhaps I bear your own life pack. And heavy, heavy is the load that bends my body to the road. But I have kept a smile for fate. I neither cry, nor cringe, nor hate. Intrepidly I strive to bear this handicap. The planets wear the maker's imprint. And with mine, I swing into the rhythmic line. I ask only for destiny - mine, not thine.
QURESHI: What began for Locke as a special issue of survey graphic magazine grew into a full book, edited and composed by Professor Alain Locke. It was called "The New Negro."
STEWART: Having your own agenda and believe you can realize it is key to the New Negro.
QURESHI: As Jeffrey Stewart explains, Locke wanted black artists to believe in their capacity to be more than what America had told them they could and should be.
STEWART: Because I believe that those people have the capacity to become dreamers and creators and imagine a new and better America out of that culture than exists already today.
QURESHI: Jeffrey Stewart tells me that Germany remained a tangible influence on Locke's work in "The New Negro." He commissioned Bavarian-born artist Winold Reiss to illustrate "The New Negro." The artist created extraordinary portraits of black men and women, turning away from the caricatures that they had been seen as and transforming these black men and women into stylish, modern icons of beauty.
STEWART: When you look at those pictures, there's a feeling that comes through of the New Negro - self-confidence, pride, assertiveness, lack of deference to white supremacy. All of those kinds of attitudes, he was able to capture and express.
QURESHI: And always, the spirit of Weimar Germany was on Locke's mind - the trans-Atlantic birth and the quest for the new man.
JEFFREY STEWART: Locke is trying to imagine Harlem as Berlin when he writes some of his essays about Harlem. He wants it to be a place where there is sexual tolerance, where there is a creative experimentation.
QURESHI: Sadly, the Great Depression wiped out the material circumstances that made the Harlem Renaissance possible. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Nazis destroyed Weimar Germany once and for all. Locke knew he could never return. World War II and the Cold War followed. Alain Locke died in 1954, but his message of black beauty lived on in the civil rights movement and in the black arts movements of the 1960s and '70s.
The term negro may be out of fashion, but the spirit of the movement lives on.
STEWART: This issue of beauty, I think, remains. Even today, it's a struggle going on. We're still really trying to get out from under essentially colonial notions of who is important and what is beautiful.
QURESHI: Jeffrey Stewart says Alain Locke would have loved what's happening in 2019, to see his vision bear fruit at the scale it does now.
STEWART: I think we're really living in Alan Locke's moment.
QURESHI: In the cinema of filmmakers like Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay, in the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kendrick Lamar. Jeffrey Stewart says one lesson to be drawn from Locke's life is not to feel confined by society's limitations. Alain Locke didn't stay in his lane or in his own country. He never sought the comfort of safe spaces. As a gay black man in 1920s America, there were very few places that were safe for him. Instead, he proudly created his place in other people's spaces.
STEWART: Locke had his sanctuaries. But in the end of the day, he felt he could go out and engage people who were different from him and colonize them to his agenda and his program, rather than feeling that if I engage with these people, somehow I'll lose my way in myself.
QURESHI: Claudia Perren, who you heard from earlier, is the director of the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau. She says that as Germany celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, that spirit of innovation and new ideas, that the same question is being asked again - what is the way to take things forward?
PERREN: You have to see the conditions of our time and to find answers. And what helps with the Bauhaus, I think, is that you try to encourage yourself to go forward, you know, to not trying to look back too much and think, oh, you know, the holy times, that moment was wonderful in the '20s and - you know? So but say no, it's a different time. We have to go forward, new conditions. And it's really up to us what we do with it.
QURESHI: In 1925, Alain Locke dedicated "The New Negro" to, quote, "the younger generation." In his own epilogue to his biography of Alain Locke, Jeffrey Stewart dedicates his book to a new generation. And he writes this, a New Negro is in all of us, not just African Americans, but every American who embraces this capacity for reinvention through African forms because those forms are in them, too, waiting like the rest of us to be released to soar.
STEWART: And I think that kind of confidence is really the essence of the New Negro as it - I would like to see it realize today, that confidence that we have a great tradition. We have a great art. We have a great history. We don't really need to be intimidated. I think there's a level of intimidation that's often part of the work of racism. And I think that part of the New Negro is I will not be intimidated.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: Jeffrey Stewart is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book "The New Negro: The life of Alain Locke."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: From Washington, D.C., the city where the New Negro Renaissance was born and where Alain Locke once lived, I'm Bilal Qureshi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERAJI: Bilal Qureshi writes about the intersection of art and identity for CODE SWITCH and NPR and lots of other places. And that's our show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERAJI: Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. And we want to hear from you. Our email is email@example.com, and you can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line, Ask CODE SWITCH. And remember; you can now support CODE SWITCH and your local public radio station and other NPR programs by going to donate.npr.org/codeswitch.
This episode was produced by Oliver Brode (ph) and Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Sami Yenigun with help from Alison MacAdam and Leah Donnella And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Jess Kung, Steve Drummond, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido and LA Johnson. Gene's back next week. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Peace.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.