Fire!!: The Hidden Queer History of the Harlem Renaissance
What your teacher didn't tell you during Black History Month.
Welcome back to the final installment of our Black History Month series celebrating the contributions of Black queer communities to art, literature, and intellectual life. And this week, we are going back to the beginning.
The Harlem Renaissance has entered popular consciousness as one of the “safe” topics (like George Washington Carver and his peanuts or Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers) that can be trotted out every February by nervous white teachers who need to acknowledge Black History Month but not do anything to upset the white parents. But it is a lot more than that.
The Harlem Renaissance had a profound impact on all of the communities we have discussed this month. Essex Hemphill and other Black gay poets from his circle appeared in Isaac Julien’s controversial documentary Looking For Langston, wrestling with the legacy of America’s most famous Black poet Langston Hughes. Barbara Smith was inspired to start Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in part because Smith had trouble finding Zora Neale Hurston books in print to assign for her classes. Even the ballroom scene initiated by Crystal LaBeija has its roots in the multiracial Harlem drag balls of the 1920s, which were attended by Hughes and other leading lights of the Renaissance.
But from the time the Harlem Renaissance was first officially preserved for posterity in Alain Locke’s famous 1925 anthology The New Negro down through Black History Month units in classrooms today, one important aspect of the Renaissance has been frequently covered up, denied, and/or forgotten: That it was super gay.
Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous figure, was most likely a closeted gay man. As was Alain Locke, editor of the anthology that cemented the movement. Zora Neale Hurston, the Renaissance’s most famous female writer, was extremely circumspect about her personal life but was likely bisexual. Other queer Harlem Renaisance figures include writers Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and Bruce Nugent -- the only one of the group to be out of the closet -- as well as singers such as Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith and comedian Jackie Mabley, who performed an explicitly queer act in the 20s and 30s, decades before reinventing herself as the elderly, plainspoken Moms Mabley who would win fame with white audiences on television in the 50s and 60s.
This week, we will explore the secret and forgotten queer history of the Harlem Renaissance through its two most famous writers, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and its premier chronicler, Alain Locke.
Alain Locke: The New Negro
In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois, the most prominent Black intellectual of the era, published his book The Talented Tenth, popularizing a troubled concept which would, for better or worse, have a profound impact on American conceptions of race for the next century and beyond, even after DuBois himself had abandoned it. The Talented Tenth referred to the approximately 10% of Black men that DuBois, and the white Northern philanthropists then establishing Black colleges and universities throughout the South, thought needed to be cultivated and educated with a classical education in order to become leaders of the race and, through their success and leadership, uplift the entire race of Black Americans.
And though he could not have known it at the time, as DuBois published this book, there was a young man in Philadelphia who had just graduated high school and would go on to become the embodiment of the Talented Tenth. Alain LeRoy Locke was born in 1885 to one of the most prominent free Black families in Pennsylvania. His father was the first Black employee of the U.S. Postal Service and his mother was a teacher. And Alain would go on to become perhaps the most well-educated Black American of his time. He graduated from Harvard in 1907 with degrees in English and philosophy and joined Phi Beta Kappa. He studied at Oxford after becoming the first Black American to win the Rhodes Scholarship. He later studied at the University of Berlin and then returned to Harvard in 1916 to complete his Ph.D, by which time he was already a professor at the historically Black Howard University.
Despite being based at Howard in Washington, Locke traveled frequently to New York and became a well-known presence in the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance, which was just starting to emerge thanks to the Great Migration bringing tens of thousands of Black Americans out of the South and into Harlem, which had become New York’s largest Black neighborhood in the early 1900s. In 1923, a magazine titled The World Tomorrow published a special “Negro” issue which featured the work of two Harlem poets, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Two years later, Survey Graphic magazine dedicated its own special issue to Harlem, and Locke, the most prominent intellectual associated with what was being called the “New Negro Movement,” was tapped by the white publishers of the magazine to edit it. This special issue was then expanded into the book The New Negro, published in 1925, which would introduce the Harlem Renaissance to the world.
The term “New Negro” was in many ways an update of DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” concept. It heralded a new generation of educated Black young people ready to prove themselves to be the equal of whites intellectually and creatively. And for Locke, The New Negro presented an opportunity for that Talented Tenth to speak for themselves and for their race in their own voice:
Whoever wishes to see the Negro in his essential traits, in the full perspective of his achievements and possibilities, must seek the enlightenment of that self-portraiture which the present developments of Negro culture are offering. In this pages, without ignoring either the fact that there are important interactions between the national and the race life, or that the attitude of America toward the Negro is as important a factor as the attitude of the Negro toward America, we have nevertheless concentrated upon self-expression and the forces and motives of self-determination. So far as he is culturally articulate, we shall let the Negro speak for himself.
