Transition 92 - Featured Article 1
Rethinking the gay twenties
I woke up this morning with my business in my hand.
If you can’t bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man.
—Kokomo Arnold, “Sissy Man Blues,” circa 1927
The historian David Levering Lewis once described Alain Locke’s 1925 essay “The New Negro”—arguably the Magna Carta of the Harlem Renaissance—as “seminal.” As it turns out, Locke was more “seminal” than Lewis may have known. There’s a story that has been making the rounds among Locke scholars in recent years. Apparently Dorothy Porter Wesley, the longtime curator of the Locke papers at Howard University, once confided to a friend that she had thrown something of Locke’s away. The friend was shocked, since Wesley was known to be an unusually scrupulous curator; destroying a piece of evidence would be a serious violation of whatever oath curators swear to uphold. Wesley was disinclined to reveal what, precisely, she had tossed, but her friend was persistent, and eventually she confessed. The item in question was Alain Locke’s semen collection.
This is all we have: a rumor that such a collection existed, and was discharged into the dustbin of history. But what kind of collection was it? Were the samples drawn from Locke himself, collected over time as a kind of autobiography—a time-lapse portrait of the great man’s virility? It seems like a redundant enterprise, archiving one’s seed, given that a fresh supply is always near to hand. But perhaps the collection was more diverse, comprising donations from friends, acquaintances, or passersby. If this is the case, then who were the donors? Might Locke’s viscous archive have been—to take just one example—another place to go “looking for Langston”?
Langston Hughes was, after all, of more than literary interest to Locke. If you look Locke up in the index to Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Hughes, you’ll find an entry called, “seduction campaign on L. H.” As Rampersad tells the story, Countee Cullen, the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, had introduced the two men. “Write to him,” Cullen advised Locke, “and arrange to meet him. You will like him; I love him.” When Locke finally put pen to paper, he composed an extraordinary letter written largely in a sort of gay code. He valued “friendship,” he wrote, “which cult I confess is my only religion, and has been ever since my early infatuation with Greek ideals of life...You see, I was caught up early in the coils of classicism.” Knowing Hughes was then living on the West Hassayampa, a ship docked at Jones Point, Locke casually noted that he was a great enthusiast of sailors. Hughes’s response was even more coy: he asked Locke if he liked Walt Whitman and confessed that he himself loved the Calarnus poems Whitman’s poem cycle on the subject of manly attachment. But if Hughes shared Locke’s general interests, he was not, it appears, inclined to Locke’s particulars. Matters never went beyond this exchange of letters, and the failure proved a bitter disappointment for Locke, who had clearly hoped to catch Hughes in the coil of classicism he so artfully dangled in his letter.
Regardless of whether we might have found Hughes in Locke’s private collection, the mere idea of its existence serves as an invitation to see the Harlem Renaissance in a different light. Richard Bruce Nugent, one of the Renaissance’s leading figures, once recalled: “Harlem was very much like the village. People did what they wanted to do with whom they wanted to do it. You didn’t get on the rooftops and shout, ’I fucked my wife last night.’ So why would you get on the roof and say, ’I love prick.’ You didn’t. You just did what you wanted to do.” Harlem may have been “nigger heaven,” but it was also a queer paradise. Buffet flats—illegal after-hours supper clubs housed in private apartments—became the nexus of a new queer world. According to Esquire columnist Helen Lawrenson, the most notorious was Clinton Moore’s, “a dimly lit apartment-club that catered to an epicene coterie (titled male Britons flew there like homing pigeons almost the moment they hit New York) and which boasted a young black entertainer named Joey, who played the piano and sang but whose specialitewas to remove his clothes and extinguish a lighted candle by sitting on it until it disappeared.”
