Alain Locke understands the power that can be maintained when one realizes that the conundrum of the Negro experience is one that can be celebrated. African-Americans, while they do face many racial obsessions-discrimination, prejudice, unjustices, and inequalities-also have a culture that causes them to be looked for for entertainment, enjoyment, and cultural diversity. While the positives exist along the negatives, they are still ever-present, and Locke presents both in an attempt to maintain the power, while sometimes minute, that African-Americans possess within a society in which the major white race rules. Even minute amounts of power equate to success when one is being dominated by another.
Alain Locke's “The Negro in American Culture” presents an idea that allows African-Americans to maintain power-the idea of the Negro in American culture as a paradox. Some of the most popular American-made products existing within society are based on aspects from the Negro culture, yet the Negro itself lives a contradiction within this society. Locke writes, “It almost passes understanding how and why a group of people can be socially despised, yet at the same time artistically esteemed and culturally influential” (523-4). The Negro and American go hand in hand.
Locke works to establish the Negro's position in American culture, and sets about using poetry as a means to do that. He begins by going through the cultural history of the Negro, beginning with slavery. Slavery “put upon the Negro conditions and stigma as a peer class,” but also set in motion the “rapid assimilation of American standards and ways of life, and phenomenal educational advance” (525). Slavery and emancipation have caused the Negro to be separated racially, economically, and politically, but the cultural ties still remain.
Locke believes that slavery and emancipation have caused the Negro to be a paradox because the group of people who has been omitted from the political aspects of American democracy is looked to as a foundation for artistic expression. When America exhausts its role as a mere cultural extension of Europe, it looks to the artistic creations of its natives; thus, the Negro becomes a powerful force. Once the aboriginal Indians were nearly exterminated, the whites looked to the many forms of artistic expression that were often sent after: popular dance and music, “dialect poetry,” jazz rhythms and background, Negro folk-plays, Negro problem-plays, Negro fiction, and Contemporary Negro Poetry.
As Locke focuses on Negro Poetry, he claims that it is necessary to understand that when it comes to the poetry of the American Negro, race plays a predominant role, one that is more important than that of nationality. The art of Negro poetry truthfully expresses the developments that have occurred because the white and black races have interacted in America. Also, the art of Negro poetry does not fail to acknowledge the growing Negro culture and its potential.
While the Negro is socially underestimated and not considered as an equal, he gains compensation for this lower rank through his spiritual and artistic means of expression. According to Locke, the position of the Negro, and therefore his power, is one that is being maintained. There has been a realization of blackness, of the cultural lines that have been drawn, of the lack of consideration for equality among the races, and of the power that stems from these aspects. Because of these realizations, the Negro has the ability to maintain his status as a paradox with great satisfaction, for this paradox may bring the Negro down on one side, but on the other, he is elevated and esteemed.
Locke, Alain. “The Negro in American Culture.” Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature. Ed. Abraham Chapman. New York, NY: NAL Penguin, 1968. 523-538. Print.