Above: Photo by Michael Baca
Jeffrey Conrad Stewart was on the phone with his plumber when he got the call announcing he’d just won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for his biography, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.
“That certainly changed my perspective on my plumbing problems,” Stewart says with a chuckle from his office at UC Santa Barbara, where he is a professor of black studies.
Stewart began studying the man many call the dean of the Harlem Renaissance while in graduate school at Yale. But it was a return visit with UC Santa Cruz Philosophy Professor Maurice Natanson and the influence of Professor of Humanities Norman O. Brown and Professor of Sociology J. Herman Blake that helped drive the project, Stewart says.
“They formed my intellectual core,” says Stewart, who is a first-generation college graduate. “One can read my biography and see echoes of Maurice Natanson and his philosophy of the journey of self, and also Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body,” which examined the role of erotic love in human history.
Stewart’s research spanned decades. It took him to Locke’s papers at Howard University and into the lives of those who had surrounded Locke, a closeted gay philosopher/author who believed art and African Americans’ flight north to escape Jim Crow segregation were key to black progress. The resulting 932-page book, which also won the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction, is the study of a brilliant, fascinating, and flawed man.
“A master class in how to trace the lineage of a biographical subject’s ideas and predilections,” is how New York Times reviewer Michael P. Jeffries describes Stewart’s work.
Stewart, for his part, says he wanted to bring alive a compelling man whose life also touches on current discussions of race, gender, and sexuality.
According to reviewers from the Wall Street Journal to Kirkus, Stewart succeeded.