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Black Is Brilliant

Alain Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher

By Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth

(University of Chicago Press, 432 pp., $45)

In conversation in London with the British Conservative leader David Cameron this past summer, Barack Obama lamented the frantic over-scheduling that encourages micromanagement and with it the temptation to try and "solve everything and end up being a dilettante." Instead, he concluded, "the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you're doing is thinking." His remark, not meant to be made public but caught on tape, did not make a big splash, but the importance that Obama accorded to the need to stop and think must count as one of the more revealing moments of his campaign, not least because it gives some substance to the tag "intellectual" that the media attached to him this past summer. Obama is a cunning professional politician, but he is also undeniably an intellectual, and that word--along with the cluster of others invariably summoned up: bloodless professorial elitist egghead--became a catchall term of opprobrium. But with his victory came a rehabilitation of "intellectual" as a term of pride: a New York Times columnist crowed that "the second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual." What would W.E.B. Du Bois say?

One of the great intellectuals of any color, the prodigious Du Bois comes to mind because, for him, a significant part of being an intellectual was tied up with what Obama spoke of in London--the capacity for, and the luxury of, stepping back from busyness to think. "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not, " Du Bois famously declared, reflecting belief in the "kingdom of culture" as a space of freedom, a realm "uncolored," above the imprisoning veil of the color line. On a fellowship to Berlin in 1892 while pursuing graduate work in economics, history, and sociology at Harvard, where he would be the first black recipient of a doctorate, Du Bois was initiated into aesthetic experience: "I had been before, above all, in a hurry, I wanted a world hard, smooth and swift, and had no time for ... unhurried thought and slow contemplation. Now at times I sat still." He grew inward with Beethoven and Wagner, Rembrandt and Titian.

For black Americans in Jim Crow America, this capacity of relaxing into thought and aesthetic pleasure was stunted by a double burden: the reign of white supremacy, grounded in the alleged law of God and Biology which held that black people were primarily bodies with, at best, the minds of children, and the unwitting ratification of that law by the leader of black America, Booker T. Washington. He restricted black education to the hand and the heart, and not the head. To be seen carrying books at the Tuskegee Institute risked punishment, an echo of the plantation custom of severing a slave's finger or hand if caught reading. Instead Washington's school was devoted to making the Negro humble and useful to the rural communities of the south--to know one's place, as it was defined by the Wizard of Tuskegee, who scorned as useless learning the sight of a black child studying a French grammar.

Working hand in glove with Northern philanthropists, Washington's disdain for educating black minds made shrewd economic sense, as it ensured a steady supply of cheap, non-unionized farm labor to keep the cost of cotton profitable. Washington described Tuskegee itself as serene, rooted "upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature." Hence a black intellectual was a repugnant oxymoron who violated Nature--Washington called them "artificial" men, "graduates of New England colleges" with decadent tastes for "kid gloves" and "fancy boots." He likely had the dapper mulatto Du Bois in mind. Washington's anti-elitism is a hardy perennial of American life. It expresses what is our national second nature--the rage to purify bound up in the simplifying power of "American pastoral," as Philip Roth calls our ineradicable will to innocence that divides the world in two. Nature--the preserve of the rural, the pre-modern, the authentic, and the masculine--defines itself against the Unnatural--the Babylon of modernity, urban foppery, effeminacy, and intellectuality.

Du Bois distilled the disturbance embodied in the idea of a black intellectual into a word: he called it a "problem." And the "strange experience" of "how it feels to be a problem" is the haunting subject of his masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk, which appeared in 1903. The book's most famous chapter demolishes Washington, cleverly turning the charge of effeteness against him by denouncing his stance as counseling "unmanly" submission. The most vivid and pained portrait of the "problem" of being a black intellectual forms the book's sole work of fiction, Du Bois's great short story "Of the Coming of John." Here, in a displaced, symbolic autobiography, Du Bois meets the challenge of representing a newly emergent social type who seemed to affront every way of making sense of black identity in Jim Crow America. Attending a provincial college, John Jones grows from rowdy frat boy to becoming intoxicated with the "world of thought."

