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“Clean, Original, Primitive”: Sexual Radicalism, Race Consciousness, and the Case of Harlem’s Queers

FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to Younger Negro Artists (1926), Cover Page
Fig. 1. FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to Younger Negro Artists (1926), Cover Page. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.
FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to Younger Negro Artists (1926), Table of Contents
Fig. 2. FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to Younger Negro Artists (1926), Table of Contents. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.

After the publication of the well-known sole issue of the Harlem Renaissance journal, FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists (1926), W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to the journal’s cofounder Richard Bruce Nugent and asked, “Why don’t you write more about Negroes?”[1] In response, Nugent quipped, “I write about myself, and I’m a Negro, aren’t I?” (Wirth, “FIRE!! In Retrospect,” n. p.) (figs. 1 & 2). Du Bois’s question to the openly queer and artistically experimental Nugent exemplifies 1920s debates about Black American racial representation that occurred between older and younger Black artists, many of them centered in Harlem.[2] Scholars have explored these tensions from many angles including differences in generational perspectives, political agendas, aesthetic principles, socioeconomic concerns, and models of sexuality.[3] I want to draw attention, however, to a diagnostic undercurrent that characterizes Nugent’s engagement with senior members of the Renaissance. This dynamic appears clearly when we read Nugent’s creative and critical work alongside that of Alain Locke, and when we consider how the two authors’ representations of Black male sexuality exemplify different modes of diagnosis within the New Negro movement.

This essay explores how Nugent’s literary contribution to FIRE!!, the short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” (1926), transgressed the conventional diagnostic codes of the New Negro movement in an effort to offer a modern art form inclusive of the queer Black subject. I begin by delineating Locke’s diagnostic model of Black American male sexuality that his writing articulates and his review of FIRE!! extends. In this review, Locke condemns FIRE!!’s sexual content as unclean and, curiously, prescribes Walt Whitman as a literary model of sexual wellbeing. For Locke, Whitman provides the antidote of a unified and healthy national body to a culture suffering from division; the latter’s poetry offers Locke a representation of the robust masculinity necessary for the vigorous amassing of race consciousness. Yet, as I go on to suggest, Nugent finds in Whitman a different cure for Black male subjectivity: one that relies on fluid poetic form, openness to multiplicity, and celebration of the self. Reading Locke’s nonfiction writing alongside Nugent’s short story, I argue that Nugent’s experimental aesthetics resist limited prescriptions of sexuality by emphasizing queer connection and mobility as traits of health.

Case Under Review

In planning FIRE!!, Nugent and Wallace Thurman—the journal’s other cofounder—reportedly flipped a coin to determine who would write about each of two most scandalous topics they could imagine: prostitution and homosexuality.[4] Consequently, Thurman wrote “Cordelia the Crude” about a sixteen-year-old sex worker, and Nugent produced Harlem’s first text to openly recount male same-sex desire, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade.” With the support of their FIRE!! cohort—Gwendolyn Bennett, Aaron Douglas, Arthur Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston—Thurman and Nugent were determined, as Michael Cobb has suggested, to sidestep an equation in which “being straight means race fidelity [and] being queer means violating the collective by becoming too individual” (“Insolent Racing,” 346). As Nugent’s reply to Du Bois suggests, many of the younger artists found the dominant narrative of racial uplift too prescriptive to be authentic, too undermining of individual creativity to engender a cultural revolution, and too focused on collective race matters to avoid a violent erasure of personhood.

In a preface to the 1982 reissue of FIRE!!, Nugent indicates that the journal was born when Hughes suggested to him that “maybe someone should start a magazine by, for, and about the Negro to show what we could do.”[5] Nugent recalls Hughes’s revelatory words, how he “spoke in that gentle, persuasive way of his, about things I had never thought of in quite the same way he made me begin to see them—about the importance of the Negro’s contributing his share of himself to a world that, so far, had never considered him a real person at all” (“Lighting FIRE!!” n. p.). For Nugent, the ills of racism were rooted in the denial of “real” personhood. Authenticity was therefore central to his vision of the New Negro project. Despite the complexities of voicing non-normative sexuality within the movement at large, for Nugent, to “share of himself” included his own queer sexuality. In FIRE!!, he mobilized an ideal of individualism that could bridge the rift between race and sexuality, between individual achievement and collective progress.

