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.

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.

Jerrod Carmichael: Black Queerness in the Contemporary

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.