Speakeasies offered another opportunity for queer communion. One eyewitness described the scene at a speakeasy in quaintly understated terms: “Several of the men were dancing among themselves. Two of the women were dancing with one another, going through the motions of copulation. One of the men [invited me to dance]. I declined to dance. I also observed two men who were dancing with one another kiss each other, and one sucked the other’s tongue.” At the opening of a cafe on Seventh Avenue, a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American “saw erotics, neuretics [sic], perverts, inverts and other types of abnormalities, cavorting with wild and Wilde abandon to the patent gratification of the manager and owner. About 2 A.M., five horticultural gents came in ’in drag.’” Richard Bruce Nugent remembers that one dimly lit bar at the corner of 126th Street and Seventh Avenue attracted “rough queers...the kind that fought better than truck drivers and swished better than Mae West.” Drag balls offered the most public form of gay and lesbian spectacle; the 1929 Hamilton Lodge Ball drew three thousand spectators to watch two thousand “fairies” strut their stuff. By this point, everyone in Harlem knew the Hamilton Lodge Ball simply as the “Faggots Ball.” According to one observer, the ball brought together “effeminate men, sissies, ’wolves,’ ’ferries’ [sic],’faggots,’ the third sex, ’ladies of the night,’ and male prostitutes...for a grand jamboree of dancing, love making, display, rivalry, drinking and advertisement.”
In short, Harlem in the twenties was a kind of queer amusement park, both for its inhabitants and for white bohemians from downtown. While various reform groups agitated to “clean up” the Lower East Side, they were willing to look the other way as “vice” took over streets and clubs uptown. As a result, Harlem became a sort of social and sexual laboratory, a place where hothouse flowers were allowed to thrive.
It was in this hothouse that the Harlem Renaissance found its native soil. While avant-garde movements have often encouraged sexual as well as artistic experimentation, it’s tempting to think that Harlem’s may be the queerest avant-garde in history. Indeed, its not hard to hear another meaning in Alain Locke’s claim that his great literary anthology contained “the first fruits of the Negro Renaissance.”
The list of those fruits is still being tallied. Leaving aside tricky questions about criteria for inclusion, a preliminary roll call of queer Harlem would have to include Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Gladys Bentley, Bessie Smith, Angelina Weld Grimke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Richmond Barthe, Augustus Granville Dill, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and, of course, the elusive Langston Hughes. As Cullen, Locke, and innumerable others would discover, Hughes was both the most attractive and the most unavailable of Harlemites. Cloaked in carefully constructed innocence, his sphinxlike sexuality was a riddle for all who came to know him, or tried to. Some, like Dorothy West, the editor of Challenge magazine and author of The Living Is Easy, were driven to desperate declarations. She wrote to Hughes, “I have become so aware of your need of a woman. Let me be that woman:” Hughes declined the offer.
For many of these artists, questions of sexuality were as central to their work as questions of race. Nugent is best known for a scandalous prose-poem called ”Smoke, Lilies, and Jade.” Alex, the story’s protagonist, seduces a man named “Beauty” and the narrative is replete with “dancer’s legs,” “muscular hocks,” “firm white thighs,” and “rounded buttocks.” David Levering Lewis called it “a montage of pederasty and androgyny dissolving into pointillistic soft pornography”; the Baltimore Sun dismissed it as “effeminate tommyrot.” Some of Nugent’s contemporaries took a subtler approach, but many of them hid their secrets in plain sight. Wallace Thurman included gay and lesbian characters in two novels, The Blacker the Berry (1929) and Infants of the Spring (1932); Gladys Bentley, star of the show at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, regularly performed in male drag and once told a reporter that she had married a white woman in Atlantic City; sculptor Richmond Barthe specialized in limber male nudes; and Nella Larsen explored the interlocking pathways of race and sexuality in Passing (1929), a novel that’s as much about passing for straight as it is about passing for white.
* * *
Alongside this flamboyance, there was another queer Harlem, one that cloaked itself in the garments of middle-class respectability. Surely one of it’s foremost citizens was Countee Cullen, the poet whose matchmaking skills were insufficient to bring Hughes and Locke together. The adopted son of the pastor of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, Cullen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University and earned a master’s degree at Harvard. The publication of his first volume of poetry, Color (1925), was heralded as the sign of a new era in African American letters. His verse was formal and steeped in tradition; he managed to combine a modern racial sensibility with Keatsian prosody. Perhaps most important, he eschewed the jazz sounds and subjects that Langston Hughes embraced. For many in Harlem—including W E. B. Du Bois—Cullen was exactly the kind of “New Negro” they’d been waiting for.