The Renaissance’s senior figures were quick to denounce their younger counterparts’ open address of sexuality. In his review, Locke condemned the journal’s “sex radicalism” and called for the authors to realign “flesh values” with “clean, original, primitive but fundamental terms of the senses.”[6] For Locke, sexual individualism that challenged heterosexual masculine norms was not politically strategic. In particular, and despite his own semicloseted queer sexuality, he denounced the journal’s homosexual content. He argued that future issues would be better off without a “hectic imitation of the ‘naughty nineties’ and effete echoes of contemporary decadence,” and proposed that the writers might look “back to Whitman” for inspiration rather than to the “left-wing pivoting on [Oscar] Wilde or [Aubrey] Beardsley” (Locke, “Fire: A Negro Magazine,” 67). Locke’s remedy suggests that the FIRE!! artists draw on Whitman’s wholesome patriotism and unified national voice rather than the sensationalist late Victorians whose rebellious style, Locke believed, fractured collectivity.

However, Whitman is also the American poet of the multitudinous Self, whose celebration of red-blooded, patriarchal masculinity has always indelicately rubbed up against homoerotic “flesh values.” As someone who reportedly had come on to Nugent himself, perhaps Locke was cunningly reserving his right to contradict himself in true Whitman fashion.[7] But still, what exactly did Locke have in mind in offering Whitman as a cure for the case of Harlem’s queers?

Alain Locke, Chicago, Illinois, 1941
Fig. 3. Alain Locke, Chicago, Illinois, 1941. Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation.

The Whitman Cure

At first glance, Locke’s appeal to Whitman is puzzling. Locke’s biographer Jeffrey Stewart has suggested as much, yet he contends that upon closer inspection, Locke observed in Whitman’s poetry an image of the male Black body as both “heroic and masculine [. . . a] patriarchal presence.”[8] Linking Locke’s appreciation for Whitman to his philosophy of collective racial uplift, Stewart argues that Locke could “begin his transnationalist view of the New Negro” with the all-American Whitman, even if he must ultimately go beyond Whitman” (“I Sing,” 266). For Locke, in other words, progress required an access to global mobility most readily afforded to a heteronormative masculine body (fig. 3).

Locke spoke directly about the Black body in the context of diagnosis in his lecture “The Negro in the Three Americas,” delivered in Haiti in 1943. Identifying the oppressive structures of colorism as a transnational problem tethered to the Black body’s “high visibility,” Locke cited the work of sociologist Dr. E. Franklin Frazier, whom he claimed “put his finger on the crux of the issue, but in a practical and constructive as well as acutely diagnostic way” based on his study of “race barriers” in the Caribbean and Latin America.[9] Frazier’s scientific gaze provides a discerning method for identifying how, as Locke puts it, “the Negro represents a conspicuous index by which the practical efficiency and integrity of that particular country’s democracy can readily be gauged and judged” (“The Negro in the Three Americas,” 333). Even as he pulls from scientific discourse, Locke resists the limits of white empiricism: his interpretation of Frazier emphasizes the capacity of racialized diagnosis to enable social transformation through explicit, targeted identification.

While Locke’s review of FIRE!! was published nearly twenty years prior to his lecture, a similarly diagnostic logic informs his critique of the journal. Locke’s concern about the queer Black body’s overexposure resonates with his understanding of Blackness as a “conspicuous index” of democracy. Yet, while Locke utilizes the metric of “high visibility” for the political condemnation of colorism, he does not extend the critical capacity of exposure to marginalized sexualities. Rather, for Locke, the nonnormative sexuality presented in FIRE!! did not fit the heroic and masculine ideal required for Black political advancement. These contexts exist in tension with one another in Locke’s work, illustrating how what may appear an offhanded invocation of Whitman as “cure” in fact reveals a complex set of relations between race, sexuality, and gender, between the individual subject and the collective race, and between the nation and the globe.

Thank You Note from Richard Bruce Nugent to Alain Locke
Fig. 4. Thank You Note from Richard Bruce Nugent to Alain Locke. Published in Eric Garber, “Richard Bruce Nugent,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, 219.

