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African-American Literature: Gay Male  
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The African-American gay male tradition in literature--though it has yet to receive adequate scholarly attention--consists of a substantial body of texts, spans a period of eight decades, and includes some of the most gifted writers of the twentieth-century. It is a rich and vibrant tradition; its vitality emerges at least in part from the complexities of the black gay lives that it articulates and affirms. It is an intensely political tradition that offers relentless and simultaneous challenges to black as well as white , to straight as well as racism.

Yet its concerns extend far beyond social protest to engage a wide variety of issues that range from quintessentially African-American themes to universally human ones. Begun on a modest scale by a pioneering coterie of writers in Harlem during the 1920s, the gay male tradition in African-American literature was vastly strengthened by James Baldwin during the 1950s and 1960s. And since the mid-1980s, a host of talented artists have emerged to generate a veritable renaissance in black gay writing.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, celebrated as a most significant event in the African-American intellectual tradition, was also a crucial moment in gay literary history. Many of its central protagonists--such as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent--were either gay or bisexual.

Locke, a professor at Howard University and one of the most distinguished scholars of the era, was an older gay man who became a mentor to many of the Harlem-based young male artists of the day. His intellectual presence and personal friendship--coupled with the fact that Nugent, Cullen, McKay, and others were at least peripherally involved in the then thriving gay and lesbian community of Harlem--perhaps encouraged them to explore, though discreetly, the subject of homosexuality in their works.

Richard Bruce Nugent's "Sadhji," a short story included in Locke's The New Negro (1925), is arguably the first gay text published by an African-American male. But it is his thinly disguised autobiographical narrative titled "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" (1926) that remains the most defiantly explicit gay text produced during the Harlem Renaissance. Unapologetic in its rhapsodic celebration of male beauty, it first appeared in Fire!!--an avant-garde journal published by the Harlem literati with the explicit intention of shocking the conservative black bourgeois readership. Nugent, unperturbed by the notoriety that his text earned him, continued to engage gay themes in many of his subsequent works.

Some of the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, however, were more cautious than Nugent. Novelists such as Wallace Thurman and Claude McKay, both of whom were bisexual, introduced gay themes in their works though neither treated the subject with Nugent's exceptional candor.

Thurman's first novel, Blacker the Berry (1929), a poignant exploration of the psychology of the oppressed, has an unsympathetic bisexual male character. His second novel, Infants of the Spring (1933), a hilarious satire on the Harlem Renaissance and its major figures, has an important bisexual male character, and the friendship between two other male characters in the novel has obvious homoerotic qualities.

Similar homoerotic male bonding is a feature of McKay's Banjo (1929). And his Home to Harlem (1928), a sensational portrayal of Harlem life in the Jazz Age, has a minor black male character.

Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen tend to be even more cautious. Hughes, in fact, appears to have taken extraordinary measures to conceal his bisexuality; perceptive (gay) readers, however, may easily sense the undertones in poems such as "Young Sailor" and "Cafe: 3 A.M." as well as in the elaborate sexual silences that mark his major autobiographical works such as The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956).

Like Hughes, Cullen too prefers to reveal his gay self only through coded language, as in poems such as "The Black Christ," "Tableau," "Every Lover," and "Song in Spite of Myself," among others.

The relative sexual reticence of the Harlem writers, however, has to be understood in the larger cultural contexts in which they lived and created art. Unlike their white peers who had the luxury of living in a society that viewed their whiteness as normative, the black artists had to confront in their daily lives as well as in their imaginative works the painfully problematic implications of their racial identity.

The issue of race, therefore, was a politically necessary and personally compelling concern for all the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Their art reflects this preoccupation. The demands of their audiences further complicated their predicament: Both black and white readers expected the writers to foreground the race-specific aspects of the African-American experience.

And the economics of the literary marketplace and the tenuousness of the black writer's position in the United States during the 1920s denied them the level of artistic freedom and personal autonomy necessary for forthright explorations of unconventional sexualities. Therefore, it is indeed remarkable that several gay and bisexual writers of the Harlem Renaissance, despite numerous daunting obstacles, managed to project discreetly into their art their private sexual concerns. The gay ambience that they helped generate did in fact succeed in providing a mildly subversive shape to the sexual and racial politics inscribed in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Like many queer Harlem Renaissance writers, Langston Hughes concealed his sexuality in print, though perceptive readers may easily sense homoerotic undertones in some of his work.
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