Biography of gay Philadelphian wins Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize awards were announced on April 15 by the Columbia School of Journalism. Winning for biography was The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Stewart is chair of the Black Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of several major works.

The Pulitzer committee cited Stewart for creating “a panoramic view of the personal trials and artistic triumphs of the father of the Harlem Renaissance and the movement he inspired.”

Stewart’s biography previously won the National Book Award for NonFiction. His massive work — 1,000 pages — published by Oxford University Press, details the life of black, gay intellectual, Alain Leroy Locke.

Locke was born in Philadelphia in 1885. When he died in Harlem in 1954, he was considered the architect of the renowned Harlem Renaissance. Locke was a figure of such import in black history that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech in 1968, “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but that W. E. B. DuBois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”

Locke was the first black Rhodes scholar and the progenitor of the concept of “the new Negro.” Stewart explores both Locke’s professional and private life, including his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his white patrons, as well as his lifelong search for love as a gay man.

Locke’s search for love as a gay man has not been detailed prior to Stewart’s exhaustive research, and it is one of the most fascinating aspects — and contradictions — of Locke’s life.

Stewart explains in the interview that Locke’s gayness was — as was true of most gay men in the early half of the 20th century — a source of conflict. As Stewart illumines, he feared being outed.

Stewart describes how Locke would have parties, but would put a different name on his doorbell: only those who knew the “code” of that particular evening could gain entry. “He would never let anyone in who he didn’t know,” said Stewart. No plus ones were admitted.

That’s how afraid Locke was of being found out, but as Stewart explains, Locke had been investigated by the FBI, because of his work on race and black culture, and within the FBI file Stewart obtained, there were references to Locke’s rumored homosexuality.

In his very moving acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Stewart thanked his own family and noted, “If he [Locke] was here right now, he would not have a family with him. As a gay man who lived a closeted life, he had many struggles and one was with crushing aloneness.”

Stewart says Locke created a family of black artists, writers, dancers and musicians. In Stewart’s brilliant telling of Locke’s story in this huge and declarative biography, Locke’s search spawned a movement and birthed a black and gay history that is extraordinary in its vision, its breadth and its legacy. The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke is a brilliant, thorough, compassionate biography and now, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.