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The Harlem Renaissance at 100: as black as it was gay

GAYHRichard Bruce Nugent (American, 1906-1987). Dancing Figures, ca. 1935CollBrooklynMuseum

Around 1918, at the end of the First World War, an unprecedented cultural revival took place in Harlem. It made history and was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Writers, poets, artists, musicians, actors and theorists proudly showed what the New Negro was capable of. For the first time, African Americans felt valued and respected.

Much about that important period in black history has been published. For a long time, however, it was concealed that many of the Harlem Renaissance tastemakers were gay. It was thought that making that public would undermine the euphoria.

This essay by Rob Perrée is about this aspect of the Harlem Renaissance.
Richard Bruce Nugent, Dancing Figures, c. 1935, copyright Thomas Wirth

 

 

 

The Harlem Renaissance at 100

 

HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

 

In 1923 the homosexual African American sculptor Richmond Barthé tried to gain admission to the art academy in New Orleans. It did not work. Even the help of influential white friends could not help. His skin color was an impregnable obstacle.

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Richmond Barthé, Feral Benga, 1935

At the same time in Harlem, New York, the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ was taking place, with an unprecedented revival of black culture. The concept of the ‘New Negro‘ was celebrated there with writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, with musicians such as Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, with visual artists such as Aaron Douglas and Malvin Gray Johnson, photographers such as James Van Der Zee and with theorists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. The fact that many of these protagonists were homosexual did not (or hardly) prevented them from playing that leading role.

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Malvin Gray Johnson, Negro Soldier, 1935

Black historians, as well as a lot of white colleagues, have managed to keep the aspect of gayness/queerness out of the books for a long time. That was an impregnable obstacle for them. They felt that the representation of the African American would be negatively affected. It is only in recent years the specialists have admitted: “The Harlem Renaissance was as black as it was gay” (Henry Louis Gates).
History sometimes writes its own history.

At that time, most black Americans lived from the beginning of slavery in the south of the country. They had to work in the countryside, on the many plantations. That changed a hundred years ago. Then there was a massive migration from south to north. Poverty, lynchings of the KKK and unemployment were important factors. But there was another, more decisive factor. Elsewhere a path out of misery was offered. Especially during the time of the First World War, when industry in the North flourished. At the same time, thousands of men were called to fulfill their military service and immigration came to a virtual standstill. A large labor shortage was the result. Blacks were given the opportunity to fill the gap. Large black communities emerged in cities such as Chicago and Detroit. With its more than 700,000 new residents, Harlem grew into a kind of mecca for blacks, “a black city in the heart of white Manhattan”. For the first time they were allowed to feel that they were desired. Many got paid jobs, they lived in their own homes, they could buy their food from black suppliers, black schools provided for their education, in black churches they could practice their own religion, and they read their own newspapers. Even the civil authority was maintained by blacks ( the black policeman made his entry). It was no longer strange that a black person became rich and had her/his own house designed by a black architect. Districts such as’ Sugar Hill ‘and’ Strivers’ Row ‘are the prime and still very much sought after examples.
This development created an unyielding pride and the conviction that they themselves were capable of doing the things that had been reserved for whites up until then. Black regiments even took part in the war in Europe and were respected because of their courage and perseverance. Cynically perhaps, but it was very important for the ‘New Negro’. Being respected was a new feeling. The discrimination certainly did not disappear – those same soldiers found out when they returned home and were left to their fate – but the former slaves had found an answer to it. They were challenged to measure themselves with their white ‘masters’.

Political leaders took advantage of the new situation. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) was one of the most influential and colorful examples. On one of James Vanderzee’s photographs he looks like an operetta figure, in his uniform with flossing and feathers, but he managed to mobilize thousands of people when he drove around like a king in Harlem. The general public loved him. His speeches make it clear that Martin Luther King and Barack Obama fit in with a long oratorical tradition. He called on his fellow countrymen to cash in on their pride by going back to Africa. That’s where they came from, that’s where they belonged. He turned against contraceptives, because that would prevent the expansion of the black race. The fact that he eventually ended up in jail because of fraud was not yet foreseen at that time.

W.E.B. Du Bois; detail of a drawing by Winold Reiss, circa 1925

W.E.B. DuBois, by Winold Reiss, c.1925

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was much less loud and flamboyant in nature. He was a professor of history and sociology at the University of Atlanta before moving to Harlem. The first black professor. His support for the Harlem Renaissance consisted of a series of publications in which he turned against racism and any form of unequal treatment (also against European colonialism). In fact, he provided a theoretical foundation. His message was embraced by the middle class and the intellectuals. Du Bois also founded the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a social interest organization that still exists. He demanded from culture-bearers that they acted black, that they stood up in their work for the interests of black culture. Art which did not want to be propaganda found no mercy with him. It did not make him popular among all artists. Many especially young artists and writers – they called themselves ‘The Niggerati’ – demanded artistic freedom. They separated themselves more and more from their spiritual father.
His articles often appeared in ‘Crisis’, the home organ of the NAACP. That magazine had a circulation of 100,000 and as a result it had a big influence on the developments in Harlem.

