Greetings, literature-loving Dharmenians! Last time we met over the wreckage of the Civil War and acid humor of one of its most famous veterans. This week we’ll stay in the United States, but jump ahead a few generations to an almost-forgotten writer who merits a closer look.
After World War I, black soldiers returning from the front were disgusted by the treatment they received from countrymen they’d fought and died defending. At the same time, black intellectuals like W.E.B DuBois and Alain Locke began to envision a cultural project that would elevate the African American experience in the eyes of its otherwise cultural oppressors, while political activists like Marcus Garvey brought pan-Africanism to the streets of New York. Throw in a sudden burst of artistic imagination and some seriously talented writers, and you’ve got all the ingredients for the Harlem Renaissance.
Today we’re going to talk about one of its most fascinating personalities.
First some background.
DuBois, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, felt that the biggest stumbling block to achieving civil rights (apart from white racism, naturally) was the lack of a stable, intellectual middle class among the black population. He believed in a concerted project to tap into the potential of the best and brightest, dubbing them “the Talented Tenth“, who could capture the essence of the black experience in a way that even white America could understand and empathize with.
Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work – it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people.
DuBois’ project was successful, but not in the way he’d hoped: the stunningly talented crop of writers, poets, and artists who gathered in Harlem a generation later were iconoclasts with little interest in middle class respectability. DuBois had hoped for novels and opera, businessmen and professors: meanwhile they embraced sexual fluidity and Marxism, wrote about prostitution and gambling, loved jazz and cabaret.
And it wasn’t just the artists: Harlem itself became a hotbed of ‘vice’ that welcomed performers, pleasure-seekers, and queers into its turbulent fold.
The latter especially. Despite the stereotypes about black culture and alternative sexuality, there was never a pre-civil rights community in this country more actively queer than Harlem in the 1920s and 30s:
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.
Gender and sexual ‘deviance’ was still mocked and ridiculed in many circles, but it was also tolerated – especially since the more damning and pervasive sin of racism overshadowed concerns like who was sleeping with whom. Despite the minor outrage surrounding the publication of Fire!! (see below), more writers began to write about their own sexuality or incorporate themes of queerness into their texts. DuBois was deeply disappointed.
Though he wasn’t the only gay writer of the Renaissance, one writer in particular attracted the lion’s share of negative attention…
I’ve been asked how I was able to write so openly about homosexuality in 1926. . . . 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 loved prick.’ You didn’t. You just did what you wanted to do.
Richard Bruce Nugent was the most colorful, eccentric, flamboyant member of the Harlem Renaissance. He also outlived most of them, dying in the late 1980s.
Painter, poet, prosaist, and essayist, Nugent burst into Harlem after a childhood spent in Washington, DC. Content with living the Bohemian artist lifestyle, he was typically shiftless and rarely comfortably moneyed. He struck easy friendships with the stars of the Renaissance, and in the mid 20s began developing ideas for a literary journal with fellow author (and sexually ambiguous) Langston Hughes.
Nugent and Hughes mingled with Zoara Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman in a salon they affectionately dubbed “Niggerati Manor”. Thurman would eventually satirize them all mercilessly for what he considered their affectations – his thinly fictionalized novel Infants of the Spring depicts Nugent (“Paul”) as the queeniest of queens, not far removed from Nugent’s real-life reputation:
“Have you ever been seduced?” Paul asked. “Don’t blush. You just looked so pure and undefiled that I had to ask that.”
Stephen looked inquiringly at Raymond.
“Don’t mind Paul. He’s harmless.”
“I like your drawings,” Stephen said.
“You should,” Paul replied. “Everybody should. They’re works of genius.”
“You’re as disgusting as ever, Paul.”
“I know it, Sam, but therein lies my charm. By the way, how did you ever get to know such a gorgeous man as this. . . . You know, Steve,” he added abruptly, “you should take that part out of your hair and have it windblown. The hair, not the part. Plastering it down like that destroys the golden glint.”
In fact Thurman’s barbs are aimed less at Nugent (and others, and himself) than at issues surrounding the Renaissance – the value of art, the politics of change, popularity with the white community, etc.
Because of his longevity, Nugent also became an important historian of the Renaissance, outliving Thurman and Hughes, Hurston and Locke and DuBois and all the rest. He even married in 1952 – to a woman – though he assured her that he was homosexual. They were together 17 years until her death in 1969.
Despite his long life, Nugent was not a prolific artist. Of his scant production, one piece in particular deserves a close reading both because of its historical importance (it was the first open depiction of gay love in African American literature) and its aesthetic merits:
“Smoke, Lilies and Jade”
None of the Negro intellectuals would have anything to do with Fire. Dr. Du Bois in the Crisis roasted it. The Negro press called it all sorts of bad names, largely because of a green and purple story by Bruce Nugent, in the Oscar Wilde tradition, which we had included.
