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The Harlem Renaissance  
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Yet, as is the case with many of the renaissance writers, McKay's homosexuality as an influence on his creativity must be traced by reading between the lines. Some poems seem to be perfect candidates for such readings, among them "Bennie's Departure," "To Inspector W. E. Clark," "Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table," "The Barrier," "Courage," "Adolescence," "Home Thoughts," and "On Broadway."

Other poems, such as "Desolate" and "Absence," can easily be given gay readings, inasmuch as gays often write on the themes of isolation, dreams deferred, unrequited or secret love, and alienation.

Wallace Thurman

The short life of Wallace Thurman (1902-1934) gave to the African-American gay and lesbian tradition two novels--The Blacker the Berry (1929) and Infants of the Spring (1932)--which are unmatched as clear and honest depictions of black gay and lesbian life.

Richard Bruce Nugent

The long life of Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1989) produced very few literary monuments, but like Thurman, Nugent had a penchant for shocking readers and producing works with a decidedly foreign and provocative voice. Locke included Nugent's gay story "Sahdji" in The New Negro and encouraged the young writer to work at narrative.

In 1926, the one and only issue of Fire!! (a quarterly "Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists"), carried Nugent's more developed homosexual story "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade"--now praised as the first published African-American gay short story. The story is the fictionalization of an evening Nugent spent walking and talking with Langston Hughes.

The story is a major achievement in gay literary history because it can be read as a defense of homosexuality while it also poignantly thematizes male-male love as beautifully natural and wholesome.

Even in his later years, Nugent continued to write openly about the gay experience: In 1970, Crisis published a Christmas story, "Beyond Where the Star Stood Still," in which Herod's offers a remarkable gift to the infant Jesus. Again, Nugent--embracing the mushrooming Gay Rights movement--aimed at forcing the safe African-American world, shaped largely by the fundamentalist church, to face the reality of a black gay presence.

Subverting the Mainstream Power Establishments

Although Harlem was awash with gay literary production during the renaissance, it would be overstating reality to say that there was a deliberate gay movement afoot. Homosexuality might have found toleration in the privacy of speakeasies and salon parties, but the boardrooms at major publishing companies were far less inviting.

Couple that fact with the conservatism that underlined the very notion of a "Talented Tenth," and it is easy to conclude that any gay literary production (with the clear exception of Thurman and Nugent, who were severely criticized) would have to subvert, in rather creative ways, the mainstream white and black power establishments.

Recurring Themes, Issues, and Ideas

The recurring themes, issues, and ideas in the gay and lesbian writing of the period underscore the endurance of those writers who strove to express their gay selves.

A recurrent motif in the writings of the period is the presence of a forbidden, unnamed, and genderless love. Also common is the use of nature to express the budding forth of an unquestionable though unutterable beauty that is often unappreciated and wasted. Most writers stutter through expressions of a kind of passion so noble yet so unattainable that it must be enacted secretively or abandoned.

Because sexuality is inextricably wound up in the very experience of being human, it often shares turf with deep religious experience or political conviction. Cullen's "The Black Christ," for example, is on the surface a narrative poem of salvation. Yet the poet weaves the salvation experience neatly into the somewhat veiled story of Jim's questionable sexuality.

The of the poem pictures the lynched black boy as a beauty of nature who is raped and sacrificed because he goes unappreciated. Ironically, he is falsely accused and killed for attempting to rape a beautiful white girl whom he understands as the embodiment of Spring. The poem, like many of the period, can be read on a deeper, less apparent level as a diatribe against sexual repression.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme among gay writers of the period is that of the unrealized or displaced dream. One cannot read Grimké, Hughes, McKay, or Cullen without confronting the unachievable, unnamed, and haunting dream.

From the most closeted to the most liberated, the writers of the gay Harlem Renaissance form an unquestionable tradition through which contemporary gay and lesbian readers can see the depth and range of experiences that, in many cases, mirror theirs. If these mirrored images have the power to transform and liberate, perhaps the new renaissance currently underway by African-American gay and lesbian writers will produce a literature that represents more realized and fulfilling dreams.

