The Harlem Renaissance in Black Queer History
African American literary critic and professor Henry Louis Gates once reflected that the Harlem Renaissance was “surely as gay as it was Black, not that it was exclusively either of these.” Gates’s comments point to the often-overlooked place of the Harlem Renaissance within queer history.
The Harlem Renaissance, a literary and cultural flowering centered in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood that lasted from roughly the early 1920s through the mid-1930s, marked a turning point in African American culture. Developments from Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore-influenced fiction to Duke Ellington’s colorful orchestrations reflected an assertive and forward-thinking Black identity that philosopher Alain Locke dubbed “The New Negro.”
Black queer artists and intellectuals were among the most influential contributors to this cultural movement. Like other queer people in early twentieth century America, they were usually forced to conceal their sexualities and gender identities. Many leading figures of the period, including Countee Cullen, Bessie Smith, and Alain Locke, are believed to have pursued same-sex relationships in their private lives, even as they maintained public personas that were more acceptable to mainstream audiences. From a modern vantage point, the work of these artists and their peers is part of the foundation of modern Black LGBTQ art.
The literary scene in Harlem during the 1920s and early 30s was a haven for several prominent Black queer writers. Influential figures such as Wallace Thurman and Langston Hughes never spoke publicly about their intimate relationships, but later generations of scholars and biographers have drawn conclusions by examining their personal correspondence, unpublished writings, and comments from their contemporaries. Some writers of the period included homoerotic themes—or, rarely, discussions of same-sex romantic relationships—in their work.
Philosopher Alain Locke and poet Countee Cullen were two of the most prominent Black queer writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke, who was the first African American Rhodes Scholar and spent decades as a professor of philosophy at Howard University, defined the aesthetic and goals of the Renaissance with his 1925 book The New Negro. With this landmark collection of short fiction, poetry, and essays from young Black writers, Locke celebrated the arrival of a “New Negro” who would lift Black art to new levels of achievement while continuing the struggle for civil rights.
Countee Cullen’s 1925 poetry collection Color helped to establish his reputation as a leading Black poet of the new generation. Several of the poems in the collection, including “Yet Do I Marvel,” “Incident,” and “The Shroud of Color,” discuss themes related to racism and African American identity. Color also features “Heritage,” one of Cullen’s best-known poems, which explores the significance of the African past to twentieth-century African Americans.
Nightclubs were another place in which Black queer artists were able to build names for themselves, sometimes while challenging mainstream notions of “masculine” and “feminine” dress and behavior. This was due in part to the racism of New York City law enforcement during the 1920s. The Committee of Fourteen, a citizens’ organization that worked closely with the city police and courts to enforce anti-vice laws, was uninterested in the behavior of the Black residents of Harlem for most of the decade. Because of the Committee’s indifference, a vibrant LGBTQ nightlife existed in Harlem without the degree of legal persecution it would have faced elsewhere in the city. Queer entertainers, such as Jimmie Daniels at the Hot-Cha nightclub and Gladys Bentley at the Clam House, found success in this relatively lenient environment.
Although Jimmie Daniels originally came to New York to attend business classes at Bird’s Business Institute, he quickly fell in love with Harlem’s cultural scene. By the late 1920s, he began pursuing a career as a performer and developed close friendships with artists and intellectuals including vocalist Alberta Hunter and sculptor Richmond Barthé. From the start of his professional singing career at the Hot-Cha, Daniels built a devoted following of gay fans with his sophisticated renditions of jazz standards and showtunes. Daniels’s cane, which is topped with a carving of a Black man’s head, suggests something of the showmanship that earned him a decades-long career as an entertainer and nightclub host.
Gladys Bentley was one entertainer who openly flouted the gender and sexuality constraints of the 1920s and 30s. Bentley, who was the star performer at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House in the 1920s and the Ubangi Club in the early 1930s, became famous for performing in men’s clothing. She was known for singing raunchy songs about her female lovers while flirting with women in the audience.
In a highly publicized 1931 civil ceremony, Bentley married her then-girlfriend, a white woman. Bentley’s fame declined after the mid-1930s, but she left behind several excellent blues recordings on the Okeh, Victor, Excelsior, and Flame labels. Bentley’s artistry and courageous defiance of contention have made her an icon of early twentieth century LGBTQ history.
Many of the stars of the 1920s “classic blues” era, including Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, were involved in same-sex relationships at various points in their lives. Like other artists of the period, these women never commented publicly on their lesbian or bisexual identities, although they were relatively open with their colleagues in the entertainment world. A few of the well-known blues recordings of the 1920s, such as Ma Rainey’s 1928 recording of “Prove It On Me Blues,” contain references to lesbian relationships. Blueswomen including Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters were influential participants in the Harlem cultural scene during the 1920s and 30s, and the blues was a key element in the work of Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes.
Bessie Smith, known as the “Empress of the Blues,” was the most famous blues singer of the 1920s. Although she lived in Philadelphia from 1923 until her death in 1937, Smith made regular trips to New York City, where she recorded for Columbia Records and attended parties thrown by Harlem Renaissance impresario and photographer Carl Van Vechten. One of her most celebrated performances on record is a 1925 recording of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” on which she is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong. Smith reprised her performance in the 1929 short film St. Louis Blues, which is the only known footage of the great vocalist.
Alberta Hunter began her career as a blues singer, but she soon earned praise for her songwriting and her performances onstage (in the 1928 London production of Show Boat) and onscreen (in the film Radio Parade of 1935). A steady stream of successful recordings in the 1920s made her a star in the United States and in Europe, where she was often in demand as a nightclub performer. During the 1920s, Hunter began a relationship with Lottie Tyler—niece of the pioneering entertainer Bert Williams—that lasted until Tyler’s death in 1960. Hunter retired in the late 1950s, but she experienced a career renaissance in the 1970s, performing and recording until her death in 1984.
This collage, part of an archive of materials belonging to Jimmie Daniels, was created by Hunter’s “dear friend” Rex Madsen, a fashion designer who shared a house with Daniels in the 1950s.
Like Hunter, Ethel Waters got her start as a blues singer and quickly grew into a well-rounded entertainer. Over the course of a long and varied career, Waters established herself as one of the definitive figures in twentieth century American popular culture, inspiring Lena Horne to fittingly call her “the mother of us all.” Among many milestones, she was the first African American to star in a television show and the first African American to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Waters, who spent most of the 1920s living in Harlem with her romantic partner, dancer Ethel Williams, eventually became one of the highest paid Broadway actresses, regardless of race. She often appeared at the well-known Cotton Club, where she was the first to sing “Stormy Weather” as part of The Cotton Club Parade of 1933.
The cultural contributions of these and other Black queer artists remain influential a century later. Their stories illuminate the significance of the Harlem Renaissance as a turning point in African American culture and in Black queer history.
Written by Steven W. Lewis, Curator of Music and Performing Arts
Published on May 28, 2022