“…and then I realized I was wrong.”
The speaker here is Assistant Professor of Political Science Michelle Smith, delivering a presentation on her past work to a roomful of Alain Locke scholars, American history professors, experts on the Harlem Renaissance, political theorists, and sundry undergraduates (myself among them) – and she’s just admitted she was wrong. I exchange looks of amazement with a fellow-student on my left: did she just say that? How do we even process that? Hearing an academic admit there were problems with her dissertation is shock enough; to see her come before an audience to work them out is a bigger one, and to see progress be made over the course of that discussion is the biggest shock of all. It’s enough to rekindle a faith in, and love for, the academic process in the heart of a jaundiced senior (that’s me again).
Smith studies the complex, contradictory writer, editor, educator, and philosopher Alain Locke, examining the work of the Harlem Renaissance luminary as political theory. This approach comes with a number of difficulties, not least of which is the absence of a major monumental text to draw from. Instead, Locke’s thinking on the African American political condition is dispersed over dozens of books, pamphlets, essays, and articles that chronicle a liberal individualist and committed abstractionist contending with the demands of the black democratic dream: a man who wants blackness to serve art, living and working among those who insist that art must serve blackness.