After news circulated in 1907 that an African-American had been awarded a Rhodes scholarship for the first time, the recipient was far from pleased with the wave of letters from black and white well-wishers. Their ‘muddying of a purely personal issue of my life with the race problem’ left him intensely irritated, as he confided to his mother. ‘I am not a race problem – I am Alain LeRoy Locke and if these people don’t stop I’ll tell them something that will make them.’ There can be no doubt that Alain Locke was a singular character. After his mother died in 1922, he propped her up on the couch and invited friends to take tea with her. After his own death in 1954, it was discovered that he had stored samples of his lovers’ semen in a box.
And yet a ‘race man’ is what Locke became. Despite his rejection of suggestions that he was a black standard-bearer as he left for Oxford, not to mention the standoffishness he had shown towards the few other black undergraduates at Harvard and the disdain he expressed for working-class African-Americans, Locke emerged, as Jeffrey Stewart’s massive new biography ably attests, as one of the 20th century’s most important proponents of the idea that black people in the United States and around the world were possessed of a proud and distinctive history, culture and beauty.