Hidden History: Hidden History: Alain Locke is the Key (Part I of II)
Hidden History is my new Monday afternoon column for The New Gay. Each week, I’ll cover a different nook or cranny in gay and lesbian history, especially those with a connection to our fair city of Washington D.C.
When you finish here, take a look at Hidden History: Alain Locke is the Key (Part II)
It would surely be an exaggeration to say that the Harlem Renaissance was orchestrated by a gay Howard University professor from his home at 1326 R Street in Washington D.C. But to say that that professor, the formidably educated and opinionated Alain Locke, was one of the keys to this awakening black literary movement of the 1920s, is surely not. To better understand how crucial Locke was in the formation of what’s now known as the Harlem Renaissance—and how central homosexuality was to the lives and work of many of the Renaissance’s major figures—first there must be:
A bit of background:
An increased demand for labor during World War I found Southern blacks engaged in a Great Migration to Northern cities. Between 1910 and 1930, an estimated one million black Southerners moved to the North, with two-thirds of that number settling in Harlem. This gave Harlem the densest population of blacks in the world, redrawing the neighborhood’s racial and social map. “White flight” in response to the influx and the purchase of real estate by both black individuals and groups like the Afro-American Realty Company led to a boom market in affordable housing. Combined with the founding in New York City of three major African American civil rights organizations within six years—the NAACP, National Urban League, and Universal Negro Improvement Association—there was a huge sense of change and progress in Harlem. A close-knit community, complete with a significant literary and arts movement, quickly developed.
A basic proposition:
Homosexuality was fully incorporated into the social scene in 1920s and 1930s Harlem.
This is hardly up for debate. The pioneering research of gay historians like Eric Garber and George Chauncey has shown the existence of underground homosexual clubs and parties; perhaps the most dramatic of these were the Harlem costume balls and drag balls, which also attracted many straight whites, taking the A train uptown to gawk at the proceedings. In his essay “A Spectacle in Color,” Garber also discusses the frequent homosexuality or bisexuality of the era’s great jazz club singers. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Gladys Bentley, and Lucille Bogan included songs like “Sissy Blues” and “B.D. [Bulldagger] Woman Blues” in their repertoires. Meanwhile, A’Lelia Walker, the hair-straightening heiress, threw huge parties at her Sugar Hill apartment on 136th Street, attracting the attendance of celebrities, artists, and a number of socially-connected gay men and lesbians.
A literary angle:
The black literary culture of the 1920s also supported a homosexual network. Garber writes of the “literary gatherings” held at postal worker Alexander Gumby’s 5th Avenue studio, but Washington D.C. was also home to significant literary parties. Around the corner from Alain Locke’s R Street home, the widowed poet Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted the so-called Saturday Nighters at 1461 S Street NW. Key Harlem Renaissance writers—from Jean Toomer to Langston Hughes to Jessie Redmon Fauset to Anne Spencer to Zora Neale Hurston—were, at various times, attendees at Johnson’s events.
Within this artistic community, writers who were privately known to be homosexual or bisexual flourished. Hughes had both men and women hotly pursuing him, although his actual sexuality was confusing even to those attracted to him. The lesbian poet and writer Angelina Weld Grimké, who was biracial and came from a prominent Boston-area family with ties to Harvard, lived in Washington starting in 1916 and was a regular guest. The brilliant, conflicted gay novelist Wallace Thurman was friendly with Johnson, calling her “Godmother.” And Richard Bruce Nugent, the one openly gay member of the Renaissance, became close enough friends with Johnson to co-write a play with her, performed in DC in 1926.
Known more as an academic than as a writer, Alain Locke co-hosted many of these soirées with Johnson. It was here that he made or continued some of the acquaintances and connections that would thrust him into a central role in creating the Harlem Renaissance. Locke’s ideas, his interests, and his passions—both personal and literary—would help to define the nature of that Renaissance.
Next week: In part two, the cerebral and sexual sides of Alain Locke.
For Hidden History, I’ll write more about pornographers and poets, furies and faggots, books and bootleggers, singers and scandals. If you’ve got suggestions about people, places, and ideas I should cover, particularly if they have a D.C. connection, shoot me an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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