Still, troubled waters roiled beneath the perfect surface of Cullen’s verse. His most famous poem, “Heritage,” asks, “What is Africa to me?” It’s usually read as a tortured interior monologue about diaspora and displacement—what Du Bois called “double consciousness.” But read the poem again, and you can also hear the cry of a man anguished by his desires:
All day long and all night through,
One thing only must I do:
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Fearful of the fire that might ignite, Cullen tries to tamp down his hidden ember, to rein in the fact of desire by force of poetic form. Only outside the poem—in the prefatory dedication “for Harold Jackman,” Cullen’s closest friend—does the true nature of that fire begin to reveal itself.
Another poem in Color tackles these issues with equal indirection. In “Sacrament,” Cullen writes of a doomed love:
She gave her body for my meat,
Her soul to be my wine,
And prayed that I be made complete
In sunlight and starshine.
With such abandoned grace she gave
Of all that passion taught her,
She never knew her tidal wave
Cast bread on stagnant water.
Here the female figure plays the role of a sacrificial Christ, trying to save the protagonist through the communion of body and soul. Failing in her mission, however, she becomes an offering on a different altar: where there should be fire, she finds only swamp.
In one of his most suggestive poems, “The Fruit of the Flower,” Cullen evokes his father, “a quiet man / with sober, steady ways.” This was not the majority opinion. David Levering Lewis notes the Reverend Cullen was “rumored to be a menace to choirboys and oddly fond of Mrs. Cullen’s cosmetics.” The final stanza of “Fruit” begs a queer question indeed:
Who plants a seed begets a bud,
Extract of that same root;
Why marvel at the hectic blood
That flushes this wild fruit?
* * *
W E. B. Du Bois had surely read Color, since he was one of Cullen’s most enthusiastic champions. But he must not have read it closely enough, because in 1927 he eagerly accepted Cullen’s offer of marriage to his daughter Yolande.
Nathan Huggins once called the wedding of Countee Cullen and Yolande Du Bois “a parody or travesty of ceremony, no less striking in its mimicry than the pomp-filled parades of Marcus Garvey.” And to be sure, it was nothing if not “pomp-filled.” According to accounts in the Amsterdam News, three thousand people were packed into the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem on April 9, 1928, and “an equally large number were kept outside” by policemen. “Baskets of mixed flowers and cages of canary birds were hung on the balcony railing. At the altar were tall green palms, ferns, calla and Easter lilies, roses and tulips. From the ceiling, and directly over the altar, was a white dove suspended from a cord.” There were plenty of celebrity guests in attendance: Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps numbered among the ushers. But perhaps the most significant guest was Harold Jackman, who served as Cullen’s best man. He was also Cullen’s best euphemism: his “special friend,” “longtime companion,” and “fellow traveler” If the wedding itself symbolized the Harlem Renaissance’s aristocratic self-image, Jackman symbolized the contradictions under the surface.
As proof of Jackman’s antimatrimonial influence, many critics have stated that it was Jackman, not Yolande, who accompanied Cullen on his honeymoon in Paris. It’s an appealing story, but it’s not quite true. Cullen and Yolande Du Bois did in fact honeymoon together, without Jackman—although their itinerary seems a great deal less romantic than Cullen and Jackman’s mythical Parisian idyll. The poet took his bride first to Atlantic City, then to Philadelphia, and finally to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the Du Bois family seat. Unfortunately, even without Jackman’s nefarious influence, the New Negro honeymoon was not, apparently, without problems—Lewis reports that things “had not gone smoothly.” Two months after his wedding, Cullen did indeed travel to Paris, accompanied by his father and by Jackman. They were joined by Yolande a month later.
