The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of black excellence and was eventually considered to be the “black cultural mecca.” But let the history books—and low key us too—falsely tell it, that excellence was mostly heterosexual.
But one new project wants to correct the narrative and pushback against the erasure of black LGBTQ artists who not only added to the cannon during this quintessential artistic boom but also helped shape its legacy.
One of the standouts in the project is Queer Harlem Renaissance: A Prospectus, a 15-minute documentary highlighting the contributions of several black queer artists, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alain Locke and Claude McKay.
McKay was a Jamaican poet who became a pioneer for black writers and a voice for the working class. Like other writers during this time period, McKay never publicly acknowledged that his sexual orientation. In the below clip obtained exclusively by The Root, Diggs narrates a particular piece of McKay’s work, Home to Harlem (1928), the first African American book to become a bestseller. As Diggs notes, the novel “describes ‘The Congo,’ a fictional cabaret that hosts not only the familiar ‘pansy,’ but the less well-known character of the ‘masculine gay’.”
This documentary is especially timely, as McKay’s Romance in Marseille, a novel the New York Times has said was “far ahead of its time,” was recently published, finally, after almost 90 years.
Additionally, the Queer Harlem Renaissance series features two short films: Congo Caberet and the upcoming Billy Porter-narrated Smoke, Lilies and Jade, both of which are directed by filmmakers Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett, collectively known as The Gossfields. As creators of the award-winning TV series The DL Chronicles, the Gossfields are also producers of Syfy’s Face Off, MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, ABC’s Family Dance Off and more.
“The erasure of Black lesbian, gays, bis, trans, questioning, and the rest of the spectrum folks from black history was a part of the black community’s efforts to protect its social standing and position in the greater Judeo-Christian, heteronormative white society,” Deondray, who prefers the term “same gender loving” as opposed to “queer,” told The Root. “It was a survival mechanism. We were desperately trying to gain a foothold in the American economy and culture and anything that posed a threat to that standing had to be circumvented.”
As Quincy notes, the erasure of queer black people throughout black history was not so much erasure as it was “a silencing or unspoken tolerance or acceptance—lives lived in the periphery.”
“The gays have always filled the choir pews and pulpits,” Quincy explained to The Root. “There has always been that aunt, uncle, cousin, neighbor, who was tolerated as long as there had been no official declaration. Queer black people have always existed, participated, and been acknowledged in the black community, but not openly. In addition to homophobia fueled by religion and white male patriarchy, being open was believed to pose a threat to the greater goal of acceptance for the black community.
“The same happened during the Harlem Renaissance. The artists and the culture-shapers were, in fact, queer and were in fact known to be queer in most of their inner circles,” he continued. “But they had to be Anglicized or hetero-cized to present the acceptable face to the greater white and Black community. So in favor of respectability politics, historians attempted to sanctify the image of the Black artist. It was a very big closet and remained that way for decades.”
Deondray adds that it’s also important for the white LGBTQ community to understand that “Black SGL culture is not a monolith.”
“We run the spectrum from ultra-femme to alpha masculine, from the projects to the Hamptons and that none of it removes our blackness or greatness,” he explains. “Once we have that level of respectability, there will be no need to rub out the ‘less savory’ voices for the ‘tasteful’ ones. Black culture will then elevate itself and respect all of its voices. Elitism will vanish and ‘ghetto’ will become a misnomer.”
When we talk about uplifting black voices, the inclusion in that support is very important. So, moving forward, how do we continue to support and make sure all of our voices are heard? For Quincy, there are two key factors: visibility and financial support.
“The biggest challenge for both Congo Cabaret and the upcoming Smoke, Lilies, & Jade was having limited finances,” Quincy stressed. “There isn’t a surplus of financial resources just readily available for independent black or black queer filmmakers and content creators. We are always ambitious and we always reach for the stars, no matter if we only have a dollar and an iPhone camera. We are often given limited time and resources to pull off some pretty ambitious projects. The audience and critics don’t see that you only had a shop light for lighting and ramen noodles for craft [services] and if they do, you’ve failed. So the challenge is always finding the best team and talent to achieve those goals.”
Shoga Films founder Robert Philipson, on the background of Diggs and Porter’s involvement:
The Gossfields have such a vast network and community of talented people in Hollywood, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. They suggested Billy Porter might be available to work with us on Smoke, Lilies, and Jade (which is in production now). I was surprised he would even be interested in working on our smaller production because had just won the Emmy for his role in Pose. They asked him to read the role of Narrator, and he graciously agreed. I still can’t believe how fortunate we are to have him onboard, but I think it says a lot about the connection these stories have to our community today. I’ve known Daveed since he was in middle school. His father and I have been close friends since the 90s. As Daveed matured and pursued his career as an actor and rapper, I asked him to lay down the narration for an early draft of a feature-length documentary well before Daveed’s break-out role in Hamilton. I’m still a big fan of Daveed and am not surprised that his star has risen over the years. He means so much to the Oakland arts community and we look forward to working with him more in the near future.
Queer Harlem Renaissance: A Prospectus will debut April 10 on ShogaFilms.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited.