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literature

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The Harlem Renaissance  
 
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To crown only Locke with the accolade of inspiring the Harlem Renaissance is to deny the seminal positions held by W. E. B. DuBois, Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, and the Opportunity and Crisis organizations in fostering the careers of many of the period's artists.

Without question a misogynist, Locke's contribution to the development of a gay male literary heritage was formidable and certainly deliberate. He was at the center of the Harlem gay coterie and very early on gave impetus to the careers of Cullen and, especially, Hughes.

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Countee Cullen

Through frequent letters, Locke urged Countee Cullen (1903-1946) to write poetry aimed at bettering the race. Urging Cullen to read Edward Carpenter's anthology of male-male friendship Ioläus, Locke helped the young writer find comfort in realizing his gay self. Thus, Locke was also, in part, responsible for Cullen's maturing gay sensibilities.

Cullen learned the importance of the closet and wrote poetry that promoted the image and idea of the New Negro while also subtly expressing his gay self. Scholars are beginning to investigate the coded language in Cullen's poetry in order to establish him as a leading figure in the black gay male literary heritage. Many of the lyrics in The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) and The Medea and Some Poems (1935) lend themselves to gay readings.

Yet, in as early a work as Color (1925), Cullen wrote gay verses, such as "Tableau," "Fruit of the Flower," and "For a Poet"--a poem written at a time when Cullen was embroiled in unrequited love for Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes

Before he had finished college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and during his many travels, Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was pursued by Locke, with Cullen mediating. Although sexual relationships never materialized, the intimate friendships of these three gay men were concretized in their commitment to their literary careers and shared racial ideologies.

Although there were regular philosophical disagreements regarding the bewildering vocation of poets who were also deemed "race men," still a tight bond developed that knit these writers together for their entire lives.

Hughes, arguably the most closeted of the renaissance gay males, had many close associations with homosexuals and lesbians throughout his life. And, as with Cullen, scholars are beginning to decipher the codification of his gayness in his poetry, drama, and fiction.

Commentators have cited many poems as candidates for gay readings, among them "Young Sailor," "Waterfront Streets," "Desire," "Trumpet Player," "Café 3 A. M.," and the sequence of poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).

Angelina Weld Grimké

Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958) made her contribution to the lesbian literary heritage as a poet during the Harlem Renaissance. She was published in Locke's The New Negro (1925) and in Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927). Grimké's love lyrics, many as yet unpublished, are mostly addressed to women and describe love that is hidden, unrequited, or otherwise unrealized.

The honesty of the lesbian passion in these beautiful lyrics secures for Grimké a place in African-American gay literature. Poems such as "Rosalie," "If," "To Her of the Cruel Lips," "El Beso," "Autumn," "Give Me Your Eyes," "Caprichosa," and "My Shrine" are all testimony to the unrealized lesbian love for which Grimké longed.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) was married several times, most notably to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. All of her marriages were troublesome for one reason or another, but despite her personal problems, she managed to write and publish fiction and poetry. The lesbian relationships that checkered her life had a significant influence on her creativity. For example, Gloria T. Hull suggests that, in the unpublished novel This Lofty Oak, Dunbar-Nelson chronicles the life of Edwina B. Kruse, one of her lovers.

Dunbar-Nelson's literary reputation during the Harlem Renaissance is assessed largely (and Hull contends erroneously) on her achievement as a poet. She published "Violets" in Crisis in 1917, a work that exemplifies the polish and lucidity that typify her poetry, especially her sonnets.

Hull documents other lesbian affairs with Fay Jackson Robinson, a Los Angeles journalist, and Helene Ricks London, a Bermuda artist. Dunbar-Nelson wrote poetry for these women, most of which does not survive except in diary fragments. Dunbar-Nelson's diary reveals her prominent place in an active network of African-American lesbians.

Claude McKay

In Home to Harlem (1927), Jamaican-born Claude McKay (1899-1948) openly discusses Harlem's black experience with lesbianism and even has a significant black gay male character. Following Wayne F. Cooper's fine biography of McKay (which discusses honestly the writer's homosexuality), scholars are beginning to make connections between the writer's sexuality and his writing.

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