Harlem Renaissance students are all familiar with the poet Langston Hughes, yet the singer Gladys Bentley is not even a footnote in most accounts of the period. For many years, although Hughes’ sexual orientation was sometimes questioned, it was not the focus of most criticism of him or his body of work. However, Bentley did not even become known to modern audiences and readers until it was revealed by LGBTQ researchers that she was not only a contemporary of “Ma” Rainey, Ethel Waters and other Harlem Renaissance divas, but was also a cross-dressing lesbian (Phillipson 2011). With the flourishing of art in Harlem, Langston Hughes and others saw the birth of “the dream of racial equality” that was later quashed by the economic devastation of the Great Depression (Standish 2018, p. 45).
Famously in his poem, “Harlem” Hughes wondered what would happen to that dream. “Will it decay or evolve? Will it fade or be reborn?” (Standish 2018, p. 45). The black and queer activism that came later, particularly after the AIDS epidemic, answers that question. But at the time, Harlem was a powder keg of black and queer creativity. Hughes’ works have been dissected to determine proof of his sexuality yet have failed to prove anything but his genius. Bentley surfaced long enough to be recognized then disappeared again as her professed lesbianism turned to heterosexuality. However, it is interesting to question, why should one’s sexual orientation or gender presentation have any bearing on his or her artistic expression and the public’s appreciation thereof and why does it matter? To answer that question with regards to the Harlem Renaissance and its premier expression, African-American blues, one must delve deeper into the history of those details as well as the legendary times of the Harlem Renaissance and the Roaring Twenties.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not make black people equal under the law to whites, it did give the illusion of freedom. For the first time, former slaves of the south were able to travel without written permission from a slave owner. They could congregate, sing, dance, worship, and drink alcohol without the supervision of a ‘master.’ However, conditions were certainly not favorable for integration and they frequently found their ‘free’ existence to be as restrictive in many ways as had their previous enslavement (Waldrep 1996). Nevertheless, at the very least they were free from shackles and constant supervision and could move about the country should they wish to. Like teenagers turning eighteen, they began to experience life in ways previously unthinkable. Although they accepted the fact that life was short and hard, they lived that life to the fullest (Phillipson 2011), and in doing so pushed the boundaries of accepted societal behavior. Since they could not be a part of that society, life on the fringe for many was a parody and critique of society (Russonello 2019). The blues, that unique genre of music born in the hard scrapple rural south quickly adapted to the new urban environment and captured the attention of a white audience seeking the thrill of danger, if not the reality of it (Phillipson 2011). The first World War had induced a sense of fatalism (Rovit 2014). The sons and daughters of slaves brought the disenchanted whites of the Jazz Age an ‘authenticity’ that was not available in dominant society entertainment (Phillipson 2011), an illusion of freedom from death if only by living life to its fullest.
Presumed Negro Sexuality
Scholar Roderick A. Ferguson notes that it was the Great Migration to the north after the Civil War that caused the “production of speakeasies, black and tans, intermarriage, and fallen women” in the African American communities (2004, pp. 13-14). Although the sexualization of slaves through their labor was well documented (Waldrep 1996), this abrupt pseudo-freedom, combined with an urban rather that rural environment changed standards in gender roles, sexuality and “conjugal ideals” (Ferguson 2004, p. 14). The gospel tradition followed the migration, but even more so, did the tradition of blues, which adapted well to the dark clubs and speakeasies (Phillipson 2011). Early in the documentary, T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness, the narrator explains the difference between gospel and the blues, the church-based tradition and that of the honkytonk. The premier African-American creative expression is the blues, and gospel is the “other side…the face you put on” (Phillipson 2011), presumably to keep from disturbing the white majority. Moreover, it was assumed that blacks were sexual, and deviates from the norm (Phillipson 2011) and the frequently sexually explicit lyrics of the blues titillated white audiences.
The Roaring Twenties in Harlem
The Roaring Twenties or Jazz Age is intricately entwined with and mirrors the Harlem Renaissance, not simply because of context, but because it was a time of increased wealth (though certainly not equitable) for both the middle-class whites and the blacks who took part in the Great Migration (Rovit 2014). This combined with explosions in radio and print media, exposed people to a greater variety of goods and entertainment than ever before (Rovit 2014). People became curious about their fellow Americans. “The American 1920s was an era defined by exuberance and a lively deferment of looming racial tension” (Standish 2018, p. 40). Audiences wanted boundaries pushed, just as they wanted bootleg whiskey. The federal and state laws and rules concerning prohibition and strict closing times could not prevent the afterhours trade that spread jazz, that younger brother of the blues (Vogel 2006). People intermingled, black and white, male and female, wealthy and less-so. It is difficult in retrospect to determine if black homosexuality was the chicken or the egg in this consideration as obviously homosexuality was a constant throughout history, but the acceptance and proliferation of alternative genders became an open question during this era, and perhaps especially among black artists and performers.