To represent, in 1903, a black man thinking pushed the perversity of intellection to an extreme. John's capacity for becoming lost in thought becomes the tale's motif: listening to Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera, he is lost in aesthetic bliss, and the final scene of Du Bois's story finds him humming Wagner's music, barely aware of the onrushing lynching party as it descends upon him. (He has killed the white man who was molesting his sister.) Eerily indifferent to his imminent demise, John in his trancelike absorption becomes unintelligible, a status that registers the black intellectual's historical reality in that era: stranded in a no-man's-land, seeming neither to know his place nor to have a place, hence synonymous with enigma.

John Jones tastes the freedom of life above the veil, and in a sense he dies of it. His paralysis seemed to serve his creator as an object lesson, a warning, even a spur to the torrential productivity, versatility, and creativity that defined Du Bois's own career. He conducted that career, of course, not on the lofty heights of his ideal "kingdom of culture" but within the veil, where he was "kept in bounds" by the daily humiliations of segregation. He died in 1963 at ninety-five in his friend Nkrumah's independent state of Ghana, on the eve of the march on Washington. For all his accomplishments, Du Bois always believed that white racism, as he said in 1934, "has made me far less rounded a human being than I should like to have been." Coupled with that cost was his ineradicable sense of self-sacrifice in behalf of race service, and the twin constraints shape the concluding tableau of "Of the Coming of John." It is a compelling mix of defiance and doom, as Du Bois wrapped John Jones in the robes of tragedy. And later writers' incarnations of the black intellectual, even when imbued with mordant wit and gallows humor, by and large remained garbed in tragedy for much of the century, as if born with a birthright of existential anguish. The titles alone tell the tale: Invisible Man; Nobody Knows My Name; The Outsider; American Hunger.

Alain Locke, who was born in Philadelphia in 1885, was seventeen years younger than Du Bois, and had little use for the pathos of blackness. He declined the cloak of tragedy: "I am not a race problem. I am Alain LeRoy Locke, " he declared as he arrived at Oxford as the first African American Rhodes Scholar.

Locke regarded his iron confidence as his birthright as a proper and proud member of an old free black family of educators. The son and grandson of highly cultivated people on both sides, Locke was nearly blase about entering Harvard in 1904. His letters home from college bear little evidence of anxiety. By 1912 he was a professor of philosophy at Howard, where he would teach for four decades.

Locke remains best known as a prime catalyst of the blossoming of black literary and artistic life in 1925 known as the Harlem Renaissance, which he showcased in his landmark anthology The New Negro. Always a controversial figure--"the high priest of the intellectual snobbocracy" was not an untypical reaction--Locke is now the subject of a first biography that rescues him from caricature and brings alive his distinctive fashioning of the role of black intellectual. Like Du Bois, Locke studied at the University of Berlin before taking a Harvard doctorate. And as they returned from the relative freedom of Europe, both men would wrestle with "unreconciled strivings," as Du Bois called the tension between race man and aesthete, between puritan and pagan, between the pursuit of social justice and the self-cultivation embodied in their cherished German ideal of Bildung.

It was a homegrown figure, William James, whom Du Bois and Locke held in common as an intellectual touchstone. Of his Harvard mentor, Du Bois had declared in his autobiography: "God be praised that I landed squarely in the arms of William James." James had pretty much retired from teaching by the time Locke entered Harvard, but when he lectured at Oxford in 1908, Locke was a most receptive member of the audience. James's pragmatism spoke with particular urgency to these black thinkers. Along with Franz Boas's anthropology, which was another crucial influence on both Du Bois and Locke, pragmatism was a tool that virtually stood alone from turn-of-the-century behavioral and social sciences in opposing the theory and the practice of white supremacy. Pragmatist pluralism, like Boasian contextualism, dismissed what James called "all the great single word answers to the world's riddle, such as God, the One ... Nature" and "The Truth," as "perfect idols of the rationalistic mind!"

