Excerpt from Black Men, White Men
T'AIN'T NOBODY'S BIZNESS
Homosexuality in 1920's Harlem
FLAPPERS, RACCOON COATS, cars with running boards, pocket flasks, bathtub gin and jazz bands -all these images spring quickly to mind whenever the Roaring '20s are mentioned. But other images that were just as much a part of that time have slipped out of memory and out of the popular imagination. These are the images of Harlem in the '20s, when a renaissance of Black culture made this poor and crowded neighborhood a vital, busy hub of creativity.
|Many of the key figures who made the renaissance possible were lesbians and gay men. Then, as now, sexual minorities played an important role in the formation of urban minority culture.|
Harlem was largely the creation of the thousands of Black Americans who migrated north after the turn of the century. They came in search of a better life and to escape the racist violence of the South. When the United States entered World War I a freeze was put on all immigration, and hundreds of openings in northern factories were immediately available for Blacks. Within two decades, large metropolitan communities of Black Americans had sprung up. So significant was this shift of population that historians refer to it as the "Great Migration." Black communities developed in Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco, but the largest and most spectacular was Harlem.
Harlem became the mecca for Afro-Americans all over the country. Nowhere else could you find so large an area, really a city within a city, populated entirely by Blacks. The lure was particularly enticing to young, unmarried, transient Blacks, and Harlem's streets became filled with energetic, often gifted, youth.
Following the war, the United States, yearning in vain for a return to simpler times, took a decided swing to the right. The most conspicuous manifestation of this conservative trend was the prohibition of alcohol, mandated by passage of the 18th Amendment. Hand in hand with this reactionary political climate was the frightening resurgence of White racism. In 1918 alone, 78 Blacks were murdered by White lynch mobs.
The Afro-American community quickly countered with a selfconscious pride and militancy. Marcus Garvey, the charismatic West Indian orator, had thousands of followers in his Black nationalistic "Back to Africa" movement. Black servicemen had been treated with a degree of respect and been given a taste of near equality while in Europe; their wartime experiences influenced their expectations when they returned home. Participation in the war effort had given the Black community a sense of involvement in the American process, and there was a new feeling in the air that demanded participation in the mainstream of American life. W.E.B. Dubois and his National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) usually appealed to a more educated crowd than Garvey's followers but were just as powerful and influential. Though different, both of these popular movements offered Black pride and racial unity as a means to help their people.
This rise in Black militancy coincided with a nationwide surge of White interest in aspects of Afro-American culture. Some Whites, in reaction to the nation's new conservatism, had adopted a devil-may-care attitude, tweaking their noses at authority and devoting themselves to the discovery of new thrills. They began to listen to the jazz of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Fats Waller. The Charleston and the Black Bottom, dances previously limited to the jazz halls, became national crazes. Shuffle Along, an all-Black musical, was a smash success on Broadway and rocketed Florence Mills to stardom. White authors and playwrights began to use race and racial prejudice as serious subject matter.
In Harlem this vogue for the Negro manifested itself primarily in the huge influx of Whites slumming in the district's nightclubs. The Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, Small's Paradise and Pod and Jerry's were packed nightly with Whites drinking bootleg liquor and watching talented Black entertainers.
It came as no surprise to most of Harlem that many of these fancy clubs were exclusively for Whites. The majority of those slumming had little concern for social equality or justice. Americans had recently been exposed to popular versions of the shocking theories of Sigmund Freud. Spotting neuroses, latent homosexual tendencies and other discomfitting evidence of the unconscious at work became a sort of parlor game. Harlem and its inhabitants became a symbol of the "natural" human consciousness, unrestrained and uncontaminated by civilization. A trip to Harlem represented an escape to a primitive, exotic community where the natives were uninhibited, passionate and animalistic. And how convenient--only a taxi ride away!
One of the people primarily responsible for this influx of White tourists to Harlem was the tall, blond, Iowa-born author Carl Van Vechten.
Van Vechten was everything a sophisticated Manhattan dilettante should have been: witty, talented and homosexual. He had written for years as a music critic before achieving acclaim as an author. There was hardly an avant-garde intellectual movement or artistic form that Van Vechten was not on top of. He introduced Gertrude Stein and Ronald Firbank to American audiences and rediscovered Herman Melville. Throughout the '20s he produced a series of novels that were sparkling, frothy and exceedingly camp, including Peter Whiffle, The Tattooed Countess, The Blind Bow Boy and Parties. Though rarely overtly homosexual, Van Vechten's novels became very popular with the gay set, who sensed a kindred spirit in his preciousness.
In 1924 Van Vechten turned his attention to the Afro-American community, in what was to become, for him, almost an addiction. He began to frequent the nightclubs and saloons, quickly becoming a regular, and his circle of friends included most of educated Harlem. As an influential critic, he helped launch the careers of numerous talented Blacks, but he is notorious for his 1926 novel, naively titled Nigger Heaven.
