Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2019-10-02
DOWNLOAD ISSUE
About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage

Sponsor
Sponsor
Sponsor

  BLACKLINES

Considering Our Ancestors
Black gay Writers from the Harlem Renaissance
by D. Kevin McNeir
2003-04-01

facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


'Know yourself, know your enemy; a hundred battles, a hundred victories.' — Mao Tse-tung

'I think the trick is to say yes to life.' — James Baldwin

When traveling back in time and reviewing the rich history of African Americans, one is always amazed by the courage of our ancestors in the daily challenge of survival. Whether we are dark as coal or 'light-bright-damn-near-white,' the law of the land ascribes that with one drop of Black blood, we are not only Black, but also 'sentenced' to a life of second-class citizenship.

Add to this formula, the realization and the acceptance that you are attracted to those of the same sex and desire a full relationship, the struggle to maintain one's dignity and self-esteem becomes even more difficult. Because while our parents, preachers and other well-doers may wish if not pray that our lot might be different, GLBT Black men and women face the inevitable fact that they can never be unaware of being Black or gay.

Today when we examine the canon of literature that has been termed the Harlem Renaissance, we are often presented with readings that deal with race and self-affirmation. But we are misled and unjustly educated if we do not read and analyze more obscure texts whose topics may be less palatable to those who occupy the center.

That is because in truth, authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, in choosing the themes and topics of their work, had at least two fronts to consider. First, they were driven to tackle the racial inequalities of their day—when lynching would reach an all-time high. We realize that this problem of race had not been resolved—it continues into this new millennium.

But they were also compelled, through their poems, short stories, novels and essays, to confront their own inner demons often fueled by the fear of being identified as gay and the hope that they would one day be able to live their lives as they desired without being ostracized by their own race and community.

Those history books, with which most of us are familiar, present the Harlem Renaissance as if it were an idyllic period in Black American history. But that is not the whole story.

A Renaissance in Harlem

The artistic renaissance in Harlem is said to have begun sometime after the start of Prohibition in 1920 and to have ended after America was plunged into economic chaos following the 1929 stock market crash. But Harlem's 'renaissance' or revival probably began much earlier and lasted much longer than previous historians have indicated.

There were many landmark events that occurred in the 20th century that indicated that Harlem was indeed a mecca for African Americans of the time. This article focuses on the literary achievements made by Blacks who gathered and lived in Harlem. But it is important to note that this renaissance was made possible by many factors, not just in the close-knit circle of Black intellectuals usually given credit, but including a series of unrelated events that occurred across America.

For example, when the all-Black 369th Army Regiment returned to New York after World War I, it marched uptown to Harlem on Feb. 19, 1919. Also in that same month, W.E.B. DuBois, the first Black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, organized the first Pan African Congress in New York.

In addition, due to social conditions throughout the country, large numbers of Black people left their rural homes in the South in search of better lives. Many headed to New York, in efforts to escape the aftermath of race riots over segregation, employment discrimination and equal rights issues that broke out in several cities, most notably Washington, D.C., Charleston, S.C., Chicago, Knoxville, and Omaha, between June and September of 1919.

Finally, a smaller but equally important phenomenon was also happening during this same time—there was a prolific expression of Black creativity. Writer Angelina Weld Grimke's Rachel, ( performed in 1916 ) , was published in 1920—an anti-lynching play credited as the first successful drama written by an African American interpreted by African-American actors.

There were other landmarks all occurring in 1920: Claude McKay published his novel Spring in New Hampshire, W.E.B. DuBois published his book Darkwater, playwright Eugene O'Neill's Black drama, The Emperor Jones, opened at the Provincetown Playhouse starring a Black actor, Charles Gilpin. And a year later, performers Josephine Baker and Florence Mills would appear in Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along, the first African-American musical revue written and performed by Blacks.

Black and white patrons would begin to flock to many uptown venues, particularly The Cotton Club, a supper club that opened in 1923, attracting the best in musical entertainment.

