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The Harlem Renaissance  
 
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The Harlem Renaissance, an African-American literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s, included several important gay and lesbian writers.

In African-American literary history, the 1920s and 1930s have been variously labeled the Jazz Age, the era of the New Negro, and most commonly the Harlem Renaissance. Scholars debate the beginning and ending of the period; others question whether a "renaissance" occurred at all.

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Although most commentators agree that this period saw an unparalleled outpouring of artistic achievement and claim that this "movement" was successful in creating foundational steps in the long African-American arts tradition, still others hold that the renaissance was a failure.

In recent years, the reading public has welcomed the recuperated literary reputations of many Harlem Renaissance figures as their works have been republished, researched, and studied.

The Black Feminist movement has been a major force in validating and cementing canonical spaces for Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Angelina Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and others. Black feminist scholars have also been forthright in foregrounding the sexualities of these women as a prominent feature of their creative energies.

For example, Gloria T. Hull has written honestly and intelligently of black lesbianism as critical to understanding the works of Grimké and Dunbar-Nelson. Studies of the male artists of the period, however, have, so far, only flirted with issues of sexuality in general and have ignored, denied, or dismissed homosexuality as an artistic influence.

It is indeed surprising that discussions of the Harlem Renaissance have not involved in-depth investigations of homosexuality when, in fact, the major male figures of the period were gay or bisexual: Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and even the famous white sponsor Carl Van Vechten.

With the burgeoning interest in gay studies, however, scholars are beginning to research the lives and works of these artists in order to evaluate the ways in which homosexuality functioned as a liberating and constricting force.

Homosexuality and the Writers of the Harlem Renaissance

Eric Garber's study creates a picturesque montage of Harlem gay life during this period when many African Americans tolerated, indulged in, and even celebrated homosexuality. Garber's is a cinematic look at gay life, art, and culture that pauses here and there to capture the details of the night club scene, art work, personalities, and so on.

Painting Harlem as a gay liberated capital, Garber shows how homosexuality, among intellectuals especially, was accepted as a personal matter that did not interfere with the larger, more important work in racial and cultural advancement. Gays were oppressed during the period, but a thriving black gay subculture ensured that open secrets were kept.

Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, "Moms" Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley, and other lesbian or bisexual women found employment in show business, and many sang the blues about gay lives and loves.

Drag balls, commonplace during the period, were called "spectacles of color" by Langston Hughes in The Big Sea (1945); such balls were frequented often by the Harlem bohemians who wrote candidly about them in their correspondence.

Speakeasies and buffet flats (rental units notorious for cafeteria-style opportunities for a variety of sex) were spaces in which gays were granted generous liberation. Wallace Thurman, in Infants of the Spring (1932), gives a realistic rendering of the buffet flat that he, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent shared from time to time.

This artistic community was a complex one with an intricate network of members that cut across all sectors of the art world. At a time when New York still had laws banning homosexuality and when baths and gay bars were raided frequently, it is noteworthy that the Harlem Renaissance was moved along, in great measure, by gay men and women who led amazing double lives.

The Function of the Closet

The function of the closet during this period is complex. Although the closet has typically been seen as oppressive, many of these gay artists subverted the stultifying power of the closet by forming an artistic coalition grounded in secrecy and loyalty. Thus, the closet was reconstructed to form a protective shield against discrimination from publishers, patrons, and the media. The closet enabled many writers to blend into the mainstream and to publish without the fear of exposure.

The Influence of Alain Locke

Alain Locke (1886-1954), who has been credited with ushering in the New Negro movement, has been justly criticized for advancing the careers of young black males to the obvious neglect of such writers as Grimké, Dunbar-Nelson, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Locke, a Harvard Ph.D. and professor at Howard University, promoted the careers of Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.

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Eight important glbtq contributors to the Harlem Renaissance:
Row 1: (left to right) Countee Cullen and Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Row 2: Angelina Weld Grimké and Langston Hughes
Row 3: Alain Locke and Claude McKay
Row 4: Wallace Thurman and Carl Van Vechten

  
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