Alden Reimonenq

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literature >> Overview:  African-American Literature: Gay Male

The African-American gay male literary tradition consists of a substantial body of texts and includes some of the most gifted writers of the twentieth century.

literature >> Overview:  African-American Literature: Lesbian

Most African-American lesbian literature is as concerned with racism as it is with sexuality, causing many writers to construct Afrocentric sexual identities that affirm the power of black women.

social sciences >> Overview:  African Americans

Glbtq African Americans frequently experience racism in predominantly white glbtq communities and homophobia in heterosexual black society, but the multiple oppressions faced by black glbtq people are now being recognized.

arts >> Overview:  Blues Music

Blues music as it flourished in the 1920s was women's music, and it often featured sexually-inflected lyrics performed by women who were openly bisexual or lesbian.

social sciences >> Overview:  New York City

Off and on over two centuries, New York City has also reigned as the capital of homosexual, transgender, and queer life in America.

arts >> Bentley, Gladys

African-American Blues singer Gladys Bentley openly flaunted her lesbianism in the 1920s and 1930s, but recanted in the 1950s in an attempt to salvage her career.

literature >> Carpenter, Edward

Edward Carpenter, a champion of both women's and homosexuals' liberation, was one of the great socialist visionaries of England at the turn of the twentieth century.

arts >> Carter, Nell

A dynamic performer on stage, television, film, and record, Nell Carter built a successful and versatile show business career; only after her death was her longtime relationship with a woman revealed to the public.

literature >> Cullen, Countee

Countee Cullen, an important member of the Harlem Renaissance, has coded references to homosexuality in much of his poetry.

arts >> Delaney, Beauford

The pressures of being black and gay in a racist and homophobic society may have ultimately robbed renowned American painter Beauford Delaney of his sanity.

literature >> Grimké, Angelina Weld

A noted African-American writer from the 1900s through the 1920s, Angelina Weld Grimké fell into obscurity in the 1930s and was only rediscovered in the 1980s; her inability to act on her sexual desires inspired her writing and contributed to her ultimately abandoning it.

literature >> Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes, whose literary legacy is enormous and varied, was closeted, but homosexuality was an important influence on his literary imagination, and many of his poems may be read as gay texts.

arts >> Hunter, Alberta

Blues singer, lyricist, and actress Alberta Hunter, one of the top recording artists in the 1920s and 1930s, experienced a dramatic comeback in her old age.

literature >> Larsen, Nella

Constrained by the social conventions of the time, the bisexual African-American novelist Nella Larsen was covert in her treatment of lesbianism.

arts >> The Legacy Walk (Chicago)

The Legacy Walk in Chicago is an outdoor history museum that reclaims and celebrates glbtq contributions to world history and culture.

literature >> Locke, Alain

As midwife to the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke played a crucial role in the development of African-American literature; his homosexuality informed his plea for respect of sexual and cultural diversity.

literature >> McKay, Claude

Jamaican-born bisexual African-American poet, novelist, and essayist Claude McKay made compelling contributions to the development of the Harlem Renaissance; in his works, he put forward a revolutionary agenda of racial, class, and sexual liberation.

arts >> Rainey, Gertrude ("Ma")

"Mother of the Blues" Gertrude "Ma" Rainey made no secret of her relationships with women.

arts >> Smith, Bessie

Gifted with a powerful voice and sophisticated musical artistry, singer Bessie Smith conducted her life by her own set of rules and had affairs with both men and women.

literature >> Van Vechten, Carl

The gay novelist, critic, and photographer Carl Van Vechten was especially interested in African-American culture and was an influential patron to many writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

social sciences >> Walker, A'Lelia

Hostess A'Lelia Walker, the "joy goddess" of the Harlem Renaissance, especially valued the company of black glbtq artists and writers, which gave her gatherings a distinctly gay ambience.


Anderson, Jervis. This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.

Avi-Ram, Amitai F. "The Unreadable Black Body: 'Conventional' Poetic Form in the Harlem Renaissance." Genders 7 (1990): 32-45.

Baker, Houston A. Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

_____. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Bontemps, Arna, ed. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1972.

Chapman, Abraham. "The Harlem Renaissance in Literary History." College Language Association 2 (September 1967): 38-58.

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance, A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Gloria T. Hull, ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.

Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Garber, Eric. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. New York: New American Library, 1989. 318-331.

Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1945.

Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Kramer, Victor A., ed. The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined. New York: AMS, 1987.

Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: 1902-1941, I Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

_____. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II: 1941-1967, I Dream a World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Reimonenq, Alden. "Countee Cullen's Uranian 'Soul Windows.'" The Journal of Homosexuality 26:2-3 (Fall 1993): 143-165.

Singh, Amritjit, S. William Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin, eds. The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations. New York: Garland, 1989.

Story, Ralph D. "Patronage and the Harlem Renaissance: You Get What You Pay For." College Language Association Journal 32.3 (1989): 284-295.

Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States. Trans. Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.


    Citation Information
    Author: Reimonenq, Alden  
    Entry Title: The Harlem Renaissance  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 23, 2012  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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