Pride in: The Harlem Renaissance, As Queer as it was Black

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In celebration of Pride Month and the Black Lives Matter movement, Roar writers share their recommendations and reflections on black queer culture.

“I think we have enough talent to start a renaissance,” exclaimed WEB Dubois in 1920. The names; Langston Hughes, Claude Mackay, Alain Locke, and Jessie Fauset should therefore be easily comparable to Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, F Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton in the Western artistic and Intellectual canon. They are predictably not, and it is not difficult to conclude that the reason is simply because they were black.

It was no doubt in the interests of racists at the pinnacle of the American Establishment to suppress the cultural achievements of the Harlem Renaissance for decades simply to conceal the artistic and cultural capabilities of black people. The suppression of black culture has led to an overwhelming ignorance of its role in American history. What is even less prominent, as to be almost invisible from the collective American histories, is that several eminent literary, musical and cultural artists identified in some way with one or more Queer identity. Only in 1993 was this history acknowledged in an essay, “The Black Man’s Burden”, by Henry Louis Gates jnr., editor-in-chief of The Root, who noted that the Harlem Renaissance, “was surely as gay as it was black”.

Black Queer artists prominent during the Harlem Renaissance contributed much of the artistic output but are credited with little to no recognition of their queer identities. The suppression of black artistic identities have compounded with a desire to erase their queerness in order to dilute the value of their contributions. To recognise their queerness is a vital part of restoring a more holistic narrative of the American story because without their contribution we remain as ignorant of the Black Queer community today as we were a hundred years ago. Recognising the contribution of black queer artistic and cultural figures of the Harlem Renaissance is a vital part of the re-engineering process of American cultural life.

Blues Music and Jazz were defining characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance and developed in prominence, not least due to white patronage. But it is a little known fact that several of the blues artists of the Harlem Renaissance were women of lesbian or bisexual orientation. Artists included, Bessie Smith, Gladys Bentley, Ethel Walters and the infamous Ma Rainey who was arrested in 1925 for participating in an orgy with multiple women. Rainey was explicit in some of her lyrics proudly declaiming in her 1928 hit ‘Prove It on Me’:

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men”.

Bessie Smith was recruited by Rainey and signed with Columbia Records in 1932. She proved a blues sensation, especially after she appeared in the Cotton Club which only allowed white audiences. She, too, engaged in lesbian affairs. Her marriage to Jack Gee was a deeply unhappy one and so found comfort in an affair with Lillian Simpson. Smith and Rainey’s queer identities were as inextricable from their art as was their blackness.

In the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protestations, the Governing body at Oriel College, Oxford voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes. The Governors said they wanted the college to, “sit more easily with its past”. The legacy of Rhodes in the modern consciousness, however, is chequered. Some claim that his scholarships enabling hundreds to attend Oxford University provides some historical balance. While this is a disputed and controversial balance to strike, the Harlem Renaissance can be credited with emerging from this patronage.

In a recent edition of the New Statesman, Historian Sir Richard Evans noted that, “The scholars had to have Latin and Ancient Greek and nobody thought that black Africans or African Americans could pass this test.” However, Alain Locke was the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1907. He was also homosexual and a founding father of the Harlem Renaissance. His book, “The New Negro: An Interpretation” published in 1925, helped a number of black writers including Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston emerge as established writers. Claude McKay, himself a homosexual, wrote, ‘Home to Harlem’ in 1928, the first novel by a black person to become a bestselling book.

The artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance had found a moment in history wherein they felt able to express themselves. Locke wanted this moment to be the point at which a black person could finally become an accepted member of American Civilisation. Langston Hughes wrote, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful”. This is the spirit and the culture in which Queer identities found a welcome refuge. Harlem in the Jazz Age was an open, tolerant, exciting and vibrant place. Perhaps the most accurate and acutely tragic description of the time comes from Blaire Miles’ 1931 novel ‘Strange Brother’, “I can be myself there…they all know about me, and I don’t have to lie”.

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