— Langston Hughes, from The Big Sea
Nugent’s free-form story “Smoke” was the most controversial piece in the already controversial collection Fire!!, which appeared in 1926 with contributions by Wallace Thurman (who also edited), Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and a host of others. Fire!! was a slap in the face to the middlebrow expectations of the Harlem Renaissance’s first wave, emphasized by the journal’s subtitle: “Devoted to Younger Negro Artists”. In The Big Sea Hughes goes on to note that the white press ignored it completely.
Copies were, fittingly, burned.
“Smoke” unrolls as a series of disconnected thoughts linked by ellipses. The loose, semi-autobiographical narrative concerns a hopeful young artist (Alex) who moves to Harlem and finds himself mingling with the Greats, people he’d only ever read about. In the meantime he becomes involved with two lovers: Adrian, a Spanish-speaking man who hits him up for a cigarette light one night and whom Alex nicknames “Beauty”; and Melva, the woman to whom Alex is already attached. In the afterglow of an intense and (for 1926) surprisingly explicit sexual encounter with Beauty, Alex thinks,
he would like Beauty to know Melva…they were both so perfect…such compliments…yes he would like Beauty to know Melva because he loved them both…there…he had thought it…actually dared to think it…but Beauty must never know…Beauty couldn’t understand…indeed Alex couldn’t understand…and it pained him…almost physically…and tired his mind…Beauty…Beauty was in the air…the smoke…Beauty…Melva…Beauty…Melva…Alex slept…and dreamed……
Meanwhile Alex loses himself in a tobacco haze of artists, parties, fiction, and dreams. The narrative fragments begin to loop on themselves like disjointed leitmotifs, mixing people and themes together in a foggy soup of perceptions.
The ending is almost frustratingly ambiguous, but Nugent’s diving deep into the hazy uncertainty of love and attraction. When Alex repeats at the end, “one can love” (emphasis his), is he confidently asserting a worldview or trying to ward away his own considerable doubts? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Two important formal qualities help advance the story’s concerns. The first is its striking use of color – though commenters usually point to the text’s rhythms as somehow emulating jazz (?), Nugent is primarily a visual artist. The text is electric with striking imagery, and he paints with bold primary colors:
.Alex thought of a sketch he would make…a personality sketch of Fania…straight classic features tinted proud purple…sensuous fine lips…gilded for truth…eyes…half opened and lids colored mysterious green…hair black and straight…drawn sternly mocking back from the false puritanical forehead…maybe he would make Edith too…skin a blue…infinite like night…and eyes…slant and gray…very complacent like a cat’s…Mona Lisa lips…red and seductive as…as pomegranate juice…in truth it was fine to be young and hungry and an artist…to blow blue smoke from an ivory holder……..
The second major formal concern is binary opposition, if not dialectical by nature. Whether this comes from Nugent’s artistic worldview or from the Marxist tenor of late Renaissance thought, I don’t know: but it suggests two possible readings of the story, one in which the oppositions frustrate our attempts at happiness, and another in which they can be resolved into some kind of happy synthesis.
Black/White, Prose/Poetry, Male/Female, Gay/Straight, Fictional/Non-Fictional, Dream/Reality… Sometimes the push-pull resolves, as the narrative concerns a bisexual writer expressing himself in poetic prose. Sometimes they don’t, as when his fantasies about introducing fictional characters to real people remain only in his dreams, or that Melva and Beauty never meet in the narrative.
Only one binary is not in opposition: Beauty and Sweetness, which are also the terms of endearment between Alex and Adrian.
Alex stretched and opened his eyes…Beauty was looking at him…propped on one elbow…cheek in his palm…Beauty spoke…scratch my head please Dulce…Alex was breathing normally now…propped against the bed head…Beauty’s head in his lap…Beauty spoke…I wonder why I like to look at some things Dulce…things like smoke and cats…and you…Alex’s pulse no longer hammered from…wrist to finger tip…wrist to finger tip…the rose dusk had become blue night…and soon…soon they would go out into the blue……..
Most readings I’ve found of “Smoke” are fairly superficial, and you’d be surprised how many (yes, many) incorrectly note that the male lover is unnamed in the story (*slaps forehead* – yes, it’s a difficult text, but you’d hope a scholar would bother reading more carefully). Meanwhile the otherwise useful Harlem Renaissance Reader notes without challenge the perception that “Smoke” marked a decline into decadence. Fortunately the resurgence of interest in Nugent has led to more sophisticated readings of the story and a rediscovery of his other, less frequently anthologized texts:
Even stranger and more difficult than “Smoke” (although superficially easier to read) is Nugent’s 1937 story (?) “Pope Pius the Only“, a surreal trip through history and literature via drug-induced free association. The narrator Algy stumbles through New York City, his brain flitting from Broadway to Mongolia, Pushkin to Crispus Atticus.
