Harlem Renaissance: as Gay as It Was Black

Harlem Renaissance Writer Langston Hughes

The years after WWI saw a rejection of Victorian social constructs that had been adopted by American society. New York was one of the epicenters of this movement. Harlem, like its white counterpart Greenwich Village, had its own Renaissance of music, art, and letters.

African-American historian Henry Louis Gates has described the Harlem Renaissance as being “surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of these.”

“With few exceptions,” said Chad Thilborger, the Development Director at Stonewall Library Museum Archive.“The writers, artists and performers of this seminal period in black history were closeted, but nonetheless imbued their work with coded references to their sexuality.With gay men and lesbians in legal and social limbo, the Harlem Renaissance celebrated sexuality with a level of tolerance remark- able for that era.”

The black community has long had gay people as a visible, yet invisible presence.

Black gays and lesbians, described in Harlem vernacular as being “in the life,” provided entertainment in the form of private parties, sometimes fund raisers, and sometimes private erotic events. Larger events such as costume parties hosted by a Harlem- based chapter of the Oddfellows drew even white socialites from the highest orders.

The term “slumming it,” wherein one class patronizes the establishments of a lower socioeconomic class arrived in America before WWI. It is an English term that first appeared in the New York Times in 1884.The fashion allowed the upper-classes to mingle with groups that otherwise they would have ignored.

It did not however mean all were welcome to “slum” with the “swells.”

In a segregated America, Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club was a place where the likes of Mae West, New York’s notoriously corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker, and Irving Berlin socialized while being entertained by jazz performers.Yet, the likes of Billie Holiday, who performed for them were not welcome as guests. Performers such as Josephine Baker—tired of this segregation—would relocate to Paris where she could live openly across racial and sexual boundaries.

The exhibit, organized by the Stonewall Library and Archives and on display at Florida Atlantic University, runs until June 30.After which time, it will tour in St. Pe- tersburg, FL,Washington, DC and perhaps New York City.

“We at Stonewall are thrilled at the opportunity to present the exhibition at FAU,” said Thilborger.“The interest in the exhibition by the university’s library is re- ally exciting.”

There is also a Klezmer Company Jazz Ensemble performance, Musical Tribute to the Harlem Renaissance on June 13, and a Panel Discussion and Open Forum scheduled for June 17.

For more information please visit http://library.fau.edu


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