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Queer Stories Deserve Celebration: Tribute To The Harlem Renaissance

Black stories are honored more now than ever, but a particular kind of anti-Blackness now stifles how we come in contact with queer literature and history.

By A.D. Boynton, II

I am a Black, queer millennial academic who teaches writing and literature, and I’m always interested in what students have or haven’t read by the time they get to my college-level composition class. Something has remained consistent in my time teaching: many of my students have heard of Mark Twain, but not Zora Neale Hurston. They’ve heard of Carson McCullers, but not Countee Cullen. They’ve heard of Stephen King, but not Nella Larsen. This is not a coincidence by any means.

Canons are created when writers and their works receive a particular amount of critical acclaim and when teachers include them prominently in syllabi and mostly only teach their work, especially in high school and college settings. We see that writers at the margins are too often dismissed from areas of study and popular discourse while white male authors, even if their writing is mediocre or worse, receive accolades, awards, and become the voices that loudly take up space in our consciousness.

Toni Morrison in 1994 wrote that anti-Blackness consumed how canons are conceived. She said that African American literature was considered to either be inferior to white literature, needed to be more “universal” to measure up to white literature, or nonexistent altogether. We are at a point in time where Black authors are honored more now than they have been in the past, but a particular kind of anti-Blackness now stifles how we come in contact with queer literature and history.

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The violence of this is that queer folks get left out of curriculums, and then subsequently left out of political discussions that immediately affect our livelihoods. This is important as schools across the country are considering legislating LGBTQ+ history courses. A constant rebuttal to this I’ve seen on social media has been, “A lot of schools don’t even teach Black history, why are they trying to teach that?” This is inherently anti-Black, and assumes that queer history can’t be Black history; that Black history can’t and shouldn’t be queer.

Also called the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance is an exceptional literary period where there is a flourishing of Black art across the country. With Harlem as their epicenter, Black authors like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes, George Schuyler, and more began to build a politic toward an African American art form, especially in poetry, novel writing, and even in music and dramatic art. It is also a literary period in which queerness is underrecognized. This might be residue from a goal of African American literature to “represent the race,” especially during the Civil Rights Movement. This often meant that queer storylines, and writers’ queerness, were erased. 

As we enter the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance, we have to recognize how queerness defines the movement just as much as Blackness. To queer the canon, that set of foundational texts to a discipline of study, means to interrogate who gets critical acclaim, why they’ve received it, understand who has been left out, bring them in, and reframe how we center sexuality, desire, and queerness. This is more than mentioning the fact that these authors are queer, that they are gay, or bisexual, or lesbian, etc. Simply saying queer folks existed in the past, while valuable, is the historical bare minimum. 

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We must shift to naming how Harlem Renaissance artists were creating art that subverted ideas about Black sexuality and gender. This is about recognizing the wholeness of the legacy of these artists. That queer folks lived whole lives and had a say in how they would be represented through storytelling. Angela Davis, in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, has written about the radically queer storytelling through music of blueswomen Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. The blues singers used their music to narrate experiences about same-sex desire, crossdressing, and sex work. 

Again, this is about much more than acknowledging these authors are queer. We must be able to articulate how their queerness, covertly or not, alters our readings of their work and provide a representation of queer experiences. An example that readily comes to mind is Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Passing. Its protagonist is Irene who can pass for white and reunites with a long-lost friend, Clare Kennedy, who also passes as a white woman. The tension between the two is often thought of as connected to their racial politics. Irene is a “race woman,” she chooses to not pass, has a black husband, and is a member of social justice organizations like the “Negro Welfare League.” What if the tension between them, and the possible murder of Clare by Irene, is actually homoerotic tension? Black feminist critic Deborah McDowell writes that Larsen “flirt[s], if only by suggestion, with the idea of a lesbian relationship between them.” That Irene pushed Clare from the balcony at the end of the novel to reject her queer desires and release herself from Clare’s “arresting eyes” and “mesmeric” beauty. The novel is as much about the performance of straight passing of these two women as it is racial passing. 

Nella Larsen’s novel is one of several examples out of this time. Richard Bruce Nugent was one of the only out gay male writers of Harlem, and this fact might’ve cost him the fame given to writers like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. Nugent was the co-editor for the collection Fire!! (1926), along with closeted writer Wallace Thurman, where he published his signature short story “Smoke, Lillies, and Jade” whose protagonist proudly proclaims, “You see, I am a homosexual. I have never been in what they call ‘the closet.’” This moment is the first time a character in African American literature comes out as gay. 

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Countee Cullen is another, though more complicated, figure. He came out through a letter sent to his then-wife Yolande Du Bois, daughter of the famous W.E.B. Du Bois, telling her of his love of men. Cullen’s poetry is a site of queer love. A number of his poems are written to Harold Jackman, the best man of his wedding, a soul mate he couldn’t marry. It is time to honor these writers’ lives and work.

Many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance are now known in literary circles, but as we approach the 100th anniversary of the publication dates of works by queer Black authors like Color by Countee Cullen (1925), The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925) edited by Alain Locke, and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) approaching it is imperative that we celebrate and love this history, the Blackness of it, the queerness of it, in its fullness. To do anything different would be consistent with the violence of cisheteropatriarchy. We should not miss this opportunity to love queer folks and our art more wholly. 
Queer stories deserve celebration. And as we see the visibility of queer media increase in our time, through Pose, the inclusion of queer characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the expanding fame of folk like Janelle Monáe, Lena Waithe, and Billy Porter, it will be valuable to reach back and recognize the forebears who made this visibility possible.

A.D. Boynton, II is a Southern scholar-blerd based in Lawrence, KS and a doctoral student in English at the University of Kansas. Boynton is a cultural critic and creative writer who writes (and writes about) the future, popular culture, queerness, and blackness. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @ADBoyntonII.

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