A large part of the Harlem Renaissance was a reclamation of control over the Black narrative and we see how that narrative differs across authors and publications.
A large part of what makes Opportunity a magazine that is seemingly the pulse of Harlem at the Harlem Renaissance is this emphasis on its intentions. How Opportunity differs itself from other periodicals like the Crisis, is its explicit intentions of affirming the newfound Black identity; the demand for social change is not only evident but it’s intended to provoke a conversation. Crisis had an image that was heavily surveilled by W.E.B DuBois, he often had a say in the images that went on the covers but the the photographers and subjects in photos remained uncredited. The Crisis was largely about presenting to audiences what DuBois had to say than a medley of art with multiple contributors of equal importance. Opportunity is a hodgepodge of nonfiction writing and poetry, in some ways it’s a publication that understands that change is dynamic and there is no singular way to approach change.Change could be inspired by the vision that DuBois laid out in The Crisis with Black folk depicted engaging with art and sports but our humanity can still be demonstrated in other ways.
Countee Cullen, contributing poet to Opportunity, writes poems that often channel abstractions like desire and heartbreak. Cullen’s poetry details the inherent desire to love and be loved. Countee Cullen’s poetry suggests that The New Negro can be sensitive and have the capacity to love someone intimately. How does knowing that Countee Cullen was gay help us read his poetry to interpret themes that are relevant to Black Queer studies?
“Love in Ruins” is a poem that laments a love that once was. Lines like “Love for a meager space deigned to allow” can doubly apply to Blackness as well the queer experience. On one hand this poem can be articulating oppressive structures that threaten the burgeoning Black identity that thrives on community and self-love. On the other hand, this could be a poem grieving a queer relationship that was concealed in shame and unsustainable. I believe that both ideas eclipse within this poem and throughout Cullen’s other works. We wouldn’t be able to observe how his lyricism addresses layers of identity if it weren’t periodicals like Opportunity that democratized the voice of the Harlem Renaissance.
Nella Larsen was such an elusive figure from the Harlem Renaissance. Not too much was known about her personal life so it would be inaccurate to claim that she was queer but her novel Passing is often read as possessing queer depictions. The concept of racial passing invites an air of ambiguity to the work that provokes scholars and myself to wonder what else stirs in the subtext. If we observe Passing from a queer lens, it radically changes how we understand the novel and Blackness as a whole.
Passing with queer identity in mind becomes allegorical for living a closeted life and its restrains on one’s happiness; this becomes clear when we close read the two female protagonists meeting after a long time of not seeing one another. Irene and Clare’s relationship is never mentioned in an explicitly sexual or romantic nature but the language that is used to describe their relationship can still apply to sexual or romantic desire. Within the first few pages of the book Irene opens a letter from Clare that begins: “For I am so lonely, so lonely…cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before; and I have wanted many things in my life, (Larsen, 8)” It’s moments like this throughout the novel where Irene and Clare show such grand affection for one another that it seems almost intimate. Also it wasn’t uncommon for sapphic relationships in literature and media to exist under the veil of a “really close” friendship.
This novel entertains the idea of murkiness; every interpretation of it is speculative. I agree with literary scholar Lori Harrison-Kahan on her view that the characters of the novel are “moving back and forth between racial and sexual passing (Harrison-Kahan, 2002)”. Both kinds of passing seem to be sharing space in this narrative. Irene’s feelings toward Clare alternates from feelings of disgust, enticement, admiration, and fear all throughout; I can’t help but connect all of these emotions to a desire and sexual frustration. Irene’s interiority and discomfort with Clare around could denote shame for her sexual attraction toward Clare.
Queering Passing also shifts the lens of the novel’s tragic ending. It’s my opinion that Irene pushed Clare out of the window as an act of love. Another text where I’ve seen this was Safe by Georgia Douglas Johnson. The main character murders her infant moments after delivery because she was afraid that her son would eventually be lynched anyway. The play ends with the devastating words: “Now he’s safe––safe from the lynchers! Safe!” (Johnson, 1929). It could very well be that Irene had the same attitude when pushing Clare out of the window; she might’ve thought that Clare falling to her death was protecting from a much more vicious fate. It’s my assumption that Larsen is contributing to a history of Black literature that imagines death as an escape from racial cruelty. Reacquainting novel with queer identity colors this moment as an action made out of romantic love for Clare.
Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel on HBO Max was one of the more strange comedy specials I’ve watched because a large part of comedy is the assumption that jokes aren’t real but this special was about unshrouding secrets and confronting uncomfortable truths. The whole performance was reminiscent of what I imagined nightlife during the Harlem Renaissance would be. Jazz piano twinkled in a soft introduction, Jerrod was encircled in a velvety blue spotlight and the audience watched him from the dark periphery. The club was so dark that the audience members were flattened into silhouettes, shadows of people that once were; their motions and voices were all discernible but their faces were smothered into a smooth obsidian. The speakeasy vibe spoke to an engagement with art that bubbled underneath the surface of society. The stage direction and cinematography was too intimate and vulnerable to not be important to the purpose of this production.
About twenty-three minutes into the special Carmichael comes out as gay. He expresses that there was a point in his life where he would rather die than come out. He recognizes that he can’t control how it could change some people’s perception of him and I think that’s one of the key takeaways that speaks to queerness in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of narrative writing for Black Americans––it’s a period where we have so much literature that can illustrate our experiences. Queer motifs lurk in the underbelly of this explosive Black presence but there was a general fear of acknowledging that. I hypothesize that it’s a fear that openly acknowledging that queerness complicates the Black image instead of defining it. Carmichael speaks about a distance between him and some of his immediate family members because he doesn’t feel wholly accepted. He says it’s like “being loved with an asterisk”; from what I understand, his frustration is that his queerness has become larger than him and no amount of familial love could surmount that. Although Carmichael can accept his queerness as something that completes him, it hurts him that he is somehow a different version of himself than he once was in the eyes of others.
This special provided an emotional depth necessary when considering the pain of being denied the space to be your full self. Putting this special in conversation with Harlem Renaissance literature emphasizes an inclination to dull Black narratives into something palatable and uncomplicated––thus, erasing entire aspects of identity that can enrich our understanding of who we are.