Queer Resistance to Respectability

Richard Bruce Nugent is another one of those figures that we wished we saw more of. He’s been memorialized as somewhat of a dabbler/unserious writer. Cody C. St. Claire at the African American Review suggests that describing Nugent to be a dilettante for his lack of work is somewhat of a anti-queer. St. Claire claims that Bruce’s queerness bleeds out from just his sexuality into his ideas about creating. “ I argue, instead, that Nugent’s queerness embraced dilettantism as a political inactivity of the self that deconstructs racist stereotypes of the “lazy Negro” even as it rejects the classist and professionalist ideologies of racial uplift and black bourgeois respectability” (St. Claire, 2017).  


The literary attitude toward Nugent  is that he could have been excellent if he wrote more and wrote seriously but most fail to recognize that he had no social responsibility as an author to write for the social cause. Plenty of writers chose to do so during the Harlem Renaissance but purely because they wanted to. The assumption that every author during the Harlem Renaissance should’ve written as much as they could to counteract stereotypes is elitist and anti-Black. People who mourn Nugent’s lack of work are in some ways acknowledging that he failed to perform––instead of accepting his agency. Inactivity can be a choice but because Nugent was a Black author his inactivity is exchanged for incapability. 


It’s almost as if those that critique Nugent’s small body of work never truly read him. “Smoke Lilies and Jade” is queer in an unconventional sense because of the stream of consciousness narrative and a constant pause within sentences engendered by ellipses. The style and the language of this story captures a desire to act that is inhibited by physical stillness and emotional interiority. The story begins, “He wanted to do something…to write or draw…or something…but it was so comfortable just to lay there on the bed… his shoes off…and think…think of everything,” (Nugent, 1926). His literature does not capture a spirit of tenacity; it is evocative of Romantic ideals of depth and introspection. “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” doesn’t seem like a response to society or a conscious contribution to sculpting the New Negro image. It demonstrates humanity: to smoke, to wonder, to hurt.


Putting queer resistance against heteronormative thought about productivity often brings me back to Oscar Wilde and the Wildean conceptions of aestheticism. In the “Decay of Lying” Wilde says through a socratic dialogue between two characters:


Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent . This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. This is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering. (Wilde, 1891)


Wilde believed in art existing at the will of the artist because it was beautiful not because it had to create counterculture or speak to a political moment. If art for art’s sake can be true then why must we hold the literature of Richard Bruce Nugent to the standard of being remarkably abundant? When honoring his work, we should start to voice that Nugent did not owe his art to the political moment––it was created upon his say so. It can be an act of queer resistance to be beautifully brief.

Self-Fashioning in the Harlem Renaissance

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.

Racial and Sexual Ambiguity in Passing

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.