A more detailed account of their relations emerges in the letters that journeyed across the Atlantic between W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and Yolande Du Bois throughout the fall of 1928. Not all of these letters have survived, but we get our first hint that something is amiss in a letter from Du Bois to his daughter dated September 7, 1928. Apparently responding to Yolande’s dissatisfaction with her life in Paris, he writes, “First of all, remember that life is and must be compromised. We cannot have everything we want, and the sooner the young person realizes this the happier and more well balanced he becomes. The panacea is work.” Du Bois was never shy about offering advice, so he counseled his daughter to “get to work immediately and work hard. First, at drawing. You should study anatomy, the human body and the human face, the laws of perspectus and all that.” This, however, is really Yolande’s second task; her first, according to Du Bois, is that of “helping a great poet to become greater.” As he puts it, rather cruelly:
You should make it easy for Countee to write and keep him regularly at it. You should not distract him or make him spend too much time catering to your entertainment. For once in your life and in your own thought, get out of the center of the picture. Stop thinking of yourself or being sorry for yourself or regarding the world as revolving about you and concentrate on the main job of having Countee Cullen do a year’s work to which the world will listen.
The rest of this letter is a quick dig at Yolande’s financial extravagance. “Think of the assembled beauty about you in Paris,” Du Bois writes, “which you can enjoy for practically nothing.”
Du Bois’s letters to Cullen are consistently more loving and affectionate than the ones he wrote to his daughter. There is, however, a sign of real distress in a letter Du Bois wrote a mere four days after urging Yolande to “get to work.” It begins:
Dear Countee: I am more grieved and overcome than I can say. I had never dreamed of this. I knew Yolande was spoiled and often silly but if I had not thought she respected and loved you I would not thought [sic] of marriage. I knew your honeymoon was trying but I thought it due to weariness and excitement....I still think the main trouble is physical and psychological...a girl has been trained to continence and then suddenly, loved, the universe trembles. Yolande does not know what she wants or loves or hopes for. If perhaps you could just bear with her and try again perhaps, all would yet be well...remember that this inexperienced girl—despite her years—does not really know what she is doing.
His closing is particularly dismissive: “At any rate keep her till Xmas if any way possible and then—God show us all the way.”
A week later, Du Bois admitted to Cullen that this advice was “incoherent and unsatisfactory” and put forth a more pragmatic plan of action. If it is indeed “impossible now for the marriage to continue,” Du Bois suggests that he will send his wife over to stay with Yolande until summer. This step “will keep down unkind gossip and enable the break to come after a decent interval.” Then, as if to remind himself of Cullen’s poetical prowess, Du Bois writes, “I hope and pray that this terrible thing will not slow your work. Your career has been very dear to me from the beginning and I had dreamed fine things from this marriage.” It’s a remarkable passage, because it shows Du Bois’s confusion—or, perhaps, willful perversity—about the nature of his daughter’s marriage. When the father of a bride says he’s hoping for “fine things,” he usually means grandchildren, not poems. Nevertheless, Du Bois concludes with a dispirited hit of sexual advice: “Try again if you can—if you cannot, I shall understand. In any case you have my love and trust and I shall always be your affectionate father.”
A letter of a few weeks later finds Du Bois in a much better mood—he had received word from Countee and Yolande that they were trying to reconcile. Describing himself and his wife as “overjoyed,” Du Bois returns to the subject of feminine sexuality. “A girl,” he writes, “usually has not had her sexual desire localized and is extremely sensitive in her organs. That then which gives her husband pleasure may be exquisite torture physically and mental humiliation for her.” He advises Cullen, “Don’t approach her too often and put her in terror lest every kiss and caress end in sexual commerce.” Looking once again to his son-in-law’s career, he advises, “never over do it—for the sake of your brain work and your wife’s more slowly developed desire, let your intimacies be at intervals—once in 3 or 4 days or once a week or even two weeks.” But this renewed optimism was not to last long: on November 29, 1929, Du Bois wrote his shortest letter on the marriage. “Dear Countee, Won’t you write me right off and tell me the status of the court case? Also the name and address of the lawyer.”