Locke possessed a cool detachment that was the source of a remarkable self-awareness and absence of self-pity, qualities that allowed him to minimize and to manage the pathos that inevitably afflicted an American of his gifts, ambitions, and color. Like all black intellectuals of his era he found himself "trapped between two worlds," but unlike many others Locke seemed to resolve the frustrations. Unlike Du Bois, he did not make a career out of them. He would never be capable, at least in public, of the flamboyant histrionics that Du Bois displays at the start of his autobiography: "Crucified on the vast wheel of time, I flew round and round with the Zeitgeist, waving my pen ... to see, foresee and prophesy." The audacity of Du Bois's mind set him apart, and eventually made him a worldhistorical figure. Locke knew his own limits and was guided by a stoic steadiness and an irony about himself that helped him to persevere and thereby to avoid becoming one more burned-out case, the fate of many of his famous Harlem friends.

Refusing to be a "problem," Locke instead led a life "in the key of paradox, " as he retrospectively remarked. And his cultivation of paradox has always kept him out of focus. Contemporary scholars tend to simplify by casting him either as a race man or an apolitical aesthete. Yet in fact, as Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth show, Locke kept up the pressure on both roles, as his thought continually refined itself and deepened. Though he wrote excellent literary journalism, he was primarily an academic philosopher, and the slim amount of his published work reflected a pace customary in his discipline. If and when he is read these days it is for his introduction to The New Negro.

But the current neglect of Alain Locke should not make us skeptical of the claim made by his biographers, who call him "the most influential African American intellectual born between W.E.B Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr." They are right. Locke won acclaim as the self-described "philosophical mid- wife" to the Harlem Renaissance. But his most interesting writings on race and culture remain his least known, perhaps because they challenge the racial chauvinism that the race man inevitably traffics in. These writings, mostly from the later decades of his career--"The Contribution of Race to Culture," "Who and What is 'Negro'?" and "Frontiers of Culture" (all found in Leonard Harris's valuable collection of Locke's writings)--adumbrate an anti-proprietary notion of cosmopolitanism that urges us to consider that "culture has no color ... there is no monopoly, no special proprietary rights" about culture. Unfortunately, this biography, for all its careful explication of Locke's ideas, neglects Locke's richest reflections.

The paradoxical Locke, barely five feet and with a rheumatic heart, was a whirlwind of activity, an unabashed elitist and aesthete but one who refused what he called "an ivory tower of colorless cosmopolitanism" and instead "dug deep into the human soil." His cosmopolitanism was hands-on and immersive. An inveterate world traveler not only to Europe but also Egypt and Russia and Africa, an expert on and collector of African art, Locke's worldliness inspired his recognition that cultures are not discrete organic wholes embodying a nation's blood but composite, impure assemblages, created in reciprocal exchange with other cultures. His global and trans-national perspectives--what he called "intercultural reciprocity"--were way ahead of their time.

He made his reputation with his race work in the "human soil" back home, where he became a self-described "advocate of cultural racialism as a defensive counter-move for the American Negro." His advocacy proved effective because he had mastered the cultural politics of the two centers of black intellectual life: Washington D.C., his professional outpost as a professor at Howard, and New York City, where, especially after 1925, he visited most weekends and kept a room in Harlem. Charming and generous, adept at cultivating the powerful but with a fine eye for younger talent, Locke knew everyone, was a tireless organizer of educational programs, musical productions, publishing and lecture series, and awards dinners, while chairing countless editorial, foundation, and fellowship boards. As the personal executor and confidante to a wealthy and eccentric white patron, the patronizing Charlotte Osgood Mason, known to all as "Godmother," Locke distributed stipends while enduring her romantic racialist fatuities: she called him "my precious brown boy" and, believing that "all Negroes are after all the children of the sun," urged him to be more natural and "slough off this weight of white culture."

Locke's role as consummate insider dispensing largesse made him a lightning rod for criticism. Some of it was justified: as an editor, he compromised the radicalism of Claude McKay's poetry and had a nasty rivalry with the novelist and editor Jesse Fauset. Conflicted emotions and frayed relations marked virtually all Locke's friendships with the writers he took up and put down--among them Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes (with whom he was once romantically involved), and Zora Neale Hurston. Few were as flagrantly divided as Hurston, a principal recipient, along with Hughes, of Godmother's philanthropy. Hurston began her long and combative association with Locke as his student at Howard, where his skepticism of racial uplift and absolutist thinking was an important influence. She once urged him to succeed Du Bois as the central race leader, but after reading Locke's less than warm review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, she called him, in a letter to James Weldon Johnson, "a malicious, spiteful little snot that thinks he ought to be the leading Negro because of his degrees. "