And a Jamaican immigrant and eventual Harlem real estate magnate, Marcus Garvey, would introduce his self-help movement and inspire a back-to-Africa movement.

Harlem was magical and transforming, especially for the disenfranchised who moved to New York with hopes of better lives and greater opportunities. But there remains in the annals of history, the tendency by historians and readers alike, to romanticize the Harlem Renaissance.

Some ignore the fact that the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, while founded in the 1860s, would reach its zenith during the 1920s, as would the number of lynchings.

Segregation was still the law of the land and the notion of separate but equal remained nothing more than an illusion. Even for those who would gain national and international acclaim as writers, musicians, dancers, etc., the gay and sparkling life of the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s was not as gay and sparkling beneath the surface.

Gay writers face the challenge to enlighten and transform

Several recently published books highlight the fact that many of the more celebrated authors of the Harlem Renaissance were either gay or bisexual. And while one's sexual preference does not necessarily influence the kinds of subjects one might broach, the background of a writer is significant if we are to understand the full breadth of their life and writings.

In Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African American Fiction ( Cleis Press, 2002 ) , the editors identify six authors from the period who, as DuBois stated in a 1926 essay, 'We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our own individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.'

These authors included Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimke, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent and Countee Cullen.

Nugent's Smoke, Lilies and Jade ( 1926 ) has been reported as the first-known overtly homosexual work published by an African American. According to the editors [ Black Like Us ] , 'same-sex desire, if not thrust into the open, was at least showcased as a controversial theme for black writers to address explicitly.'

However, Nugent remained, for the most part, a minority within a minority. That is, he chose to openly address homosexuality in his work and was willing to affirm his own sexual preference for men. In comparison, while Grimke, a lesbian, and Dunbar-Nelson, bisexual, had been publishing politically engaging work since the late 19th and early 20th century, their work appeared to be unconcerned with homosexuality. That work of theirs that did focus on sexual orientation remained unpublished until recent years.

Today Black GLBT writers assert that the origins of their work can be traced to the six authors mentioned above. But, other than Nugent, none of these authors would identify their own sexual orientation. Homosexuality, even in the sexually permissive Harlem Renaissance, still had an 'outlaw status' that few Blacks embraced. Writers like Hughes, Thurman and Claude McKay, took great care to conceal their sexuality from the overwhelmingly disapproving public eye, often assuming acceptable covers—as in the case of Cullen and Thurman, who both married.

Hughes remains the most noted and read of all of the writers from the Harlem Renaissance. He burst on the scene with a poetry collection ( The Weary Blues, 1926 ) that includes one of his more popular pieces, 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers.' He would later employ more risqué themes in his poetry while addressing themes of social and economic concerns faced by working-class Blacks.

Many of his contemporaries believed Hughes to be 'asexual,' but the publishing of his work, by white gay music critic Carl Van Vechten, his confession in 1926 of a sexual encounter with a sailor and careful readings of his later work all suggest a homosexual—even if Hughes was not himself gay, or would not identify himself as such.

Actions like Cullens,' who traveled to France two months after his first wedding without his wife but with his friend Harold Jackman, to whom he dedicated his poem 'Heritage,' have led his biographers to assert that he was probably bisexual.

Dunbar-Nelson, who married three times, the first to fellow poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, was also involved in passionate relationships with women throughout the 1920s, as recorded in her diary, Give Us Each Day. But unlike Grimke, whose family was relatively well-off, most women writers found it difficult if not impossible to secure the assistance of financial patrons so they could concentrate on their work, the way many of the male writers did.

They Keep Coming

In an often-quoted conversation, a journalist once remarked to James Baldwin, 'When you were starting out as a writer you were black, impoverished, homosexual. You must have said to yourself, 'Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?''

'No,' the novelist replied. 'I felt I'd hit the jackpot.'

But would today's Black GLBT community make such a statement?

At the least we have survived the journey from invisibility to ubiquity, from shame to self-respect and from the tragedy of HIV/AIDS to the triumph of a resourceful, supportive and loving community.