The compromises that Du Bois wanted his daughter to make are disquieting. Du Bois was an eloquent opponent of sexism as well as racism, and yet his advice to Yolande is singularly unsympathetic. Then again, Du Bois asks his son-in-law to make compromises of his own: he must learn to rein in his sexual desire for Yolande, compromise his yearning. He must not “approach her too often,” must “never over do it.” The husband must settle for “intimacies” at “intervals” with his wife—we can only imagine that Cullen did not find this particular enjoinment to be a burden. In short, the poet must somehow become less heterosexual until his bride has learned to become more heterosexual.
Cullen and Du Bois’s strained marriage hadn’t gone unnoticed back home in Harlem. The Amsterdam News of March 6, 1929, featured the headline, “Poet and Wife Live Apart in Paris, But Still Seem Friends.” The accompanying article reported that “the two are said to regard themselves as incompatible and to further complicate matters is a report to the effect that Cullen is in love with a girl on this side of the Atlantic ocean.” Almost a year later, the Amsterdam News proclaimed, “Daughter of Crisis Editor Gets Divorce From Poet Son of Rev. F. A. Cullen.” Agreement had been reached “under the most amicable relations between herself and her husband.” It was also noted, however, that “New York was shocked in March, 1929, when the first hint of a rift in the domestic bliss of the young couple came from the French capital in the form of reports that they were maintaining separate establishments.”
Was New York really shocked? It’s hard to say, though there were doubtless some who knew, or suspected, that Cullen would be a problematic husband. In a letter to Alain Locke dated August 26, 1923—almost five full years before the wedding—Cullen mentioned Yolande as someone who might be “the solution of my problem.” Cullen elaborated on this strategy in another missive to Locke, one month later. “You will recall that in my last letter I spoke of a presentiment of happiness with a certain young lady. All that has come to naught—as yet. And then there are complications—her age and experience above my own, and then that fear which is always at my heels.” Jackman exclaimed to Cullen in January of 1929: “So the inevitable has come about! Well, well, well, I didn’t think it would be so soon really. Of course the Negroes in America have had it out for a long time.” Veering charmingly off course, Jackman then writes that “Everybody is raving about my cigarette case...It is the cats.”
* * *
So, was Yolande the only person on the planet unaware of Cullen’s “problem”? Perhaps not. On May 23, 1929, Yolande Du Bois wrote a letter to her father. After some preliminary small talk, it gets down to business:
About Countee and myself—the reason I haven’t said much is because I hated to....Shortly after our attempt at reconciliation
Countee told me something about himself that just finished things. Other people told me too but I thought & hoped they were lying. If he had not told me himself that it was true I wouldn’t have believed it but since he did I knew then that eventually I’d have to leave him. I never loved him but I had an enormous amount of respect for him. Having lost that—and having an added feeling of horror at the abnormality of it I couldn’t “make it. ”I knew something was wrong—physically, but being very ignorant & inexperienced I couldn’t be sure what. When he confessed that he’s always known that he was abnormal sexually—as far as other men were concerned then many things became clear. At first I felt terribly angry—I felt he’d no right to marry any woman knowing that. Now I feel only sorry for him—all I want is not to have to be anywhere near him. I’ve heard of such things of course but the idea of it being true of anyone close to me gives me a feeling of horror & disgust. I’ve heard gossip but I’ve never known it before about anyone. I haven’t told mama. She doesn’t like Countee much & it’s no use to worry her. Besides, I promised him I would not tell it or use it as a grounds for divorce so you can tear this up. You seemed to be “smelling a rot” so I thought I’d better tell you frankly. Of course, if any of this had reached me before—I’d never have married him. If he was born that way I can’t help it. I’m sorry—but I cannot understand it. I think I prefer my own more natural inclinations. Anyway, that’s that.