Not only was Locke inevitably caught in the crossfire to which any gatekeeper is exposed, but his imperious manner only made matters worse. His suavity bothered even himself ("my tongue never tires as you know," he wrote his doting mother, "indeed it is oiled to an appalling slickness.... I don't know that I can even be sincere with you"), and the open secret of his homosexuality (which made, he once said, a "haughty distrust" mandatory) made him a target for gossip and ridicule. Detested by some, respected by many, Locke possessed an undeniable intellectual brilliance and a capacious vision of world culture. For aspiring writers such as Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray seeking to break out of the racial province, he was a "heroic figure."

Growing up a pampered only child, Locke once recalled that his mother "dipped me as a very young child in the magic waters of cold cynicism and haughty distrust and disdain of public opinion." His mother, according to Locke's estimate, raised "an almost hurt-proof child." The "almost" pointed to what he called his "all too vulnerable Achilles heel of homosexuality--which she may have suspected was there, both for her sake and my own safety--I kept in an armored shoe of reserve and haughty caution." That remoteness came easy. Laughter was barred in the Locke household. Instead his father smiled and whistled, and (as his son explained) "the smile substituted not in a sour but in a debonair way--This was the antidote of being Negro--the distinguished protest of the second and third generation away from slavery."

The startling frankness of Locke's remark raises questions. In a white world where black laughter was the image of the happy and ignorant "Sambo," was the household taboo on impulse and spontaneity, the Lockes' commitment in effect to anti-nature, an equal and opposite deformation inflicted by racism? Harris and Molesworth wisely favor a less moralistic reading; they suggest that Locke's upholding of anti-nature turns his renunciation of spontaneous impulse from a symptom of racist confinement into a valuable basis of receptivity to the discipline of style and technical mastery. Locke revered African art precisely because it lacked the sloppy exuberance and naivete of the African American spirit, which had been formed in response to the "peculiar experience in America." African art was "disciplined, sophisticated, laconic and fatalistic"--in short, much like Alain Locke.

At Oxford as a Rhodes, he happily succumbed to the social whirl of campus life--he was soon changing clothes four and five times a day to keep up with his social calendar, and before long was deeply in debt to tailors and food emporiums--and eventually tasted of the wider freedoms, cultural and sexual, offered by London, Paris, and Berlin. Locke's four years on the continent encouraged devotion to what he called his one religion, the Greek ideal of friendship, and all his life he treasured his relations with sensitive young men. Perhaps his most adored was Langston Hughes, whom he long pursued until Hughes finally surrendered for a time in Paris in the spring and summer of 1924.

But there was more going on at Oxford than high life. Though he had declared "I'm not going to England as a Negro," that is, as a "dime museum freak" on exhibition as a representative of the race, Southern white Rhodes scholars would not let him forget his color. They made every effort to exclude and to embarrass him. Oxford's Cosmopolitan Club came to the rescue, an oasis of hospitality amid the attempts to segregate him. At the Cosmopolitan Club, Locke met impressive men of color, including several who were colonial subjects of the British Empire, "men who impressed Locke with their commitment to return to their various countries and serve the interests of their people."

Locke's community of friends at the Club began to raise his racial and political consciousness, making him come to grips with the cultural legacy of Africa and with the outrages of imperialism. He began to devise an intense cosmopolitanism as a weapon against segregation and rigid classification--enemies shared by William James. By 1911, the year he returned to the United States, he was on his way to becoming an Africanist and human paradox: a cosmopolitan race man.