Nigger Heaven told the story of the tragic love between a young Black writer and his Harlem girlfriend and was intended to impart a sympathetic understanding of Harlem and its people. Some of Van Vechten's Black friends appreciated it, but the majority of Harlem was outraged. The few who could get beyond the title were put off by the author's affectations, which had become a Van Vechten trademark.
The White reading public had the opposite reaction, and the novel quickly became a best seller. After reading the novel, many Whites hurried to Harlem to see the real thing.
But for Van Vechten, and for the other White homosexuals who followed him, Harlem offered deeper rewards than it did to the slumming parties of Flaming Youths. Prior to the'20s, homosexual social life had been limited to private gatherings, anonymous situations such as parks and bathhouses, or to socially disreputable places such as red-light districts or Bowery-like areas. The Jazz Age was a time when lesbians and gay men began to acquire new territories for themselves. These new territories provided greater freedom and made secrecy less crucial. One place where sexual minorities were beginning to meet and socialize was in the bohemian circles of radicals, feminists, artists and free-thinkers that were developing in places such as New York's Greenwich Village and London's Bloomsbury district. Another such place was Harlem.
Many White lesbians and gay men felt a kinship with Harlem's residents, a kinship White heterosexuals were less able to feel. Blair Niles' 1931 novel Strange Brother describes a young, White, gay man who frequents the nightclubs and speakeasies of Harlem. He comes to Harlem not to find adventure or make assignations but because he identifies with those he believes are also outcasts from American life. Niles was a heterosexual journalist who was personally involved with uptown gay life, and she modeled the characters of her novel on real individuals. There is no reason to doubt that her fictional portrait was often mirrored in real life.
If White homosexuals found sanctuary and a sense of camaraderie uptown in Harlem, Black lesbians and gay men found a comfortable home. Black homosexuals could be found on the street corners, in the cabarets, at church on Sundays and attending parties. Their bemused, nongay neighbors referred to them as "pansies," "sissies," "bulldykes" (or its variation, "bulldaggers") or people with "freakish ways." Harlem homosexuals, when speaking to each other about themselves, preferred the terms "the people" or "the life." And as new settlers always do, they quickly developed territories and social institutions all their own.
Speakeasies and nightclubs provided part of this new Black gay territory, and many lesbians and gay men could be found dancing at The Garden of Joy or listening to the bands at Rockland Palace. Entertainer Ethel Waters would later remember loaning her gowns to the "drags" who patronized Edmond's, the club in which she was discovered.
Usually gays were forced to hide their sexual preferences at such clubs and to blend in with the heterosexuals, but there were several Harlem speakeasies, actually little more than dives, that catered specifically to the pansy trade. One such place, an "open" speakeasy, since there was no doorman to keep the uninvited away, was located on the northwest corner of 126th Street and 7th Avenue. It was a large, dimly lit bar where gay men could go to pick up rough trade. Artist Bruce Nugent, who occasionally went there, remembers it catering to "rough" queers ... the kind that fought better than truck drivers and swished better than Mae West." The rowdy atmosphere and the frequent fights limited the speakeasy's patronage.
Within the Black entertainment milieu, composed of the singers, dancers, musicians and actors who provided much of the excitement of the nightlife of Harlem, homosexuality was not a liability. Female impersonators Charles Anderson and "Gloria Swanson" were well known and well respected within the community. George Hanna could sing of his "freakish ways" without fear of censure. The debonair Porter Grainger, composer of the blues classic "Tain't Nobody's Bizness" and an intimate of Van Vechten's, was not judged on his private life.
For lesbians, whose social options were even more limited, the Black entertainment field also offered support for non-traditional lifestyles. Harlem lesbian Mabel Hampton left her family home in Winston-Salem, N.C. to migrate to the North. She worked with her lover as a dancer in a Coney Island show before landing a position at the famed Lafayette Theatre. Being a dancer gave Hampton a good income, limited her social contact with heterosexual men, and provided her with a predominantly lesbian social group of similarly inclined chorus girls.
Many bisexual and lesbian Black women sought the advantages of the show-business life, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Jackie "Moms" Mabley and Josephine Baker. But undoubtedly the most celebrated lesbian to find her home in the Harlem nightlife was Gladys Bentley. She was born into a poor Pennsylvania family in 1907. Even as a youngster her boyish ways were noticeable, and eventually the unhappy girl, tormented by family and schoolmates alike, ran away from home to try and earn her living. She got her first job at The Mad House on 133rd Street, after convincing the owner that a girl could play piano just as well as a boy. Her exceptional musical abilities and her habit of wearing male attire not only got her the job, they made her famous. During the '20s, Bentley played most of the fashionable clubs in Harlem. She was the featured entertainer at the popular after-hours eatery The Clam House, where she entertained guests with the risque lyrics she wrote to popular melodies. For a time, she owned and operated The Exclusive Club.