Yolande puts forth an excruciating series of deferrals: a “something,” an “it,” a “thing.” W E. B. Du Bois would have been well into the letter before he read Cullen’s second-hand confession that he had “always known that he was abnormal sexually—as far as other men were concerned.”
This is, in some sense, a familiar story. When Yolande heard the truth, “many things became clear.” It is the language of coming out, the rhetoric of revelation, of transfiguring truth. But there is a difference: nowhere does Yolande assign Cullen—or does Cullen assign himself—a new sexual identity. The “it” in question isn’t the fact of his homosexuality. Rather, the “it” is a permanently pathological relationship to heterosexuality. Instead of saying, I am a homosexual, he says, I am a defective heterosexual—I am “abnormal sexually.” By insisting on the language of abnormality rather than identity—of pathology rather than newly liberated homosexuality—Countee and Yolande continue to tell a heterosexual story, though its a heterosexual story with a twist.
What would it mean to call Countee Cullen “gay” or “homosexual”? Would it be the truth? In 1940, he married another woman, Ida Mae Roberson; the couple remained happily wed until his death in 1946. Cullen also began an affair with a young man named Edward Atkinson in 1937; it would last well into his marriage to Ida. What would his wife or his lover think of the idea that Cullen was “gay”? Cullen himself never, so far as we know, identified himself as “gay” or “homosexual.” All we know for certain is that the Countee Cullen story is a perfect microcosm of the queer Renaissance: a queer story told in the language of heterosexuality.
In fact, in 1928, the idea of heterosexuality itself was rather queer. Jonathan Ned Katz has studied “the invention of heterosexuality,” tracing its gradual journey from perversion—its first incarnation—to its current status as a powerful normalizing force. The dictionary offers a sense of this movement: according to Katz, “heterosexuality” first appeared in Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1923, where it was defined as a medical term meaning “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” Such sexual passion was morbid—diseased—because it was divorced from reproduction. By 1934, however, only eleven years later, the second edition of Webster’s gives a more familiar definition for the term: a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.” In the space of a short decade, “heterosexuality” had made its journey from perversion to norm.
And back again, if the Countee Cullen wedding is any guide. For this was not really the wedding of a man and a woman. The most important relationship in the Du Bois-Cullen union was not between Yolande and Countee, or even between Countee and Harold Jackman. The central relationship seems to have been between Countee and Du Bois, the father of the bride. The story of this wedding is, quite simply, the story of men coming together over the body of a woman, a story in which a silent female facilitates male bonding. This is the age-old “traffic in women,” a homosocial story of heterosexual exchange.
That Yolande’s role is both central and utterly subordinate becomes clear once we understand what Du Bois was really after. As David Levering Lewis has observed, Du Bois saw Countee Cullen as a surrogate son, a kind of prophet who, through his poetry and through his marriage to Yolande, might embody the future of the race, carrying both the DuBois bloodline and the Talented Tenth into the next generation. Given this desire—and desire seems precisely the right word—Du Bois took the failure of the marriage particularly hard, referring to it many years later as a “needless tragedy.” W E. B. Du Bois had lost a son.
In fact, Countee Cullen was not the first son Du Bois had lost, Yolande had been preceded by Burghardt Gomer Du Bois, born in October of 1897. Burghardt died just shy of his second birthday, an event that Du Bois takes up in The Souls of Black Folk under the title, “Of the Passing of the First-Born.” In the overheated tones of this essay, Du Bois reveals the hopes he had for the boy: “I...saw the strength of my own arm stretched onward through the ages through the newer strength of his; saw the dream of my black fathers stagger a step onward in the wild phantasm of the world; heard in his baby voice the voice of the Prophet that was to rise within the Veil.” In a piece written for the Crisis in 1922, Du Bois had called marriage “the center of real resurrection and remaking of the world”; he saw the marriage of Yolande and Cullen as the resurrection of his dead son in the person of the promising poet. Then the tragedy of Burghardt’s death was reprised, thirty years later. In each instance, we see a procreative failure, a promise betrayed—the rebirth of a nation, aborted.
