Harlem Renaissance at 100: An Essential Queer Culture Guide

These works of art broke new ground and reverberate loudly in black, queer culture today.

Pictured above: Author Zora Neale Hurston at a New York City book fair, 1937.

The Harlem Renaissance, which flourished during the 1920s, was a cultural, artistic, and political movement—many of whose participants were brilliant queer people of color. Everyday this week we’re honoring their contributions in honor of this vital movement’s centennial anniversary. Previously: Richard Bruce Nugent, Gay Rebel With a Clause.

The black artists of the Harlem Renaissance produced works that raised new questions about what was and was not respectable; what should or should not be considered the markers of freedom; what could or could not fit into one’s vision of black liberation.

In many ways, the Harlem Renaissance artists queered, or re-imagined, blackness, as well as black people’s place in the American democratic project. They created new forms of art and cultural expression that examined how black people’s relationships to the state, to communities, and to each other could be articulated in radically different ways. Their art broke new ground that reverberates still in black/queer culture today.

We’ve included some essential examples of works that you should read and watch in the list below.

To Read:

Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists

Tap into the artistic virtuosity of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early '30s by beginning your reading journey with Fire!!, an African-American literary journal that was conceived in Washington, D.C., by poet Langston Hughes and writer Richard Bruce Nugent, and edited by novelist Wallace Henry Thurman. While the journal was released only once in November 1926, it is a perfect starting place to dig into the poetry, visual art, prose, and dramatic works created by forward-thinking black artists of that era and curated by the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, and John Preston Davis.

If you read it, delve into Richard Bruce Nugent’s contributions to the journal, “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade," a short story that was way ahead of its queer time, as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” which examines southern black life with nuance and accuracy.

The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance by Alain Locke

Known by some as the “father” or “dean" of the Harlem Renaissance, the black gay writer and Howard University philosopher Alain Locke edited—what would become—an essential and authoritative anthology of Harlem Renaissance prose and poetry. The collection includes Locke’s essay “The New Negro,” from which comes the title of the book, as well as four additional essays he penned. It also includes poetry, fiction, and essays written by artists like Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Claude McKay, among others.

Passing by Nella Larsen and The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life by Wallace Thurman

To better understand the world in which black artists of the Harlem Renaissance navigated, take a trek through the fictional landscapes conjured by novelists like Nella Larsen and Wallace Thurman. Larsen’s Passing, which is primarily set in '20s Harlem, centers on the close (possibly homoerotic) friendship of two black women—Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield—and how one of the women (Clare) passed as white for the sake of her husband.

The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life is also a story about the politics of skin color. Thurman tells the triumphant story of Emma Lou Morgan, a young black woman who moves from the South to Harlem for work only to face discrimination by other black people with lighter skin because of her skin color. Whether the context was the unrelenting violence of racism or the ways that black people survived and outwitted old hatreds, the novels of Larsen and Thurman are doorways into the inner lives of complex black characters.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer,” so writes and explores Zora Neale Hurston in her now celebrated novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1937. At the heart of the story is the main character, a young black woman, Janie Crawford, who comes of age in Florida in the early 20th century. Hurston’s penchant for writing dialogue that captured the dialect and language of central and southern Florida communities was indicative of her keen anthropological sensibilities. The novel, now considered Harlem Renaissance classic, was not immediately successful; however, the more recent spotlights on Hurston’s works, through the efforts of literary stars like Alice Walker, have made it clear that Hurston’s acute lens on black culture and language are gifts to American literature.

"An Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance" by the Poetry Foundation

Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Poet Langston Hughes in Harlem. (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Poetry was a principal route through which new visions of black life were channeled. You may know the names and works of poets like Langston Hughes (pictured above), Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson, but you should know the names and works of others, especially women of the Harlem Renaissance, like Georgia Douglas Johnson and Anne Spencer. The Poetry Foundation traces the history of Harlem Renaissance poetry in its must-read essay, “An Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance.”

The Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance by Richard Bruce Nugent

Richard Bruce Nugent’s irreverent, sensuous, sexy, unbounded, and black visual and literary artworks form the basis of this collection of known and rare works. Thomas H. Wirth, the collection's editor, offers additional context in his opening that testifies to Nugent’s unbridled queerness, and the ways in which Nugent and his Harlem Renaissance peers navigated a time when queer sexualities were both explored and policed.

To Watch:

Looking for Langston

The intimate, inner life of Langston Hughes remains elusive. Who did he love? What energies and attractions made his heart skip a beat? What were the sources of his fears? And beyond the good consequences of his work as an artist, who was Langston the person? Director Issac Julien’s film is, as Julien described it, “a lyrical exploration—and recreation—of the private world of poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes.”

Brother to Brother

Rodney Evans’ narrative film Brother to Brother follows the developing friendship between its main character Perry, a young Black gay artist who was kicked out of his home, and that of a fictionalized elder, Richard Bruce Nugent. The two artists develop an intergenerational friendship fused by their love of the written word and their audacious desire to live freely and queerly.

"Music and Films of the Harlem Renaissance" from the PBS Collection's The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

Historian Henry Louis Gates—who once described the Harlem Renaissance as “gay as it was black”— explores music and films that captured the zeitgeist of the movement in this short docuseries. As Gates explains, black culture during the Harlem Renaissance was energized by the improvisational and polyphonic sound that is jazz and independent films directed by black Americans like Oscar Micheaux.

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