Bentley was always open about her lesbianism. She would parade daily down 7th Avenue in men's clothing and even married her girlfriend in an Atlantic City civil ceremony in the early 1930s. Bentley, of course, wore the tuxedo. A friend remembers her as being genuinely happy about her homosexuality.
"Buffet flats" were another social institution that tolerated, and frequently encouraged, homosexual patronage. Apartments where rooms could be rented by the night, buffet flats had sprung up during the late 1800s to provide overnight accommodations to Black travelers, who were often refused service in White-owned hotels. By the 1920s, buffet flats ranged from genteel apartments offering food and lodging; to more raucous establishments where numerous illegal activities such as drinking, gambling, and prostitution were available; to riotous sex circuses where a wide variety of sexual pleasures were provided cafeteria-style. Hazel Valentine ran such a circus on 140th Street. It catered to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals and became so notorious that both Fats Waller and Count Basie composed tunes commemorating it.
A homosexual relative of Al Capone financed another buffet flat in Chicago. More sedate than Hazel Valentine's, this flat would sometimes hold racially mixed parties for gay men. The proceedings were festive, with couples discreetly meandering into the back rooms when they wished to be alone.
Even though the Harlem nightlife and the buffet flats offered Black lesbians and gay men certain benefits, they were, at least technically, illegal. But the frequent drag balls, where both women and men could dress as they pleased and dance with whom they wished, were not only socially acceptable, they were officially sanctioned.
Drag balls, part of the American homosexual underground for decades, had developed from clandestine private events into lavish formal affairs attended by thousands. The Harlem balls in particular were anticipated with great excitement by both Blacks and Whites. The largest were annual events at the regal Rockland Palace, which held up to 6,000 people. Only slightly smaller were the ones given irregularly at the dazzling Savoy Ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers and elegant marble staircase. The organizers would obtain a police permit making the ball, and its participants, legal for the evening. The highlight of the event was the beauty contest, in which the fashionably dressed drags would vie for the title Queen of the Ball. Julian, the White protagonist of the classic 1933 gay novel by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, The Young and Evil, dons a little make-up (just enough to be "considered in costume and so get in for a dollar less") and sets off to a Harlem ball. Once there he greets his friends, dances to the jazz music, gets exceedingly drunk, flirts with the band leader and eventually exchanges phone numbers with a handsome stranger.
But drag balls had their disadvantages. A large percentage of those who attended the balls were heterosexual, there to observe rather than participate. It was not unusual to see the cream of Harlem society, as well as much of the White avantgarde set, on the ballroom's bandstand, straining their necks to view the drags. Many gays didn't like being gawked at.
Private parties were the best place for Black lesbians and gay men to socialize. "We used to go to parties every other night .... The girls all had the parties," remembers Mabel Hampton.
Like much in Harlem, parties were extremely varied. The commonest kind was the "rent party." Few of Harlem's residents had much money, and sometimes rent was hard to come by. To raise funds, people would throw an enormous party, inviting the public and charging admission. There would be dancing and jazz, and bootleg liquor for sale in the kitchen. It is about just such a party that Bessie Smith sang her famous "Gimmie a pigfoot and a bottle of beer." On any given Saturday night, there would be scores of these parties throughout Harlem. Those in attendance rarely knew their hosts. The dancing and merriment would continue until dawn, and by morning the landlord could be paid.
One such party was satirically described by Wallace Thurman in his 1932 novel Infants of the Spring. To raise supplies, the residents of a Harlem boarding house decide to throw a donation party; the price of admission is a sack of groceries. By 11 pm. a crowd has assembled and the party is under way. Among the multitude of schoolteachers, intellectuals and artists is a flamboyant bisexual painter, Paul Arbian, who proudly displays his new protege, a handsome bootblack, to the "fanciful aggregation of Greenwich Village uranians" he has invited. Apparently, anything was likely to occur at rent parties.
One gay Harlemite whose parties were more exclusive was Alexander Gumby. Gumby, who had arrived in Harlem.near the turn of the century, immediately became entranced with the theatrical set and decided to open a salon to attract them. He saved the money he earned as a postal clerk and rented a large studio on 5th Avenue between 131st and 132nd streets. Known as Gumby's Bookstore because of the hundreds of books that lined the walls, the salon drew many theatrical and artistic luminaries. White author Samuel Steward remembers being taken to Gumby's one evening by a lesbian friend and enjoying a delightful evening of "reefer," bathtub gin, a game of truth and homosexual carrying on.
