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Cruising the Harlem Renaissance with Richard Bruce Nugent

9 November 2020

Dylan Rowen, University of Melbourne

And the beauty of it pained him so,

The smile so doubled sexed and slow,

Faint fair breasts and pale torso,

Male into female seemed to flow—

—Richard Bruce Nugent, ‘Narcissus’.[1]

The avant-garde literary magazine FIRE!! — an envisioned modernist quarterly devoted to African American artists — premiered its first and only edition in November 1926, edited by Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce (Nugent), Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, and John Davis. This queer modernist manifesto was a deliberate textual and visual provocation intended to shock the elder contingent of the Harlem Renaissance — typified by individuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke — in an effort to critique the bourgeois assimilationist politics of the older generation.[2]Matthew N. Hannah writes that this publication made tangible and present the constantly mobile and ‘dynamically queer sexualities operative in Harlem through a modernist politics of aesthetic representation [which was] in direct opposition to racial uplift and sociological analysis.’[3]Thurman believed that these two strategies relied too heavily on the categorical effort of white, bourgeois, heteronormative values that refused to represent actual lived Black social realities and practices, and hence wanted to engender FIRE!! with a non-normative aesthetic that embraced the multiplicities of non-heterosexual desires and practices, which, in effort, refuses the politics of assimilation.[4]Hannah further writes that, in ‘manifesting the visible yet elided queerness of Harlem, Fire!! exposed the more or less open secret that black sexuality was not confined to the bourgeois home nor to the reproduction of the race.’[5]FIRE!! and its incendiary contents were intended to set alight notions of conservative attitudes to sex, race, and class.

The disruptive queer modernisms of sex, identity, and race in FIRE!! can best be exemplified in Richard Bruce Nugent’s explicitly homosexual and textually experimental stream-of-consciousness short story ‘Smoke, Lilies and Jade, A Novel, Part I’. This ‘novel’ is punctuated throughout by incessant, disruptive ellipses, which, instead of representing an elision of the unspeakable, actually bridges the sentences quite fluidly and intelligibly in a queer fusion of cruising as a reading practice. In this text, Nugent depicts same-sex erotic attraction through a third-person narrative detailing the bohemian artist Alex, who cruises Harlem and encounters Beauty. Beauty has a body described as ‘all symmetry and music,’ with perfectly shaped:[6]

‘lips [that] were so beautiful . . . quizzical . . . Alex wondered why he always thought of that passage from Wilde’s Salome . . . when he looked at Beauty’s lips . . .  I would like to kiss your lips . . . he wouldlike to kiss Beauty’s lips […] Alex lay smoking . . . such a dream . . . red calla lilies . . . red calla lilies . . . and . . .  what did it all mean . . . did dreams have meanings . . . Fania said . . . and black poppies . . . thousands . . . millions . . . Beauty stirred. . .’[7]

The text stylistically renders radical depictions of interracial queer desire and transgressive sex scenes that penetrate towards a gay interiority and homosocial subjectivity. These beads and dots represent a constant elliptical queer movement of evasion and elision which is never quite pinned down. J. E. Bauer suggests Nugent’s strategies for existing in a racist and homophobic society lay in his textual experimentation, which embraces a radical aestheticism that prioritises flânerie (an aimless, flamboyant, thoughtful, artistic, urban mode of strolling) as a form of non-normative sexual dissidence.[8]The free indirect discourse of this story denies the crystallising identarian impulses of gay categorisation, a constant technique that Nugent employs to catalogue and ‘experience queer desires outside the framework of a knowable sexual identity or community.’[9]Nugent rejects the closet and gay identity in the process of his queer becoming.