Perhaps Alain Locke’s semen collection finds its queer analogue in the star-crossed marriage of Countee Cullen and Yolande Du Bois. Both take the essence of generation and make a farce of it. And both, almost by accident, find ways to enrich our notion of heterosexuality, by underscoring the intricate system of acts, ideas, and performances that define it. In other words, these stories reveal the Harlem Renaissance to be both less and more fruitful than critics have generally allowed.
* * *
In his influential 1971 study, Harlem Renaissance, Nathan Huggins argued that the Harlem Renaissance failed to achieve its aims, both artistic and political. If, as Alain Locke and others had argued, the chief aim of art is the creation of a more perfect union—the foundation of a more just society—then, Huggins argued, the renaissance was clearly a failure. African Americans in the 1930s were no better off than they had been the decade before. In 1940, Langston Hughes wrote that “the ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.” A closer look at Huggins’s critique suggests something else. Huggins wrote that “the leadership to whom Negro America looked turned out to be fairly impotent.” Later, he noted,“ One is overwhelmed by the futility and impotence of it all?” And yet again, “Without mass support [black leaders] were mere emblems of leadership, impotent to force change. That is why they and Harlem failed in what they promised to become.” Why all this “impotence”? Is it simply a convenient metaphor for failure, the familiar terminology of political critique? Or is it something more literal? In Huggins’s reading, perhaps, Locke’s peculiar collection and Cullen’s failed marriage would tell the same sad story: the New Negro failed to reproduce.
The word renaissance itself is already the language of birthing, of marriage and procreation. But the Harlem Renaissance is also an artistic movement, and aren’t artistic movements inherently counterproductive? In other words, if you’re looking for parents to give birth to a nation, why on earth would you start with artists? Du Bois hinted at this tension in a review of Alain Locke’s The New Negro. Du Bois praises Locke’s project but worries about his idea that “Beauty rather than Propaganda should be the object of Negro literature and art.” Du Bois explains: “If Mr. Locke’s thesis is insisted on too much it is going to turn the Negro renaissance into decadence. It is the fight for Life and Liberty that is giving birth to Negro literature and art today and when, turning from this fight or ignoring it, the young Negro tries to do pretty things ... he will find that he has killed the soul of Beauty in his Art.” Du Bois worries that decadence will turn new Negroes away from “the fight for Life” and act as a contraceptive against the “birth” of Negro literature.
Du Bois’s fears weren’t entirely misplaced. Despite his best efforts, the Renaissance was primarily an aesthetic, rather than activist, movement. As Langston Hughes put it, “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.” There may be something selfish, even masturbatory, about artistic creation. It exists for its own sake. Ironically, Du Bois’s vision was equally counterproductive for the opposite reason: if he’d had his way—all struggle, no decadence; all fighting, no fucking—it’s unclear that anything would have been “born” at all.
* * *
There was a birth in this Renaissance: a new vision of blackness, albeit one with some very queer parents indeed. What, then, became of its children? The heirs of the Harlem Renaissance seem to regard their parents with something rather less kind than respect. In his 1937 “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Richard Wright began the process of creating distance between himself and his forebears. He wrote, “Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels, poems, and plays, prim and decorous ambassadors who went abegging to white America. They entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtseying to show that the Negro was not inferior.” Wright’s adjective “prim” is surely a close cousin of Nathan Huggins’s favorite adjective for Cullen: “prissy.” And his sartorial synecdoche—“knee-pants of servility”—suggests a deep anxiety about gender-bending Harlemites. A sexual anxiety is clearly mixed up with, or masquerading as, a racial anxiety.
A generation later, Amiri Baraka observed that “most American white men are trained to be fags,” a formulation that similarly slips from race to sex. (While the claim mocks whites, its real purpose is to protect black masculinity from the white disease of homosexuality.) Eldridge Cleaver played something of the same game in his famous attack on James Baldwin, railing against “Negro homosexuals [who are] outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man. The cross they have to bear is that, already bending over and touching their toes for the white man, the fruit of their miscegenation is not the little half-white offspring of their dreams but an increase in the unwinding of their nerves—though they redouble their efforts and intake of the white man’s sperm.” Wright, Baraka, and Cleaver all recapitulate Du Bois’s complaint—though they do so, to be sure, with varying degrees of politesse. Once again, the queer black writer is a failed father, a black man who has stunted the nation inside himself.