But the burden of speaking for the race, and of demonstrating Black people’s worth through their accomplishments on the uneven playing field of white culture, not only silenced the putatively “untalented” 90% but put restrictions on the Talented Tenth as well. And Locke’s commitment to what we now know as the politics of Respectability led to several important omissions in The New Negro. There is no sign of the radical politics of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey or the socialst A. Philip Randolph, two of Harlem’s most influential political leaders at the time. And while the bohemian ethos of the Harlem Renaissance created space for queer sexualities and gender identities, The New Negro makes no mention of explicitly queer blues artists like Bessie Smith or of the drag balls written about by Hughes in his essay “Spectacles of Color,” and the openly gay Bruce Nugent is relegated to a single short story, one of his few works that was not explicitly queer.
Locke’s erasure of the queer element of the Harlem Renaissance is especially notable given that he was gay himself. As detailed in Jeffrey C. Stewart’s excellent 2018 biography The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, Locke pursued mostly unrequited romantic relationships with several of the young male poets of the Renaissance, including Hughes and Cullen. His romantic frustrations were a microcosm of the central tension of Locke’s life: he was, in his own words, the “midwife” to the burgeoning new bohemian movement but never able to be fully part of it, as he was part of an older generation whose respectability politics younger writers like Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were challenging.
In Search of Zora Neale Hurston
The tension between Locke’s respectability politics and the sensibilities of the younger Renaissance writers can be seen in Zora Neale Hurston’s contribution to The New Negro, the short story “Spunk.” The story of a powerful man named Spunk Banks who strikes respect and fear in the hearts of everyone in his town, the story displays many of Hurston’s hallmarks. It is set in an all-Black town that strongly resembles Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, which was founded in 1887 as one of the first self-governing all-Black communities in the US. It renders its characters’ dialogue in southern Black dialect, a practice often despised by the respectability politics crowd. It is shot through with frank, earthy sexuality and in its near-mythic portrayal of Spunk’s power and eventual downfall, it showed the influence of the Black folktale tradition which Hurston had been exposed to in Eatonville and which would fascinate her throughout her life.
All of these qualities are on display in the story’s striking opening:
A giant of a brown-skinned man sauntered up the one street of the Village and out into the palmetto thickets with a small pretty woman clinging lovingly to his arm.
“Lookah theah, folkses!” cried Elijah Mosley, slapping his leg gleefully. “Theah they go, big as life an’ brassy as tacks.”
All the loungers in the store tried to walk to the door with an air of nonchalance but with small success.
“Now pee-eople!” Walter Thomas gasped. “Will you look at ‘em!”
Born in 1891, Hurston was forced to work in manual labor for much of her teens and early 20s before being able to enroll as a student at Howard University in 1918, at the age of 27. While at Howard, Hurston first met Alain Locke when she joined the school’s literary society, The Stylus, which he advised. In 1925, Hurston moved to New York when was offered a scholarship to Barnard College at Columbia University, as the college’s sole Black student. At Columbia, Hurston began working with famous anthropologist Franz Boas and developing an anthropological study of the culture of Black Americans, particularly those in Eatonville and similar communities which were largely isolated from the white world. At the same time, Hurston became part of the Harlem Renaissance crowd, befriending Hughes and Cullen. The story “Spunk” ended up in The New Negro after it won second place in a literary contest sponsored by Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League.
In 1927, Hurston left New York and returned to Eatonville to begin her ethnographic research into the folklore of Black Americans. She spent the next five years traveling the South, from Florida to New Orleans, collecting folktales, conjure stories, songs, and voodoo rituals, which she eventually published in her groundbreaking book Mules and Men. She also drew heavily on her folklore research for her novels Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which would become her most famous work.
Though Hurston had been one of the most notable writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s and 30s, by the 40s and 50s, her work fell into obscurity. Her use of dialect, which the anthropologist Hurston saw as authentic representation but many other Black writers and intellectuals saw as conjuring up the racist history of minstrel shows, made her work seem outdated for a new generation of more overtly political Black writers. By the time of her death in 1960, she was largely forgotten and her work was mostly out of print.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, a revival of interest in Hurston would be sparked in the 1970s by writer Alice Walker, who found and placed a headstone on Hurston’s unmarked grave in Florida and wrote a landmark essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Huston,” in Ms. magazine. By the 1990s, Their Eyes Were Watching God would become a classroom staple and her hometown of Eatonville, where there is now a museum, library, and annual literary festival named for her, would help memorialize her legacy.
Hurston was very guarded about her private life, and her decades in obscurity have made details of her life scarce, but there has been widespread speculation about her bisexuality. Valerie Boyd, author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, notes the general acceptance of female bisexuality among the literary artistic set during the Harlem Renaissance. One of the major patrons of the scene was the openly bisexual heiress A’Lelia Walker, daughter of the famed Madam CJ Walker, inventor of the straightening comb and America’s first self-made female millionaire. Walker was known for holding both literary salons and so-called “funny parties” which were basically bisexual orgies. Boyd notes:
Just what role Zora Hurston played in the sexually liberal Harlem of the 1920s remains largely unknowable, particularly from a distance of eight decades. She likely attended A’Lelia Walker’s literary parties on occasion. And with her penchant for adventure, Hurston also might have attended one of Walker’s “funny parties” or even a buffet flat. “Zora would go anywhere--you know, one time at least,” [fellow writer] Arna Bontemps observed.
