The Harlem Renaissance was a period concerned with illuminating Black perspectives through engagement with art, establishing a Black American identity in the post-slavery United States. Prior to the great migration Harlem was once home to mostly European-American immigrants. Gale U.S History reports:

The completion of a subway line to Harlem led to speculation by real estate developers who hoped that robust development would once again occur. In anticipation, they built a series of low-income tenement buildings. However, other neighborhoods closer to the city instead received the boost in property sales anticipated by Harlem landlords. Despite discriminatory attitudes toward African Americans in the early 19th century, developers decided to specifically recruit them as possible tenants. The tenements were soon filled with Black immigrants from the Caribbean and African American transplants from Manhattan. (Gale U.S History, 2021)

So by happenstance Harlem became home to this Black cultural revolution that would inspire a “New Nego Movement” in other major cities in the United States like Chicago, Kansas City, and Memphis. The “New Negro” vastly differs from the “Old Negro” because the “Old Negro” was held within the confines of his circumstances and was to be what he was told to be. The “New Negro” stands on the threshold of a newfound freedom and can mold his identity into whatever he wishes. Alain Locke determines that the New Negro “is keenly responsive to the aurgury of a new democracy in American culture. He is contributing his share to the new social understanding,” (Locke, 1925). The Harlem Renaissance would go on to produce literature that scholars, archivists, and non-academics often revisit to engage in Critical Race Theory and confront our place as a society as far as racial progress is concerned.

 I’ve noticed that writers of the Harlem Renaissance embrace the idea of queerness––as both a sexual identity and a reoccurring motif of strangeness. Seminal voices during the Harlem Renaissance like Locke, Cullen, Nugent, and Hughes were queer and there were a plethora of queer depictions in literature of this time period. I want to use this blog site as a way to focus on the Harlem Renaissance as a queer-coded moment in literature; I intend to explore how the applied queerness to these texts, in all of its definitions, articulates the peculiar status of Black-Americans in society as the New Negro Movement emerges. 

By investigating racial and sexual passing in Nella Larsen’s Passing,  I’ll allow queerness to not only encompass the intimate relationship between the two female protagonists but also all of the disturbing emotions and images depicted throughout. Applying a queer lens to Passing, invites ambiguity to describe the moment that faced Black Americans in the early twentieth-century. Passing demonstrates feeling free yet restricted, thrilled yet anxious, aroused yet disgusted. 

Queerness appears again when understanding that the Harlem Renaissance was a period of self-reinvention and how important it was to have an array of contributing voices shape the New Negro.  I contrast two periodicals, The Crisis and Opportunity, to demonstrate how democratizing Harlem Renaissance allowed for queer writings like Countee Cullen’s to surface in the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen’s poetry that honors love and beauty is as applicable to the developing Black identity as it is to the queer experience.

In my journey of expanding the definitions of queerness, I look to conversations had about the literature of Richard Bruce Nugent. I counter the argument that he was a failed potential or that he missed an opportunity to make greater contributions to Harlem Renaissance literature. His quiet descent into literary obscurity can be looked at as a queer resistance to the heteronormative obligation to constantly produce. I suggest that it’s selfishness on the part of the reader to proclaim that Nugent should have written more for the purpose of us having more to read from him. It’s a radical notion to remove literature’s responsibility to culture or a social revolution and allow it to simply be. 

I’ve drawn a contemporary parallel to a comedy special I watched a couple of months ago. It was raw, emotional, and deeply personal. Jerrod Carmichael details halfway through his special how his queerness created a distance in his Black family; I thought it connected well to the Harlem Renaissance because it provokes anyone watching to question how often we erase queer identity or distance ourselves from it. We don’t often revere the Harlem Renaissance as a Black queer moment or memorialize the likes of Hughes or Locke for their contributions to queer literature and we should question that.

My intended audience are scholars of Black Queer studies and Black feminist scholars but I hope that this poject is accessible to anyone in non-academic settings interested on the subject. It is my greatest ambition to honor the queer presence in pro-Black writing and my assumption that if we put queerness in conversation with Blackness we will develop our understanding of both identities. Queerness has been deliberately written into these texts and we’ve smudged that into obscurity by not acknowledging that.

The Harlem Renaissance generally marks a moment where Black-Americans are en masse writing their own narratives by engaging with literature and other forms of art. It can’t be a coincidence that there is such a strong queer presence in such a racially provocative moment. In the age of Black feminism, or any form of feminism that acknowledges intersectionality, we’re learning that things like racism, gender violence, and anti-queer sentiment are harming people all at once as if it’s a singular force. As a Black feminist, a writer, and a person that experiences queerness I’ve come to grow an affinity for all of the literature that I’ve explored throughout this process. In some ways I’ve been empowered by knowing that my lens can reacquaint queerness with Black idenity; I want this project to resist erasure and contribute to a more complete understanding of what the Harlem Renaissance was. The Harlem Renaissance is the perfect moment to allow queerness to be a vehicle for better understanding the birth of Black identity.