Even those who don’t know a lot about the Harlem Renaissance recognize the name of the Cotton Club, a venue that has become synonymous with the era (Vogel 2006). However, that theater was only one of many throughout the neighborhood. The Clam House featured pianist and vocalist, as well as tuxedoed lesbian Gladys Bentley (Phillipson 2011). The nightlife of the cafes and nightclubs were not only the scenes for partying at the time but likewise the basis for numerous fictional works set in the era (Stavney 1999). These were the places, such as the Ubangi Club that featured Gladys Bentley as well as female impersonators (Phillipson 2011), and that “functioned as a contact zone for heterosexuals, bisexuals and homosexuals” (Stavney 1999, p. 134). The black experience in Harlem in the 20s was “incubated (in) bohemian and modernistic trends” (Phillipson 2011). It was manifested in elaborate “drag balls”, at which both black and white participants frequently cross-dressed (Stavney 1999, p. 132). It effectively opened an avenue wherein if one so desired he or she could gender-bend, at least under some circumstances.
The Harlem Renaissance
Although the dates of 1917-1935 ascribed to the Harlem Renaissance (Suggs 2017), like all eras bleeds off onto either side, these years between the end of World War I and the height of the Great Depression were particularly creative ones. They set the stage, so to speak for the many creative efforts of black homosexual artists to follow and they opened the doors, if only a crack that would allow some of those artists and ordinary people to eventually accept and celebrate their differences. Although not confined to Harlem, it was within physical Harlem and the mythical space of Harlem that the black artistic ‘heart’ flourished (Suggs 2017). It effectively brought the blacks of the rural south onto the world stage to tell their own stories through words, music, and artistic works of all kinds.
Interestingly, not all the blacks in Harlem were American born; 25% were from outside of the states, primarily the Caribbean (Phillipson 2006, p. 146). The Caribbean writers introduced a “postcolonial perspective that shaped the ideology” of the Renaissance (Phillipson 2006, p. 146). Although the imperialism suffered by Africans under various regimes frequently took different forms, the freedoms afforded by the Harlem Renaissance gave the artists a “platform from which to speak…(and)…the vision each put forth subverted all national and imperial paradigms” (Phillipson 2006, p. 148), effectively grounding a pan-African consciousness. Underlying themes of pain, pride and hope were articulated by black Americans with a “unique experience” that people, especially in the wake of a devastating war, were anxious to view (Standish 2018, p. 44). If black people had survived perhaps there was hope for all people. However, until recently, although race and class issues have been discussed and critiqued, there has been a lack of scholarship regarding gender issues in the African-American community (Stavney 1999, p. 130).
Langston Hughes and His Contemporaries
Many view Langston Hughes as the very embodiment of the Harlem Renaissance (Standish 2018). He was only eighteen when he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” an anthem of what Negro life had been and would be (Standish 2018). However, although homosexuality at the time might have been “acknowledged,” it was not “necessarily accepted” (Stavney 1999, p. 134). So, outside of the glow of the nightlife, many queer black professionals, including Hughes, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, hid their sexual preferences (Stavney 1999). Since one must always read the past in context, it is easy to understand how one’s homosexuality might have been a draw in performance art. However, the sexuality of the author impacts the reader on the written page somewhat differently than that of a stage performance. It one’s intended audience includes those of a different sexual orientation, the intrusion of the author’s sexuality can be interpreted as overshadowing the story, or even as being confrontational. Especially at a time when black writers were finally finding publishers, the acceptance of the potential audience was a great consideration.
There is always the chance that Hughes was simply a private man who didn’t wish to share intimate details of his life as he doesn’t mention it in his autobiography, but the rumors of his homosexuality were around nevertheless (Summers 2016). His themes of “gender/racial issues” such as questioning black masculinity and the oppression of gays was balanced by his “extensive writing about Black women” which critics concluded proved his heterosexuality (Summers 2016, p. 669). Still, in the temporary cocoon of the Harlem Renaissance, a queer black writer might have been accepted. However, later heteronormative trends in the black creative community “conflated loyalty to race with loyalty to straightness” (Summers 2016, p. 669). Hughes’ estate reacted to renewed rumors of homosexuality brought on by the 1988 film Looking for Langston by attempting to ban it in the US, limiting access to copyrighted works and denouncing Hughes’ sexuality as unimportant to his work (Summers 2016). Hughes’ biographer noted that no one could remember a single man who Hughes had sex with (Vogel 2006), implying that one is asexual unless performing the sex act.
Interestingly, of the many queer black writers who wrote during and as a result of the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Bruce Nugent is remarkable for the fact that he received little attention at the time, and for the fact that unlike most of the writers mentioned, he was openly homosexual, and a “vanguard of his time” (Bauer 2015, p. 1023). Likewise, his writings and his art are highly intellectual, somewhat outside the frame of speakeasies, dive bars, and the blues. In fact, it is posited that the “predominant lack of familiarity with the philosophical source” to which he referred was probably why his work was not critically recognized at the time (Bauer 2015, p. 1023). Although the stereotypical ‘plantation’ images of blacks were retreating, the new ‘progressive’ persona of African-Americans was nevertheless still stereotypical, and Nugent’s “deconstruction of race compartmentations” might have indicated to some then and now that he had an “indifference toward the plight and struggles of disenfranchised African Americans” (Bauer 2015, p.1023), when it is in fact liberating. Like Gladys Bentley, discussed below, he simply didn’t fit the popular concept of the ‘new’ Negro.
