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Considering Our Ancestors
Black gay Writers from the Harlem Renaissance
by D. Kevin McNeir

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'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.'

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