Chapter in black history
Dr. Jeffrey Stewart was calling to fix his plumbing when he got the surprise of his life.
“I had some leaks that led to an astronomical water bill. I was trying to get a plumber when I got the call from Oxford (University Press). I didn’t answer it,” Dr. Stewart, 69, told the News-Press this week at his UCSB office.
After his plumbing call, the Santa Barbara resident reviewed a message on his phone and discovered the publishing company was congratulating him on winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Dr. Stewart, a professor of black studies, said he didn’t even know he was being considered. “The Pulitzer is a completely secretive thing.
“That’s why it was such a big surprise. It was wonderful. It was like a big gift at Christmas,” Dr. Stewart said about winning the prize for “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke” (Oxford University Press, 2018, $39.95). He received the Pulitzer recently during a luncheon at Columbia University, the New York City institution that chooses the winners.
Dr. Stewart will discuss writing and the inspiration provided by Mr. Locke (1885-1954), a critic and educator who promoted black writers and artists, at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
The annual week of talks, workshops and more will take place June 16-21 at the Hyatt Santa Barbara, 1111 E. Cabrillo Blvd.
Dr. Stewart will give his presentation at 8 p.m. June 20.
“I will talk about the role of the writer in situations where your primary employment is not writing. What does it take to be a writer?” he said.
Dr. Stewart stressed the importance of persistence, something that guided Mr. Locke’s life, as well as the value of constructive criticism and participation in a community of writers.
“It’s navigating your way through difficulty, relentlessly believing in yourself and not letting negative experience define you,” he said. “I think that’s a life lesson anyone can utilize to continue to stay in the game.”
The Chicago native earned a doctorate in American studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 1979. He went on to teach history at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.; UCLA; Scripps College at Claremont Colleges in Claremont; and George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. In 2008, he joined UCSB as chair of black studies, and in 2016, he stepped down from that position but remained a professor in the department.
His books include “1,001 Things Everyone Should Know About African-American History” (1996), which he displays on a shelf in his UCSB office.
“That book is read by a lot of high school students and others,” Dr. Stewart said.
In a sense, “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke” brings the professor full circle in his career. His first book was a collection of Mr. Locke’s essays called “The Critical Temper of Alain Locke” (1982).
Dr. Stewart said “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke” speaks not only to blacks but to students and writers of any ethnic background as they risk rejection.
“He ran into a lot of opposition,” Dr. Stewart said. “He was fired from Howard University (a historically black university in Washington, D.C.), where he taught for many years. He did tremendous campaigning behind the scenes to get his job back.”
Dr. Stewart said Mr. Locke, who was the first black Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford University, dealt with racism by embracing black culture, not ignoring it.
The author explained this approach marked a change in how previous middle-class blacks dealt with prejudice.
“The dominant middle-class strategy in the 19th century for black people was respectability,” Dr. Stewart said. “You put your best foot forward and show black people are just like white people. They’re middle class, they’re educated, they’re well-dressed. They’re just like whites except they happen to be black.
“He (Mr. Locke) realized at a certain point, ‘I can’t really escape into Western civilization. They will always remind me that I’m black,'” Dr. Stewart said. “‘What I need to do is find in black culture a civilization of our own.’
“Another element of this is taking pride in working-class people, not just the middle class and the elite,” he said. “They (the working class) have a culture that is largely ignored by the elite that is the stuff of American literature.
“The people we have kind of ignored are actually the bearers of a culture that has survived under slavery and survived under Jim Crow segregation,” Dr. Stewart said. “It (the culture) migrated into the North, into Harlem, into Washington, D.C.”
He said Mr. Locke promoted writers such as Langston Hughes (1901-1967), a black man who was the first to take the black musical form of the blues and turn it into poetry. (The professor added that Mr. Locke, who was gay, considered Mr. Hughes to be the love of his life.)
Dr. Stewart said Mr. Locke also helped Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), a black anthropologist and writer who spent time in the South and listened to black residents’ stories. She turned them into literature.
And Mr. Locke supported black playwrights and organized exhibits of works by black artists such as Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), a painter and storyteller, and Richmond BarthÄ (1901-1989), a sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
“He (Mr. Locke) got whites to essentially support a black movement,” Dr. Stewart said about patronage of the exhibits.
“He had a tremendous impact in creating a rationale for why American culture should take black creativity seriously,” he said. “In that way, he laid the groundwork for the 1960s, ’70s, even today.
“My book tries to put him in the contemporary context,” Dr. Stewart said.
The author noted the election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president represented Mr. Locke’s notion of a sophisticated person who moves in an indirect way to achieve a goal, someone who isn’t a radical.
Mr. Locke believed society would move forward, then backward, then forward again in its march toward equality, Dr. Stewart said.
“Like Martin Luther King Jr., he believed the arc of history is toward progress, but it’s not a straight line.”
IF YOU GO
Jeffrey Stewart, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his recent book “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke” (Oxford University Press, 2018, $39.95), is among the speakers at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, set for June 16-21 at the Hyatt Santa Barbara, 1111 E. Cabrillo Blvd. (882-1234).
Mr. Stewart will give his talk at 8 p.m. June 20.
Registration costs $150 per day or $699 for the entire week.