The Gay Harlem Renaissance

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.

Nugent, known as the "perfumed orchid of the New Negro Movement," didn't hide his sexuality either in life or in print. He contributed the blatantly homoerotic short story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" to the black literary journal Fire!! in 1926. Speaking about the LGBT presence in Harlem, Nugent noted, "You did what you wanted to. Nobody was in the closet. There wasn't any closet."


Everybody who was anybody — gay and straight, black and white, uptown and downtown — knew about the infamous homosexual haunt the Clam House on 133rd Street. Bawdy blues singer Gladys Bentley presided over the raucous fun, all 250 pounds of her cross-dressed in tux and top hat.

A'Lelia Walker, the Joy Goddess of the Harlem Renaissance and daughter of Madam C.J., was especially fond of homosexuals, notes award-winning author David Levering Lewis in his book When Harlem Was in Vogue. Anyone who voiced disapproval risked being uninvited from her lavish and legendary parties.


But gayest of all: the Hamilton Lodge drag ball held every year on 155th Street. Several thousand came to gawk at the cross-dressing extravaganza as hundreds of mainly working-class young men showed up in over-the-top drag.

An Invisible Life?

Despite this kind of freedom and pageantry, homosexuality wasn't universally accepted. Harlem's most powerful minister, Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church until 1937, campaigned against what he saw as the growing scourge of sexual perversion and moral degeneracy. And the annual Hamilton Lodge event was openly referred to as the "parade of the pansies," "dance of the fairies" and "faggots' ball."


Against this complicated landscape, some claim that scholars of the New Negro Movement have erased the LGBT history of the Renaissance in biographies and textbooks. In Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, author Schwarz explains that historians either deliberately or inadvertently sidelined the link between the Harlem Renaissance and homosexuality.

In a 2001 essay " 'Outing' Alain L. Locke," biographer Leonard Harris accused some scholars of obscuring Locke's gay life, leading to the false idea that "Locke's sexuality was irrelevant to his intellectual and personal history." Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar, is often called the father of the Harlem Renaissance. And when the groundbreaking 1989 film Looking for Langston was released to critical acclaim, the Langston Hughes estate did its best to shut it down. Directed by Isaac Julien, the lyrical film is a gay love letter to Hughes and the Renaissance.


Double Lives

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.

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