But the battle, as most realize, is far from over.

Gay teens continue to commit suicide at alarming rates, unable or unwilling to face their own sexual desires nor to share them with their families. Some writers still fear tackling issues of sexuality but instead focus on the generations-old problem of race, believing that their work will be more readily accepted.

But our Harlem Renaissance ancestors have given us a blueprint for intellectual and literary excellence. And we have seen examples of courage and dignity as each dealt in his or her own way with their own sexual orientation. However, if we want the full picture, we can no longer allow the canon of Black literature to be sanitized, leaving to languish those works that might lead one to a more gender-balanced view of this period of awakening.

These texts from the Harlem Renaissance, whether male- or female-authored, can only help current audiences understand the problems of sexism, homophobism and racism as they existed in the early portions of the last century. And because each problem still plagues our world, often dividing our communities and destroying the lives and reputations of people, perhaps we can learn and improve the world for future generations if we allow their texts to inspire us, moving us away from silence and against all odds to a time and place where the world sees that 'we are more alike than unalike.'


facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email





Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


  ARTICLES YOU MIGHT LIKE

Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH Authors and activism: A history of LGBT bookstores 2019-10-02 - "It was unbelievably fun," Ed Hermance said about his time operating Giovanni's Room, one of the first queer bookstores in the world. "You ...


Gay News

BOOKS Former NFL player talks football, politics and Madonna 2019-09-18 - Ryan O'Callaghan made headlines two years ago when the former NFL defensive tackle came out as gay, making him one of the league's ...


Gay News

Banned Books Week on Sept. 22-28 2019-09-02 - Libraries, bookstores and schools place a national spotlight on the freedom to read during Banned Books Week, Sept. 22-28—a time when the American ...


Gay News

MOMBIAN Pushing for inclusivity in children's books, one publisher shows how 2019-08-21 - Orca Book Publishers of British Columbia, Canada, is an independent publisher with the goal of offering "reading material that represents the diversity of ...


Gay News

Artemis Singers to join Women & Children First Bookstore Block Party 2019-08-05 - CHICAGO─Artemis Singers, www.artemissingers.org, Chicago's lesbian feminist chorus, will perform songs from 2 p.m. - 2:30 p.m., Saturday, August 24, 2019 at Women & ...


Gay News

NATIONAL Court briefs, flag burned, Amazon books removed 2019-07-10 - The Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ), Lambda Legal, Out & Equal, Out Leadership and Freedom for All Americans announced that 206 major ...


Gay News

BOOKS Tan about town, 'Queer Eye' guru pens new memoir 2019-06-26 - The title of Tan France's new memoir, Naturally Tan, refers to the Queer Eye star's aim for authenticity—a mindset that once eluded the ...


Gay News

BOOKS 'In the City' author talks storytelling, Stonewall 2019-06-26 - Taylor Saracen always had a passion for storytelling. Her parents warned her writing was not a lucrative profession so instead she chose teaching, ...


Gay News

BOOKS Assisted-reproduction book's author hopes to help LGBTQ parents 2019-06-26 - Kim Bergman has helped bring more than 1,700 babies into the world throughout her 30 years working in the assisted-reproduction field. She and ...


Gay News

BOOKS ON STONEWALL Indecent Advances, The Stonewall Riots, Out in Time 2019-06-18 - Indecent Advances By James Polchin $26; Counterpoint Press; 256 pages The Stonewall Riots Edited by Marc Stein $35; New York University ...


 



Copyright © 2019 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.

 

 

 

TRENDINGBREAKINGPHOTOS

Sponsor
Sponsor
Sponsor
Sponsor


 



About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage


About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Subscriptions      Distribution      Windy City Queercast     
Queercast Archives      Advertising  Rates      Deadlines      Advanced Search     
Press  Releases      Event Photos      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Post an Event      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Blogs      Spotlight  Video     
Classifieds      Real Estate      Place a  Classified     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.