Aesthetic Antidote

For Harlem’s younger artists, Locke’s dismissal of FIRE!! and championing of clean sexual content stifled the authenticity they sought to convey in content and form. Instead, by creating a minor literature of resistance that transgressed the major stance of the movement—i. e. one that marginalized or repressed artistic representations of nonnormative sexuality—FIRE!! addressed the individual sovereignty of the Black body and its political symbolism as part of a transnational race movement.[10] For the creators of FIRE!!, it was precisely the minoritarian aesthetics and sexually rebellious nature of their Victorian forefathers, Wilde and Beardsley, that served as a political index. Wilde’s controversial life and aesthetic philosophy modeled an avant-gardism that managed to be socially progressive while honoring individual experience. Stephen Knadler similarly argues that “unlike Locke, who located the individual’s revitalization in racial rediscovery, Thurman attributes the individual’s cultivation to heightened individual sensations.”[11] For Nugent, the experiences of the individual Black subject are always bound up with the collective race, as his chiding reply to Du Bois (“I write about myself, and I’m a Negro, aren’t I?”) suggests. Nugent therefore promotes a model of the New Negro in which self-authenticity inclusive of sexuality is inherently politically viable.

Writing against traditional prose forms in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” Nugent employs an avant-garde elliptical aesthetic that resists straightforward reading and presents queerness as a generative liminality. Rich with lush imagery and sensuous symbolism, the story clearly takes a cue from the decadence of Wilde and Beardsley. Yet, by utilizing the ellipses to break with conventional narrative structure in favor of openness and connection, Nugent also channels Whitman—who in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass utilizes the ellipsis to create, as Jacques Rancière claims, “one of the first and most significant attempts at writing and visualizing the poem of ‘modern life.’”[12] In Whitman’s preface, ellipses create linkages and distinctions, mirroring through form his thematic message of national unity and individual sovereignty. As Whitman writes, the poet “is a seer. . . . he is individual . . . he is complete in himself. . . . the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not.”[13] Ellipses allow Whitman to assemble an innovative poetic voice that promotes connection and difference as integral to a healthy national body.

In his story, Nugent recuperates Whitman’s elliptical aesthetic to depathologize sexual deviancy within scenes of racial address, offering a restorative model of Black life inclusive of both the queer subject and the broader collective.[14] Nugent’s use of ellipses and blank space simultaneously mobilize and still its protagonist Alex—a young queer Black man and aspiring artist living in Harlem. The reader travels with Alex as he navigates his longings for men and women, for doing nothing and “do[ing] something,” as he puts it, for waking life and for dreaming.[15] While cruising the streets in the early hours of the morning Alex meets Beauty, a Latino man:

Alex liked the sound of the approaching man’s footsteps . . . he walked music also . . . he knew the beauty of the narrow blue . . . Alex knew that by the way their echoes mingled . . . he wished he would speak . . . but strangers don’t speak at four o’clock in the morning . . . at least if they did           he couldn’t imagine what would be said . . . maybe . . . pardon me but are you walking toward the stars . . . yes, sir, and if you walk long enough . . . then may I walk with you I want to reach the stars too . . . perdone me senor tiene vd. fosforo . . . Alex was glad he had been addressed in Spanish . . . to have been asked for a match in English . . . or to have been addressed in English at all . . . would have been blasphemy just then . . . (Nugent, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” 577).

In this scene of queer encounter, Alex identifies an immediate kinship with Beauty through his physical movement; he “knows” this man also “walk[s] music.” Alex sustains what could be construed as competing impulses: his magnetic attraction to a man of another skin color and his pleasure in being addressed in Spanish not English. The ellipsis holds these possibilities in suspension. As the two men walk into early dawn, we see how a liminal path to queer connection is guided by a desire to “reach the stars” rather than a preexisting script. Alex’s longing is organic and sensuous, not laced with political rationale. His authenticity enables him to progress. In Nugent’s tale, the queer Black body thrives by moving beyond circumscriptive criteria. The story’s elliptical temporality allows us to linger at the horizon of a queer potential—to echo José Munõz—that links the sexual radicalism of Alex and Beauty’s possible union to the futurity of collective race liberation politics.[16]

In the end, Locke’s stringent review of FIRE!! speaks to an underwritten case of the New Negro movement: how its younger authors wrote against a singular model of racial uplift in experimental aesthetics that opened up the diagnostic criteria of the New Negro in more flexible and expansive terms (fig. 4). Creating links between individual authenticity and racial unity, the Renaissance’s younger artists envisioned a model of collective progress that recognized the individual’s wholeness. Their writing thus traversed not only the borders of race and sexuality but also those between the individual Black subject and the amassing of race consciousness.