This double perspective guided Locke's most lasting achievement: the editorship of the epochal anthology The New Negro, which surveyed, and was itself a part of, the artistic and intellectual ferment of the Harlem Renaissance. "Locke had been preparing for the Renaissance for almost two decades," Harris and Molesworth report. His years in Europe amid urban modernism, his academic training in pragmatism with its emphasis on democratic pluralism, his diverse contacts and interests: all this helped to make Locke, though he neither lived in Harlem nor was an editor, the man for the moment. His chance came when he was asked to edit a special Harlem issue of Survey Graphic, a leading progressive magazine of sociology and culture. Locke assembled a diverse and stellar group of contributors (while playing down sociology and economics, which he found dull, and adding more art and literature), and made the Harlem issue a hit, selling over thirty thousand copies and generating so much attention that it soon gave birth to an expanded hardcover edition called The New Negro. It contained articles on art, music, sociology, anthropology and history, poems, stories, drama, original art work; its contributors were young and old, black, white, male, female, all viewing matters from vantages variously local, national, and international.

Locke's introduction set the turbulent scene of Harlem in global perspective. In Harlem, he wrote, "the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life"--African, West Indian and Negro American--is the "laboratory of a great race-welding," as "the elements undergo "contact and interaction." As the "home of the Negro's 'Zionism,'" Harlem bids to be a "race capital," and is at the center of the "mission of rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible." "As with the Jew, persecution is making the Negro international." Harlem "has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia." Admiring these "nascent centers of folk-expression and self- determination," Locke gives voice to a romantic nationalism akin to Herder's.

Embracing global cosmopolitan modernity, The New Negro sought to bury the deadly cliches of white paternalism: "the day of 'aunties,' 'uncles,' and 'mammies'" are redolent of "yesterday," as are "Uncle Tom and Sambo" as emblems of a naive and humble race. The American mind, Locke declared in the title essay, "must reckon with a fundamentally changed Negro" and a "new group psychology" of "self-respect" derived from a "deep feeling of race." This "renewed race-spirit" "consciously and proudly sets itself apart." But lest his claim seem to align him with Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement--a significant force in Harlem in the 1920s but barely present in The New Negro--Locke sets this proud race spirit squarely within the democratic ideals of America: "the Negro mind reaches out as yet to nothing but American wants, American ideas. But this forced attempt to build his Americanism on race values is a unique social experiment, and its ultimate success is impossible except through the fullest sharing of American culture and institutions." To those Americans who hope that "the trend of Negro advance is wholly separatist," Locke replies: "this cannot be--even if it were desirable," because "democracy itself is obstructed and stagnated to the extent that any of its channels are closed." He was fanning new life into Du Bois's famous question to his white readers near the end of The Souls of Black Folk--"your country? How came it yours?" Du Bois's point is that "before the Pilgrims landed we were here" and "mingled our blood" with this nation, facts that expose what his readers would prefer not to know--the reality of motley mixture.

After 1925, Locke's fame and audience broadened, with visiting appointments at University of Wisconsin, the New School, a lecture at Harvard, membership in prestigious interracial collaborations. But accounts of his career usually look only at the Locke of the Harlem Renaissance years, who championed beauty over the use of art as propaganda. This biography's account of his later decades valuably complicates the conventional image of Locke as a rarefied elitist by showing in detail that by the mid-1930s Locke acknowledged that there was "no cure or saving magic in art" in a world of "capitalistic exploitation" and the "disease-and crime-ridden slum." He supported the New Deal, and though he was never a man of the left ("too Philadelphian for that!"), his concern for aesthetics gave way to politics, especially on the issues of democracy, race, and citizenship. Challenging what he dubbed "the most sacrosanct of all our secular concepts, the autonomous sovereignty of the self-arbiter nation," Locke urged the abandonment of the "Pax Romana of irrepressible power politics" that rules America's economic imperialism of "dollar diplomacy," and its replacement by a "Pax democratica of reciprocal international rights and responsibilities" that "would give democracy full moral stature."

The dire state of world politics, the bellicose ethnic nationalisms that used "race as a political instrument" to foment violence, led him to revisit his own earlier use of race as a political instrument in the 1920s. He looked back on The New Negro as "defensive, promotive propaganda." In 1950, he confessed that he was "both proud and ashamed" of his "brain child": the Harlem Renaissance had been valuable but it did not achieve its potential, owing to a "false conception of culture" as a "market-place commodity." Once the "New Negro" took hold, it "offered that irresistible American lure of a vogue of success ... an easy cheap road to vicarious compensation." Instead of emphasizing the "substance" of Negro life, "complexion" came first. Locke had learned an important lesson, a way to grasp race and culture that would defuse racial anger and cultural chauvinism: "Culture-goods, once evolved, are no longer the exclusive property of the race or people that originated them. They belong to all who can use them; and belong most to those who can use them best. " More succinctly, "culture has no color."