Certainly the most opulent parties in Harlem were thrown by the heiress A'Lelia Walker. A'Lelia was a striking, tall, dark-skinned woman who was rarely seen without her riding crop and her imposing, jeweled turban. She was the only daughter of Madame C. J. Walker, a former washerwoman who had made millions marketing her own hair-straightening process. When she died, Madame Walker left virtually her entire fortune to A'Lelia.
Whereas Madame Walker had been civic minded, donating thousands of dollars to charity, A'Lelia used most of her inheritance to throw lavish parties in her palatial Hudson River estate, Villa Lewaro, and at her Manhattan dwelling on 136th Street. Because A'Lelia adored the company of lesbians and gay men, her parties had a distinctly gay ambiance. Elegant homosexuals Edward Perry, Caska Bonds and Van Vechten became her closest friends and were regulars at her affairs. Everyone from chorus girls to artists to socialites to visiting royalty would come at least once to enjoy her hospitality.
A'Lelia took particular pleasure from the Black poets, artists and writers of Harlem. This should not be surprising. Just as White bohemia served as a refuge for sexual nonconformists, so too did Black bohemia. Many of the writers, intellectuals and artists of what we now call the Harlem Renaissance were homosexual, bisexual or otherwise sexually unorthodox. Their status as artists, part of the "talented tenth" who were thought by DuBois to be the saviors of their race, protected them from public disapproval of their private lives. Alain Locke, the Howard University professor who heralded the renaissance in 1925 with his seminal anthology The New Negro, received no censure for never marrying, nor for his predilection for intelligent, male students.
That poet Langston Hughes never married was seen as peculiar, but the motives behind his bachelorhood were never questioned. The community was certainly aware of poet Countee Cullen's lifelong relationship with Harlem schoolteacher Harold Jackman, but people remained tactfully silent. Arna Bontemps would later remember Cullen and Jackman as the "Jonathan and David of the Harlem Renaissance."
But the most bohemian of them all was Richard Bruce Nugent.
Raised in a proper Washington, D.C., family, Nugent dabbled successfully in painting, drawing, poetry and dancing. He was selfconsciously avant-garde and often had no permanent address, preferring to drift from place to place. Nugent spent much of his time drawing erotic, often phallic, drawings.
Nugent was openly homosexual throughout the renaissance period but was seldom rebuffed because of it. He is credited with writing the first fictional portrayal of Black male homosexuality: In 1926 in the Harlem little magazine Fire!!, he published "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" (under the pseudonym "Richard Bruce" to avoid parental disapproval). The story concerned a Harlem homosexual who falls in love with a stunningly beautiful Latin male. A good portion of Harlem society found the story shocking. Nevertheless, Nugent was ostracized for no more than a few days.
Bruce Nugent (left) and Philander Thomas, witha deck steward on the Bremen, on their way to London.
(Porgy tour, ca. 1927.)
Photo courtesy of Bruce Nugent.
The editor of Fire!!, Wallace Thurman, was a close friend of Nugent's. Thurman was an iconoclast: cynical, sarcastic, alcoholic and deeply ambivalent about his bisexuality. After the demise of Fire!!, which in fact ran for only one issue, Thurman published a novel that has since become a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, The Blacker the Berry ... (1929). The novel concerns the attempts of a dark-skinned woman to overcome the color prejudices of her own culture. Thurman brings homosexual situations into the plot twice: once in the form of a lesbian boarding-house manager, and again in the form of the protagonist's bisexual boyfriend.
But it is in Infants of the Spring that Thurman deals most explicitly with homosexuality. Published in 1932, this obvious roman a clef retrospectively satirizes the Harlem Renaissance movement and its participants. It focuses on two Black bohemians: Paul, the flamboyant bisexual artist mentioned earlier, and Raymond, a darkskinned writer who develops a quasi-homosexual relationship with a White youth. One would have to overlook much of the novel's commentary to categorize Infants of the Spring as exclusively homosexual in nature; Thurman was writing about more than that. But there is no mistaking the importance of homosexuality to the novel's plot: a point often ignored by heterosexual critics.
The stock market crash of 1929 brought the glittering Jazz Age to an abrupt halt. Without the money of the White pleasure seekers, the buoyant spirit of Harlem gave way to the far more insistent reality of the worldwide Depression. But gifts from this generation of lesbians and gay men still survive for us, 60 years later. Ma Rainey's "Prove It on Me Blues" still speaks to the pride and strength of lesbians. The work of Bruce Nugent and Wallace Thurman reminds us that much of gay male life and thought has remained the same. These pioneer lesbians and gay men have left us a legacy that speaks to the wide diversity of our evolving gay culture. It is a legacy we should not forget.