He went on down Seventh Avenue. Nineteen thirty five, summer and fall. E.R.A., N.R.A., P.W.A., W.P.A. Almost like Russia for initials. Huey P. Long and General Hugh Johnson, only Long was dead and so was Pushkin. Long live Pushkin.
Beneath the dense allusions and indirect narrative is a desire to situate oneself in the scattered strands of African history: the narrator feels both the stare of white Russia and the searing of slave irons around his wrists. The incoherency helps create a deeper understanding of the totality of the vision, which is neither neat nor easy to separate into threads: Algy feels in himself bits of all black experience, mingling with the aid of marijuana.
During his lifetime, Nugent’s other major success was “Sahdji“, famous less for his words than for the musical ballet composed around them. “Sahdji”, in which Nugent wraps the elliptical poetic-prose style of “Smoke” around African folk culture, premiered in 1931 with music by William Grant Still. The text itself, which concerns a Sati-like act of marriage devotion by a tribal widow, was published a few years earlier:
They laid the body in the funeral hut… Goa shoa motho go sale motho-(when a man dies a man remains)-Sahdji danced slowly… sadly… looked at Mrabo and smiled… slowly triumphantly… and to the wails of the wives… boom-boom of the drums… gave herself again to Konombju… the grass-strewn couch of Konombju….
Nugent’s nonfiction piece “On Harlem” is a personal favorite for the way he laces an otherwise deadpan, descriptive essay about life during the Renaissance with a sly, subtle humor. The essay appeared in 1939, after the Renaissance had effectively ended, giving it an extra layer of nostalgia for the passing of a golden era. Nugent’s terse descriptions are all the more evocative for their economy, as he runs through racial, social, and sexual politics of the day through theatre, violence, alcohol, economics, and art:
Harlem continued its hectic, money-spending, impossible way, creating colorful character after colorful character. …[It] continued to eat at Craig’s and to discuss music and art at Eddie’s while giving its pennies to Sewing-Machine Bertha, who could buy and sell most of her benefactors. It continued to produce Chappie Gardiners to hoax a willing world masquerading as Ethiopian princesses when they were in reality houseworkers from the Bronx. Or Catarina Jarbera, who traveled the path of song from the blues to opera. The cabaret and the church continued to be the points between which the Negro was held taut, through which he grew and in which he forgot for the moment his great economic problems.
Equally good, although heartbreaking in its final paragraph, is Nugent’s essay on one of Harlem’s most celebrated drag queens: “On Gloria Swanson“. Gloria Swanson was the stage name of a certain Mr. Winston, a performer so effective that Nugent notes some of his clients never realized that he wasn’t born a woman. Again the portrait is affectionate but not without Nugent’s subtle humor:
He had the free, loud camaraderie that distinguished the famous Texas Guinan. Gangsters and hoodlums, pimps and gamblers, whores and entertainers showered him with feminine gee-gaws, spoke of him as “her,” and quite enthusiastically relegated him to the female’s function of supplying good times and entertainment. He could also cook.
As a portrait of transvestitism stretching back into the late 1920s, “On Gloria Swanson” is valuable enough as a historical document. But the article is doubly valuable for the relaxed prose of its author, who wrote too little and has disappeared too easily from our usual literary canons.
Fortunately two signs point to a resurgence of interest in Nugent: the first was the issue of Thomas H. Wirth’s book-length collection of Nugent’s life and work, Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent (available from Duke University Press).
The second was the 2004 indie film Brother to Brother, which uses a fictional meeting between a contemporary young gay black man and the elderly Nugent as a way of exploring racial and sexual identity across the 20th century. Brother starred Anthony Mackie and opened to generally strong reviews, the Sundance Special Jury Prize, and modest box office (not surprising, given its subject matter). If you’re interested in Nugent but hesitant to add more reading to your already growing list, the film is a good place to start.
- the outstanding Richard Bruce Nugent website, which includes complete texts, paintings, and photographs;
- Fire!! – Fire Press’ reissue of the Harlem Renaissance classic;
- PBS has a host of links related to Brother to Brother, including a section on the history and real-life figures covered in the film;
- Bio and info about Nugent at the African American Registry;
- online article: “Biblical gender bending in Harlem: the queer performance of Nugent’s ‘Salome.’ – poet and artist Richard Bruce Nugent”
All images in the text from Wikimedia Commons, linked back to their original sources.
Thanks for reading.