Despite his contempt for Baldwin the punk, “touching [his] toes for the white man,” Cleaver maintains a deep admiration for Baldwin the writer. As Cleaver puts it, “Baldwin has a superb touch when he speaks of human beings, when he is inside of them—especially his homosexuals.” Cleaver applauds Baldwin the penetrator, the skillful writer “inside” his homosexuals. The problem arises, apparently, when Baldwin’s homosexuals are inside him. In Cleaver’s anxious fantasy, the black man is only ever the object of white male desire, consenting to be punked by white men. Cleaver cannot find a language for the fact of black desire. For such a language, we must return to Cleaver’s queer patrimony: Nugent’s visions of “muscular hocks,” “firm white thighs,” and “rounded buttocks”; or the barely repressed sexual energy of Cullen’s “Heritage.”
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This black desire may have been the engine that drove the Harlem Renaissance, but it was nevertheless a source of tremendous anxiety. In 1920s Harlem, Richard Bruce Nugent wrote, “Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closet.” But Nugent was wrong—the Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a time when you could openly do anything you wanted to with anyone you chose. Just ask his best friend, Wallace Thurman. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Thurman was arrested for having sex with a white hairdresser in a 135th Street subway washroom. Years later, his wife threatened to publicize the arrest in order to obtain a divorce. Thurman wrote to a friend, “You can imagine with what relish a certain group of Negroes in Harlem received and relayed the news that I was a homo.” Or ask Augustus Granville Dill, the business manager of the Crisis and a close friend of Du Bois. When Dill was arrested for having sex with a man in a public restroom, Du Bois promptly fired him—claiming, at the time, that the firing had nothing to do with Dill’s “little incident,” but acknowledging many years later that the events were in fact related. In telling Dill of his termination, Du Bois wrote, “with a loving sympathetic wife you can be happy and successful.” Just three months later, the editor would marry his daughter off to Countee Cullen.
Still, Harlem may have come as close as any place to Nugent’s ideal. His world without closets is still with us, if only as a dream. And though Countee Cullen’s black wedding may never have reached consummation, the African American poet Essex Hemphill has envisioned a different kind of ceremony in “American Wedding.” The poem begins,
I place my ring
On your cock
Where it belongs.
“Everytime we kiss,” Hemphill writes, “we confirm the new world coming.” The poem culminates in a renewal of both marriage and America:
What the rose uthispers
I vow to you.
I give you my heart,
a safe house.
I give you promises other than milk, honey, liberty.
I assume you will always
be a free man with a dream.
place your ring
on my cock
where it belongs.
Long may we live
to free this dream.
A far cry from Countee Cullen’s delicate verses, to be sure, but not, perhaps, so far from the man.
In the end, Du Bois wasn’t exactly wrong. The marriage of his daughter was indeed a new birth of blackness, just not the kind of birth that he had hoped for. As Locke wrote in “The New Negro,” “[those who] have traditionally presided over the Negro problem have a changeling in their laps. The Sociologist, the Philanthropist, the Race-leader are not unaware of the New Negro, but they are at a loss to account for him. He simply cannot be swathed in their formulae.” So yes, it’s ironic that Countee Cullen became the archetypal New Negro. But it’s also entirely appropriate. For as Locke writes elsewhere in his essay, “Harlem...isn’t typical—but it is significant, it is prophetic.” Harlem is, as Hemphill so beautifully put it, “what the rose whispers before blooming.” It is, to quote Main Locke again, a “blossom[ing] in strange new forms.” And nowhere is this blossoming more apparent than in that moment when Countee Cullen and Yolande Du Bois took to the altar of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church to say, for all Harlem to hear, “I do.”
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