While Nugent’s sensuous artistic style and aesthetic sensibilities may be reminiscent of fin de siècle aesthetes such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde, even referencing Wilde’s 1891 decadent play Salomé in ‘Smoke’ as seen above, Nugent imbues both his writings and visual art with techniques that subvert and transgress normative ideals of whiteness and sexuality, synthesising a unique blend of early twentieth century queer culture with African symbolism [See Fig. 1]. Being the only outwardly queer writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Nugent’s short story came under fire by other queer artists and commentators, such as the discreetly gay ‘father of the Harlem Renaissance’ Alain Locke, who wrote in response to the ‘hectic imitation of the “naughty nineties” and effete echoes of contemporary decadence’ of FIRE!!that the ‘strong sex radicalism of many of the contributors will shock many well-wishers and elate some of our adversaries […] Whitman would have been a better point of support than a left-wing pivoting on Wilde and Beardsley.’[10]Nugent’s radicalism—his fusion of old with new—employing the new ‘homosexual’ typology of the aesthete decadent fairy, is a radical engendering of the modern and the queer. Langston Hughes wrote that Nugent’s queer narrative is ‘a green and purple story […] in the Oscar Wilde tradition,’ and Nugent revels in such a lineage.[11]

Figure 1: Richard Bruce Nugent, Salome Dancing, ca. 1925-1930. Ink over graphite on paper, 14 7/16 x 10 15/16 in. (36.7 x 27.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Dr. Thomas H. Wirth, gift of Frederick J. Adler, by exchange, bequest of Richard J. Kempe, by exchange, and gift of Abraham Walkowitz, by exchange, 2008.50.4.

In Wallace Thurman’s 1932 satirical roman-à-clef novel Infants of the Spring, Nugent is fictionally represented as the decadent bisexual artist Paul Arbian, a Black aesthete whose art and lifestyle is inspired by such figures as Oscar Wilde, Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, Ernest Dowson, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, James Whistler, Paul Gauguin, Picasso, and Ignacio Zuloaga.[12]Paul-as-Nugent is depicted as a charming, playful, self-described genius who revels in the creation of his ‘abominable drawings.’ When asked if Paul ever ‘indulged in homosexuality,’ he replies, ‘I really don’t know. After all there are no sexes, only sex majorities, and the primary function of the sex act is enjoyment. Therefore I enjoyed one experience as much as the other.’[13]This indication of Paul-as-Nugent’s relaxed, fluid understanding of sexuality and identity is informative of Nugent’s own relationship with sex, as can be witnessed in the epigraph to this essay. Male into female, masculine into feminine, towards a de-gendered approach to sexuality that is not predicated on binary notions of gender, is characteristic of Nugent’s aesthetic and sexual practice. Sex, as shown in Infants, as well as in ‘Smoke’, is an embodied act that is radically different from gender-choice sexual identity.

‘Smoke, Lilies and Jade’ urges us to go outside, to commit to flânerie, letting it overwhelm our senses through the unbearable, repeating, pulsating, desirous nature emphasised throughout by the textual inclusion of its constant ellipses. These modernist regressions and elisions push us forward as a reader, and in its portrayal of queer cruising practices, seduces us with a portrayal of continually unfolding sites of sexual subversion within Harlem.


[1]Richard Bruce Nugent, ‘Narcissus’. Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance.Selections From the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, ed. by T. H. Wirth. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 87.

[2]Amritjit Singh, ‘Forward to the 1992 Edition,’ In Infants of the Spring(Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992), p. xi.

[3]Matthew N. Hannah, ‘Desires Made Manifest: The Queer Modernism of Wallace Thurman’s Fire!!Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 38, No. 3 (2015), p. 163.

[4]Ibid., pp. 163-164.

[5]Ibid., p. 173.

[6]Nugent, ‘Smoke, Lilies, and Jade, A Novel, Part I’, Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, p. 82.

[7]Ibid., p. 83.

[8]J. Edgar Bauer, ‘On the Transgressiveness of Ambiguity: Richard Bruce Nugent and the Flow of Sexuality and Race’, Journal of Homosexuality,62: 8 (August 2015), p. 1027.

[9]Scott Herring, Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Gay and Lesbian History(Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 143.

[10]Alain Locke, ‘Fire: A Negro Magazine’,Survey58 (15 August-15 September 1927),p. 563.

[11]Langston Hughes, TheBig Sea: An Autobiography(London: Pluto, ([1940] 1986), p. 237.

[12]Wallace Thurman, Infants of the Spring, p. 24.

[13]Ibid., p. 47.

Cover image: ‘Bruce Nugent: No. VI j 27’ (1936). Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 146 Central Park West. From the Carl Van Vechten Papers Relating to African American Arts and Letters. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, call number: JWJ MSS 1050.

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