Looking for Langston
Alain Locke’s infatuation with Langston Hughes, intellectually or otherwise, is on display in The New Negro, where Hughes is represented by 11 poems, more than any other writer. Though only 24 at the time The New Negro was published, Hughes was already one of the most famous writers in the anthology and would become the preeminent writer of the Harlem Renaissance despite, like Locke, not actually living in Harlem at the time.
Born in 1901 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes grew upin towns around the Midwest, bouncing among the custody of his estranged parents and his maternal grandmother. In 1921, he enrolled at Columbia University in New York and had his first, and still most famous, poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” published in The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. But he left Columbia the next year due to racism from students and faculty and traveled for the next several years while working a series of odd jobs, including time in West Africa and Europe, before returning to the US to live with his mother in Washington.
He continued to publish poems in The Crisis and other publications and, the year after the publication of The New Negro, published his first solo poetry collection The Weary Blues. Unlike many of his Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, including longtime frenemy Countee Cullen, Hughes did not try to imitate the forms of classical European poetry but took his inspiration from Black American folk and popular culture, particularly jazz and blues. This can be seen in my favorite Hughes poem, “Jazzonia,” which Locke includes in the section of The New Negro dedicated to Black music:
Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.
Oh, singing tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
Were Eve's eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?
Oh, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!
In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
Hughes’ frustration with the respectability politics of Locke, and with the staid and conservative nature of The New Negro, is what led him and a group of writers, including Hurston, Cullen, Nugent, and others, to launch the literary magazine Fire!! in 1926. The magazine’s first and only issue included Nugent’s explicitly homoerotic short story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” and other works that explored interracial marriage, sex work, and other topics that Locke would have never approved of. Hughes said that the magazine’s name represented their goal “to burn up a lot of the old, dead, conventional Negro-white ideals of the past.”
Fire!! outraged the black bourgeoisie and the white liberal patrons of Black arts and sales were poor and funding scarce, leading to only one issue being published before the enterprise collapsed. Unsold copies of the magazine were, in an extremely dark irony, destroyed in a fire while being stored in a Harlem basement.
As with Hurston, Hughes’ sexuality is the subject of much speculation but little hard fact. While we know Locke pursued him, we do not know, as we do with Cullen, whether it was ever reciprocated or consummated. Many biographers and historians have classified him as gay while others, such as Arnold Rampersand, speculate that he was likely asexual. We do know that Hughes was often considered effeminate by the standards of masculinity at the time, which he explored in the short story “Blessed Assurance.” So regardless of whom he did or did not sleep with, it seems clear he was, in modern parlance, decidedly queer.
The unsettled story of Hughes’ sexuality leads us back once again to Essex Hemphill, who in 1989 appeared in the documentary Looking for Langston, directed by British director Isaac Julien. The film is a meditation on Black gay male identity, in a similar vein to Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, which places Hughes in a tradition of Black gay male writers including James Baldwin, Nugent, and Hemphill.
Hughes’ estate, apparently not wanting him identified as a gay writer, refused to allow Julien to use Hughes’ poetry in the film and sued to have the film censored in the US. During US screenings, the sound had to be turned down during the scenes featuring Hughes’ poetry and the film remains unavailable on video or streaming in the US.
With the end of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, Hughes’ career had a very different fate than that of his old friend Huston’s. He continued writing poetry, novels, plays, and books for children through the 40s, 50s, and 60s. At the time of his death in 1967, he was one of the most well-known poets of any race in America and with the growth of Black History Month in schools and the wider culture throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Hughes would become a Black History Month staple and probably the most widely-read Black writer in American literature.
But reading a Hughes poem, like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers or “Harlem,” in isolation, as I remember doing in my middle school Black History Month units, does a great disservice both to him and the other writers he was in conversation with. There is no such thing as a representative Black writer, just as there is no such thing as representative queer writer or writer from any other group. Communities of any type are dynamic, ever-changing, and often in conflict. That is why I have tried, throughout this series, to focus on communities instead of a few extraordinary individuals and look at how they influenced each other, supported each other, and challenged each other. And in this, I have only been able to scratch the surface. But I hope you take it as an invitation to explore these communities more deeply on your own.
Further Exploration & Announcements
The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance is still in print and available on Amazon. No library of American literature is complete without it.
The definitive biographies of our three primary subjects this week are The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Geoffrey C. Stewart, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd, and Arnold Rampersand’s two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes.
The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project has a curated tour dedicated to the queer figures of the Harlem Renaissance, includes Hughes’ home and the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library.
Check out this excellent interview with design activist and archivist Silas Munro for a look at Fire!! Magazine and other important publications of the Harlem Renaissance.
Last Saturday, I had the privilege of co-hosting the Virtual Arizona Pride Black LGBTQ+ Literature Salon which included readings of several writers we have discussed this month, including Hughes, Essex Hemphill, and Audre Lorde. You can watch it on YouTube.
Next week launches a new series dedicated to celebrating Women’s History Month. I hope you’ll come back to check it out.