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Cover of FIRE!!, 1926, design Aaron Douglas/ Cover New Negro, 1925, design Reiss, Collection Walter O. Evans

Alain Locke (1885-1954), a philosopher who graduated from Harvard University, was the one who literally catalogued the cultural revival. At first in a special issue of the magazine ‘Survey Graffic’ (1925) and, in the same year, in the book ‘The New Negro’. In it he collected texts, stories and poems by Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, County Cullen, Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman. He had it illustrated by the artists Aaron Douglas and Winold Reiss. He assumed that the “spiritual emancipation”, “this renewed self-respect and self-dependence” could best be read by the amount and level of literature and the art that it produced. The book would become a standard work. Later, critics would attack it because it would be too elitist and contradictory because the selection of the writers would be too personal and the underlying philosophy was too much in line with the ideas of Du Bois, meaning, too conservative. That does not alter the fact that the book goes down in history as a proof of and a successful attempt to underpin a striking and important flowering period in African-American culture.

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Langston Hughes, by Winold Reiss, c.1925/Richard Bruce Nugent, Lucifer, c. 1930, Copyright Thomas Wirth

Many poems and novels were published by large publishing houses and thus reached a white readership. This was possible, among other things, through the financial support of wealthy private individuals, such as the elderly Charlotte Osgood Mason, an imposing woman that many people were afraid of, because her generosity had strict rules. The mediation of the (white) ballet critic of the New York Times, the eccentric Carl van Vechten, was also important. He had a huge network and was friends with almost all black writers. And then there were of course the ‘dressed’ dinners where writers performed for publishers and the literary salons and reading afternoons that had to generate fame among the wealthy Harlemites. Frequently read magazines such as ‘Crisis’ and ‘Opportunity’ published generously.

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Cover of CRISIS, 1923, Collection Walter O. Evans

Visual artists were supported in a different way. There were several art prizes, assignments to illustrate magazines and books were numerous and it was possible to win a scholarship that made it possible for them to develop further in Paris, the cultural capital at that time. There they had encounters with the giants of French visual art.

The new spirit also found its translation into social life, especially into nightlife. That was varied, noisy, hedonistic and decadent. On 133rd street were the biggest clubs. The street was nicknamed ‘Jungle Alley’. There sounded jazz music deep into the night, played by the masters of the genre. Duke Ellington and his band performed often, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith sang and ballet dancer Earl Tucker honored his nickname ‘snakehips’. New dances were tried out on the dance floor. The Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn and Small’s Paradise were the most popular entertainment venues. The first had the extravagant shows, in all three it was prohibited to obtain stimulants such as marijuana and cocaine. Especially the owner of the Cotton Club, Owen Madden, did not bother about that. As a professional gangster, he regularly took the law with a grain of salt. Striking in these clubs was that blacks provided entertainment, but that the audience consisted exclusively of whites.
That was not always the case in the many dance halls.
For example, the stylish Savoy – ‘the home of happy feet’ – was mixed. Black women dressed as men and vice versa formed the top attraction.

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Paul Robeson, 1935, photo Carl van Vechten, courtesy The Van Vechten trust

Blacks solved that discrimination problem with their ‘rent parties’ and other private parties. The first were so named because the guests paid to come in and in that way ensured that the owner could pay his rent. The drink was illegal and sexual freedom had just a few limits. These were also the parties that were visited by homosexuals. Notorious were the ‘salons’ of A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of the woman who had invented the cream with which blacks were able to straighten their hair and with which she had accumulated a fortune. A’Leila had two palatial houses, money hardly played a role, she poured alcohol abundantly, she liked to surround herself with homosexuals, rich whites belonged to her regular circle of friends, and writers and artists created a sound ‘decoration’.
There were other creative solutions for brothelish entertainment. ‘Buffet flats’ for example. These were rental rooms in private homes. They offered illegal liquor and “a variety of sexual pleasures” in the late hours. The ‘speakeasys’ were salons or clubs that were open to everyone. From rough queers, “the child that fought better than truck drivers”, to lesbians, to transvestites, to stars like Cary Grant and Cole Porter. Because there were illegal drinks served, the neighbors were not allowed to hear anything. Hence the name.

Even if, according to the letter of the law, there was little allowed in Harlem, much could be done and everyone knew that it was happening. The authorities acted only sporadically. When parties got out of hand, they sometimes made the newspaper. Then there was a raid. Not more than that. The white money was too welcome, the need to celebrate freedom was too great, to make a big deal out of these violations.

