Next month’s National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., features a play called Knock Me a Kiss. It dramatizes a black wedding of the early 20th century — the 1928 marriage of Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Countee Cullen and Nina Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of W.E.B.
Despite a lavish event — she had 16 bridesmaids! — the marriage was short-lived. Three months after the wedding, Cullen sailed to Paris with his best man, and bride and groom officially split up shortly after.
Quiet as it’s kept, along with Cullen, a number of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance fell somewhere along the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rainbow spectrum. It actually isn’t that quiet. Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, Richard Bruce Nugent, Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Langston Hughes, all luminaries of the New Negro literary movement, have been identified as anywhere from openly gay (Nugent) to sexually ambiguous or mysterious (Hughes). In a 1993 essay, “The Black Man’s Burden,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root‘s editor-in-chief, notes that the Renaissance “was surely as gay as it was black.”
In the last few decades, a number of authors and filmmakers have revised the revisionist history of the period and unlocked history’s closet. The book Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (2003), by A.B. Christa Schwarz, puts the life and work of Cullen, McKay, Nugent and Hughes in an LGBT context.
That same year, Anthony Mackie starred in the film Brother to Brother, a fever dream that linked present-day Harlem to its lyrical Renaissance past through the eyes of a young black man struggling with his sexuality. The movie won a Special Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Next month Cleis Press will re-release Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African-American Fiction, which includes a meaty section on the Renaissance.
“As Gay as It Was Black”
The Harlem of the 1920s, which produced a flowering of art, music and writing, was indisputably gay. Being “in the life” was part of the landscape of the community. The 1983 essay “T’Aint Nobody’s Bizness: Homosexuality in 1920’s Harlem,” by Eric Garber, puts it in sharp focus:
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a homosexual subculture, uniquely Afro-American in substance, began to take shape in New York’s Harlem. Throughout the so- called Harlem Renaissance period, roughly 1920 to 1935, black lesbians and gay men were meeting each other [on] street corners, socializing in cabarets and rent parties, and worshiping in church on Sundays, creating a language, a social structure, and a complex network of institutions.