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social sciences

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African Americans  
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The Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance

Like hundreds of thousands of other African Americans, black people in the rural South who were attracted to others of the same sex and/or who led lives migrated to northern cities in the early twentieth century, hoping to escape racial persecution and to find a better livelihood. They also took part in the Great Migration because large urban areas afforded the opportunity to meet and socialize relatively anonymously with many other glbtq people. By the 1920s, black glbtq communities had developed in a number of northern and mid-Atlantic cities.

Harlem became the center of both black and black glbtq culture. The 1920s witnessed a boom in the number of literary and artistic works produced by African Americans, particularly by the younger generation of African Americans who had migrated to Harlem.

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Many of the leading figures of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance were glbtq, including writers Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Angelina Weld Grimké, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and possibly Langston Hughes; blues singers Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and Gladys Bentley; and patrons Alain Locke and A'Lelia Walker.

Many historians have considered how a renewed sense of race consciousness contributed to the development of the Harlem Renaissance, but less discussed is the significance for many of the writers and artists of being glbtq and being involved in the flourishing black glbtq culture. Whether including glbtq characters in their fiction and poetry, describing Harlem's glbtq nightlife, or singing about their attraction to others of the same sex, their work was firmly rooted in being both African American and glbtq.

The Growth of Black Glbtq Cultures

The Depression largely ended the Renaissance and slowed the northern migration of African Americans, but black glbtq communities did not disappear. On the contrary, Harlem's drag balls became more popular and more explicitly gay during the 1930s, as New York City was swept up in a "pansy craze."

Drag balls in Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, and other major cities also attracted large crowds and significant public attention from the 1930s through the 1950s, with mostly favorable coverage in black newspapers and, toward the end of the period, in the new black magazines Ebony and Jet.

Despite the visibility of drag events, glbtq African Americans socialized primarily in private homes rather than in bars, clubs, and restaurants in the early and mid-twentieth century. This preference was in part a response to being excluded from most public institutions outside of black neighborhoods because of legalized segregation in the South and the prevalence of racism in the North.

But the practice also reflected the longstanding black community tradition of holding rent parties. A small cover charge would enable attendees to drink cheap liquor, eat homemade food, dance, and socialize openly without fearing police harassment or their sexuality being revealed to family members and co-workers. Even when more bars began to cater to black glbtq people in the 1940s and 1950s, African Americans who were in the life continued to frequent private house parties.

The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements

Many glbtq African Americans participated in the civil rights movement, but they usually could not be open about their sexual and gender identities.

The best known example of this phenomenon is Bayard Rustin. He organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the crucial events of the movement, and served as a principal advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., teaching him about protest tactics and non-violent forms of resistance. Because Rustin was known to be gay, he was often forced to work behind the scenes and did not receive significant credit at the time for his critical role in the civil rights struggle.

James Baldwin, in contrast, was widely recognized for his involvement in the civil rights movement. His writing, particularly The Fire Next Time (1963), provided a scathing critique of the effects of racism on both blacks and whites and served as a call to action to prevent a racial apocalypse. But Eldridge Cleaver and other male leaders of the Black Power movement dismissed Baldwin, arguing that by engaging in same-sex sexual relationships, he had been emasculated and corrupted by whites.

Not all Black Power advocates, however, equated black male militancy with and misogyny. Huey Newton, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party, issued a statement in 1970 calling for members of the party to form coalitions with the gay liberation and women's liberation movements, based on shared experiences of oppression and common revolutionary goals. A number of glbtq activists subsequently attended the Black Panther's Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention.

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