Notes

[1] As told by Thomas Wirth, “FIRE!! In Retrospect,” (Yellow Springs, OH: The FIRE!! Press, 1982), n. p.

[2] While the geographic influence of the New Negro movement extended beyond Harlem, the neighborhood was the center of cultural life for the key figures of this essay. Even as the amassing of global race consciousness was a tenet of Alain Locke’s New Negro philosophy, he describes Harlem as the as the “race capital” of Black culture in his seminal essay The New Negro (1925) (The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance ed. Alain Locke [New York: Touchstone, 1997], 7). Arguably for Nugent and much of his FIRE!! cohort, Harlem was the central physical locale and representational touchstone of their literary imaginations. For a sustained discussion of Harlem’s relation to the New Negro movement’s geographic scope, see Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem, ed. Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[3] For example, discussion of such tensions are found in: Joseph Allen Boone, Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Michael Cobb, “Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative: The Harlem Renaissance's Impolite Queers,” Callaloo vol. 23, no. 1 (2000): 328–351; Brian Glavey, The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality, and Queer Ekphrasis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Elisa F. Glick, “Harlem’s Queer Dandy: African-American Modernism and the Artifice of Blackness,” Modern Fiction Studies vol. 49, no. 3 (2003): 414–442; Matthew N. Hannah, “Desires Made Manifest: The Queer Modernism of Wallace Thurman's Fire!!Journal of Modern Literature vol. 38, no. 3 (2015): 162–180; Stephen Knadler, “Sweetback Style: Wallace Thurman and a Queer Harlem Renaissance,” Modern Fiction Studies vol. 48, no. 4 (2002): 899–936; and Shane Vogel, The Scene of the Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[4] See Eric Garber, “Richard Bruce Nugent (2 July 1906–),” in Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, ed. Trudier Harris-Lopez and Thadious M. Davis (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1987), 213–221.

[5] Richard Bruce Nugent, “Lighting FIRE!!” (Yellow Springs, OH: The FIRE!! Press, 1982), n. p.

[6] Alain Locke, “Fire: A Negro Magazine,” in The Works of Alain Locke, ed. Charles Molesworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 66–67, 66–67.

[7] See Mason Boyd Stokes, “Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent (review),” Callaloo vol. 26, no. 3 (2003): 908–913.

[8] Jeffrey Stewart, “I Sing the Black Body Electric: Transnationalism and the Black Body in Walt Whitman, Alain Locke, and Paul Robeson,” in Recharting the Black Atlantic: Modern Cultures, Local Communities, Global Connections, ed. Annalisa Oboe and Anna Scacchi (New York: Routledge, 2008), 259–281, 263, emphasis in original.

[9] Alain Locke, “The Negro in the Three Americas,” in The Works of Alain Locke, 331–342, 333–34.

[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari identify minor literature as being inherently “political” and “of collective value” (“What Is a Minor Literature?” in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], 16–27, 17).

[11] Stephen Knadler, “Sweetback Style: Wallace Thurman and a Queer Harlem Renaissance,” Modern Fiction Studies vol. 48, no. 4 (2002): 899–936, 918.

[12] Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (London: Verso, 2013), 72.

[13] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 10, ellipses in original.

[14] Brian Glavey discusses Nugent’s connection to Whitman: “Nugent’s ellipses bear less resemblance to high modernist forms of fragmentation than . . . the ellipses that mark the breathless accretions of Whitman’s 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass” (The Wallflower Avant-Garde, 82).

[15] Richard Bruce Nugent, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed. David Levering Lewis (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994), 569–583, 569.

[16] José Esteban Munõz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.