The Harlem Divas Who Lived and Sang the Blues
Unlike the Harlem Renaissance writers who were primarily educated middle-class, many of the female singers were from working class or poor backgrounds (Stavney 1999). “Ma” Rainey, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, three of the best known ‘divas’ of the era were undeniably “representatives of the working-class” and therefore viewed as ‘authentic’ models of black women (Stavney 1999, p. 130). Their rowdy rendering of the blues and open sexuality with both men and women was commercially successful and they “cultivated the reckless, super sexy, bisexual image” that was so popular (Stavney 1999, p. 134). The case of Gladys Bentley is interesting as she was as popular as the above-cited women during the 30s when she performed as a cross-dressing piano playing blues singer who flaunted her lesbianism (Stavney 1999). She introduced audiences not just to a “male impersonator” but a woman who desired women sexually and was frequently seen courting one around town (Russonello 2019). She was an accomplished pianist and show person who “belted gender-bending original blues numbers and lewd parodies of popular songs” to packed houses (Russonello 2019). She, of all those discussed herein, “opened up a third term or space of possibility which threatened and fascinated black and white audiences, and which serves to confound current scholars relying on clearly demarcated critical categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality” (Stavney 1999, p. 131). She conducted her life as a man until being “cured of homosexuality” and marrying later in her life (Russonello 2019) Although social factors such as the “normalizing” of sexual behaviors influenced by World War II and the McCarthy era, might be a factor, what also might be considered is that Bentley simply reinvented herself (Stavney 1999, pp. 131-2). Regardless of the speculations, the fact remains that Bentley’s apparent sexuality that made her the rage in the 1930s is the same question that keeps her name out of current discussions of race and gender.
Herein, it is evident that ideas of race, sexuality and gender are fluid. Just as Hughes avoided any indication of his sexuality, Bentley invented and then reinvented herself. Their motivations, whether personal or dictated by public perceptions is unknown. Writers are not the characters nor the narrators they create. Performers are not the costumes they wear nor the songs that they sing. Paintings and other works of art are simply expressions of the artist, not the artist him or herself. Although one cannot ordinarily change the color of one’s skin and changing one’s physical sexuality is still difficult in the 21st century, there are other ways in which individuals perform their race and their gender. “Once sexuality and race cease to be pressed into the molds of arbitrary categorizations and become configuring marks of the individual’s uniqueness, they open up the possibility of a discourse aiming at grasping (and not curtailing) their complexity” (Bauer 2015, p.1044).
Lorraine Hansberry, for whom Hughes was a mentor, was likewise caught between being black and being gay, or between being respectable and being exotic (Perry 2018). Queerness, despite modern expressions is that of an ‘exotic other,’ and not of a serious artist who produces respectable works, not meaning to intimate conventional, but serious works rather than frivolous ones. Her award-winning play, Raison in the Sun, pays homage to Hughes’ poem questioning what happens to deferred dreams. But like Hughes, she muted her sexuality, probably for the sake of her art. Her biographer notes that “it is unquestionable that her desire for women and her love of women was meaningful” (Perry 2018, p. 79). But, as with Hughes, we have only someone else’s word and evaluation as Hansberry also never addressed her sexual preferences directly. For the most part, we cannot hide our race, and therefore for some, especially those in the public eye, it might be even more important to keep something private. “Moreover, sexuality and race elude the status of mere performances intended to negate, conceal, or modify the bodies and psyches that provide the supposedly permanent platforms for their staging” (Bauer 2015, p. 1044). Just as during the Harlem Renaissance, in today’s world there are many places of intersectionality wherein one is judged by one’s performance or lack thereof.
In reflecting on the original question as to why it is important that Langston Hughes may have been homosexual and that the rediscovery of Gladys Bentley came about because of recent LGBTQ activism, one must consider the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. As impossible as it seems, race in the US is still such a divisive force, even after Civil Rights, Constitutional Amendments, and Supreme Court rulings, that individuals are frequently targeted, discriminated against, and even murdered because of the color of their skin. Likewise, although numerous celebrities have ‘come out’ and even transgendered, there is still such prejudice that some individual business owners refuse service to openly gay individuals and couples. And, although previously ‘exclusive’ clubs and entertainment venues have been forced to integrate, the financial cost for most is prohibitive regardless of race or gender. US society is still a patriarchy dominated by rich white men who admit ‘tokens’ to give themselves the illusion of egalitarianism. It is only through the arts that true creative revolution, freeing both creators and creations from the bonds of normalization exist, just as in the days of Hughes and Bentley. Therefore, understanding their times, struggles, and contributions can help ease the passage to true equality. That is why Hughes’ and Bentley’s queerness matters.
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