It is at least striking in this context that historians have long kept silent about the nature of many prominent writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Of course it is legitimate to say that it matters little if someone is homosexual or not, because it is about the quality of her or his work. However, that reasoning goes beyond the fact that expressing homosexuality, either directly or indirectly, was new and was an expression of the feeling of pride and of the need to celebrate freedom. Emotions that formed the basis for the Harlem Renaissance, which were the very characteristics of that cultural revival.

Countee Cullen Photography by Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust

Countee Cullen, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1941, Courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust

A number of critics have always claimed that there is hardly any evidence for the gayness of the Harlem Renaissance and that they are therefore silent about it. After all, most artists were “nicely married”. However, that does not mean a lot. The poet Countee Cullen married the daughter of Du Bois, but took his friend on his honeymoon with him. In his most famous collection ‘Colors’ (1925) various poems with a homosexual theme are included (for example ‘Fruit of the Flower’). Although Langston Hughes never spoke about his sexual orientation, poems such as ‘Young Sailor’ and ‘Desire’ speak a clear language. Carl van Vechten was also married, but everyone knew that it was a marriage of convenience. In his infamous bestseller ‘Nigger Heaven’ he describes extensively a homosexual rent party. The riot that caused the book was about the title, not the content. Richard Bruce Nugent wrote the first homo-erotic story – ‘Smoke, Lillies and Jade’ – by an African American and published it in 1926 in the one-time magazine ‘Fire !!!’. His most revealing statement is “You did not get to the rooftop and shout,” I fucked my wife last night. So why would you get on the roof and say ‘I love prick’? You did not. You just did what you wanted to do. Nobody was in the closet. There was not any closet.” From him also comes the confirmation of the sexual orientation of Alain Locke. Just before he died he told his biographer Thomas H. Wirth that Locke offered (presented) himself with the words “Go ahead. Do whatever you want with me “. In his novel “Strange Brother” (1931), Blaire Niles let a homosexual protagonist say the following about Harlem: “I can be myself there … .They know everything about me, and I do not have to lie.” Letters show that the playwright Angelina Weld Grimké had a homosexual relationship with Mamie Burrill.
Blues singers like Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan and George Hanna sang about their lesbian lovers. For these and other blues singers, homosexuality was “a natural part of life”. ‘Sissy Man Blues’ and ‘Freakish Blues’ were popular songs.

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Cover Opportunity, 1925, design Aaron Douglas/Aaron Douglas, Untitled (Nightclub Scene in Blue and Black), Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

The proof of gay domination in the Harlem Renaissance is abundant, so why mutilate the truth?

After a long period of slavery followed by a long period of continuous oppression and discrimination, despite the abolition of slavery, it seemed for the first time that the black American could enjoy normal achievements as respect, admiration and freedom. These achievements came from what they performed, what they accomplished, from the creativity they displayed on a broad scale. That filled with pride. That ensured self-confidence. That did well. To admit at such a fragile moment that this blossoming creativity in Harlem came from homosexuals to an important extent was almost impossible. Other sexual orientations were not yet accepted by anyone. Not by blacks, but not by whites either. Homosexuality was widely seen as a disease, a deviation. Active homosexuality was a sin, a proof of depravity, an act of perversion. In the eyes of believers. And blacks were (and still are) very religious. Religion had been the ultimate comfort in the harsh times of systematic oppression. Is it strange then that black historians manipulated the reality? Is that not the predictable behavior of more minorities who are engaged in emancipation?

Gradually the true nature of the Harlem Renaissance is recognized by more historians. African Americans are more hardy now. It is strange, however, that they never make a link between the causes of this cultural upswing and the role of homosexuals in it. Blacks felt accepted for who they were, what they could do and what they did. That gave confidence. That created a feeling of freedom, of euphoria. They dared to measure themselves with the whites. They came out of the closet. From that same experience, homosexuals also dared to come out of the closet. The music they played, the books they wrote and the art they made were appreciated, were even successful. They could easily compete with their black brothers and sisters.

The Harlem Renaissance lasted only briefly. In 1935, more than fifteen years after the beginning, there was little left of it. Because of the stock market crash of 1929, many whites lost their money. They withdrew from Harlem, as a visitor, but above all as a financier. Many activities bled to death. Poverty and unemployment returned. Discrimination and racism were given free rein again. The closet was slammed shut. For all Harlemites.

Rob Perrée is art historian, independent writer and curator, founder and editor in chief of www.africanah.org, lives and works in Amsterdam and Brooklyn.
Edited by Clewert Sylvester
Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio: I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100, until January 20, 2019. There is a catalogue published with the same title, written by Wil Haygood.