The Gay Harlem Renaissance
Quiet as it's kept, a number of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance fell along the LGBT rainbow spectrum.
Du Bois was, at best, naive about homosexuality. He blamed the breakup of his daughter's marriage to her troublesome personality rather than his son-in-law's sexuality. But his thinking about LGBT issues apparently changed. Du Bois fired his friend and protégé Augustus Dill, the business manager of the NAACP's magazine, the Crisis, after Dill was arrested for a homosexual encounter in 1928 -- a move that Du Bois said he regretted. "I had no concept of homosexuality," Du Bois wrote in his autobiography, " ... and spent heavy days regretting my act."
The past isn't the present, and it would be unfair to slap a 21st-century out-and-proud frame around 20th-century Harlem. Plus, to borrow the words of Renaissance writer Jessie Redmon Fauset, there is confusion: Many of the New Negros who are now identified as gay had spouses of the opposite sex.
Some were bisexual, while others, like Cullen, lived double lives. After his failed marriage, Cullen wed again. Wallace Thurman, author of the novels The Blacker the Berry and Infants of the Spring, was arrested in 1925 for having sex with a man. Thurman married a woman three years later, but the relationship lasted only six months.
The writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson kept a foot in both worlds, according to her diary. After the breakup of her marriage to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, she remarried in 1916, creating what Gloria Hull, the editor of Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, calls "a good professional union." According to Hull, Dunbar-Nelson's diary reveals that "the author remained sexually available to women, as did any number of married black women club members."
The overtly same-sex longings of Renaissance playwright and poet Angelina Weld Grimké can be found in her correspondence with her friend Mamie Burrill. In a letter, she wrote, "Oh Mamie if you only knew how my heart overflows with love for you and how it yearns and pants for one more glimpse of your lovely face." Weld signed the letter, "Your passionate lover."
The 1931 novel Strange Brother, by Blaire Niles, sums up the period's complicated social geography best: "In Harlem I found courage and joy and tolerance," notes one gay character. "I can be myself there ... They all know about me, and I don't have to lie."
Linda Villarosa is the director of the journalism program at the City College of New York and is contributing to a documentary about HIV/AIDS in black America for PBS.