Locke here reaches back to the teachings of an earlier generation, as in effect he revives and adapts for the mid-century world an insight of his Howard colleague and mentor Kelly Miller, a prominent turn-of-the-century race leader and later a professor of mathematics. In 1905, in his "open letter" to the white Southern novelist Thomas Dixon, Miller refuted the familiar claim that "the Negro lives in the light of the white man's civilization." The white man, Miller asserted, "has no exclusive proprietorship of civilization. White man's civilization is as much a misnomer as the white man's multiplication table. It is the equal inheritance of anyone who can appropriate and apply it." As Du Bois did earlier in his notion of the uncolored "kingdom of culture," and Locke would do later in equating the anti-proprietary and the cosmopolitan, Miller de-racialized culture by making one's relation to it a matter of present action, not prior identity. What becomes pivotal is the desire and capacity for doing--for sitting with Shakespeare.

The imperative to act in a world in which "all is shades and no boundaries" and experience "overflows its own definition," was how William James described the premises of his "radical empiricism," a vision articulated at Oxford when Locke heard him lecture. James emphasized that pluralism is the "permanent form" of the world, which entails treating "assured conclusions concerning matters of fact" as hypotheses, subject to "modification in the course of future experience." Although Locke's biographers are clear about his pragmatist orientation, they confine it to a distrust of absolutist systems and to "cultural relativism," while ignoring how liberating was James's insouciance toward alleged necessities, his skepticism of the authority of origin, essence, and identity, and his esteem for the unclassified and unbounded.

In minimizing James's influence and Kelly Miller's, Harris and Molesworth inevitably scant Locke's rejection of the proprietary. The one time the word comes up is in a letter from the late 1920s that they cite, in which Locke remarks that "I hold to no proprietary notion about human relationships. Jealousy and the monopoly it implies ... I hold essentially vulgar." Here, had they realized it, is the emotional ground of Locke's intellectual affinity for anti-proprietary cosmopolitanism. Locke thought the idea so important that he regarded it as an inevitable part of a "solution reconciling nationalism with internationalism, racialism with universalism." We ignore this anti-proprietary understanding of culture at our peril, he warned, for "the vicious practice of vested proprietary interests in various forms of culture" undergirds imperialism and is responsible for the "tragedies of history." What must be recovered, he insisted, is the "long ignored" but "very elemental historical fact" of "an almost limitless natural reciprocity between cultures. Civilization, for all its claims of distinctiveness, is a vast amalgam of cultures."

This rejection of the primacy of identity in matters of culture remains insufficiently appreciated in our day. The idea and its avatars are overshadowed by the prestige of multiculturalism, with its coarse tribalism and its ugly purism. So I am glad to note a rare exception to this neglect. In 1968, Philip Rieff, the great sociologist of culture, attempted to rescue Kelly Miller from oblivion: "Shakespeare and Whitman belonged to him; they were part of his inalienable life; they did not belong to butchers in London or slobs in Camden simply because they happen to be white men. Race is the most terrible cultural simplification of all; in his wisdom and learning, Miller rejected the fatal simplicity that the provenance of a value determined membership in it." And, echoing Locke, Rieff proclaimed that "a culture has no color ... A high culture is a living and active faith." Rieff was writing in the midst of a resurgence of identity politics--more specifically, of the black nationalist celebration of "black values." A few years later Rieff remarked that the slogan "black is beautiful" played into the remissive role that white radicals--most egregiously Norman Mailer--invited blacks to enact; and, with the "nobility" of Du Bois in mind, Rieff hoped that the slogan might be replaced by "Black is Brilliant." Had he been alive on January 20, 2009, Rieff might have admitted that his wish had been granted.

Ross Posnock teaches English and American Studies at Columbia University and is the author of Color & Culture (Harvard University Press) and Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity (Princeton University Press).

By Ross Posnock