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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: January 2021

Chapter 3 - Arts, War, and the Brave New Negro: Gendering the Black Aesthetic


We,…soldiers on this particular cultural front, have a duty of bravely raising our arms against the stereotypes.

Alain Locke, [“On Literary Stereotypes”]

Whether it is evaluated as reactionary or revolutionary, advancement through cultural productivity was unquestionably the fundamental element of Locke's strategy of racial emancipation. Whereas the previous chapter analyzed gender and sexuality constructions in the rhetoric of the movement, this chapter examines these notions in Locke's vision of the black aesthetic. His interest in aesthetic theory is manifest both in his doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of values as well as in his thirty-year-long engagement as a literary and art critic. Between 1928 and 1954, Locke wrote a series of annual retrospective reviews of Negro literature for the Opportunity and later Phylon as well as a number of individual articles devoted to literature, sociology, and music. The aesthetic that is championed in the texts retains much continuity throughout all the years the reviews span. My analysis scrutinizes the gender implications of Locke's black aesthetic, and it continues the exploration of gender and sexuality tropes in the production of the literary and aesthetic history begun in the previous chapters. Just as the paradigms of the anxiety of influence, the anxiety of authorship, and intertextual homosociality are intimately connected to different ways of asserting black masculinity and sexuality, Locke's aesthetics is inescapably bound to the masculinization of art.

Locke's persistent rhetorical infusion of the black aesthetic with masculine connotations that this chapter explores needs to be read in the context of the contemporaneous gendering of the artist and artistic creativity. Since the midnineteenth century, male writers expressed anxiety over the feminization of American authorship, most famously articulated by Nathaniel Hawthorne's resentment towards the “d[amne]d mob of scribbling women.” This phenomenon is explored in detail by Ann Douglas, who laments the feminization of Victorian culture and the sentimental dominance established by genteel women and ministers, which paved the way for the emergence of mass culture. Such gendering of artistic output is either resented, as manifest in Hawthorne's remark, or used to assert American national identity as anti-artistic and hence masculine.