Stonewall Library To Unveil Harlem Renaissance Exhibit
The Stonewall Library and Archives in Fort Lauderdale is set to celebrate gay and lesbian contributions to the Harlem Renaissance with an exhibit to be unveiled at the start of African American History Month on Feb. 2.
The exhibit mirrors the assertion of acclaimed black historian Henry Louis Gates that the Harlem Renaissance was "surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of these." As time has passed since the African-American literary revival of the 1920s and 1930s, also referred to as the Jazz Age, Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Bessie Smith and others have been increasingly accepted as gay icons. Their work offers a lens into a cultural moment marked by progressiveness and acceptance.
“When you look at the writing and art that came out of that period, it is infused with a gay sensibility and expressions of gay sexuality from the men and women alike,” Jack Rutland, executive director of the Stonewall Library and Archives said of the exhibit. “It’s really everywhere you look.”
The work on display in the exhibit–photographs, sheet music, records and books from the many artists profiled–paints a Bohemian picture of a lively era where gay and lesbian identity met with black identity in drag balls, speakeasies, rent parties and buffet flats. Smith sang of her relationships with women in front of packed audiences and was the highest-paid black entertainer of the time.
“These were people living incredibly creative lives, in terms of their sexuality, who they associated with and where they went to entertain themselves,” Rutland said. “They had an incredibly progressive mindset.”
Yet, at a time when society as a whole was still grappling with its treatment of any sort of sexuality, the gay and lesbian social sphere of the era remained, in many respects, hidden from the mainstream. Some of the era’s most celebrated gay and lesbian artists–including Hughes–never directly asserted their homosexuality and lived deeply compartmentalized lives. And some even made a continued effort to hide their gay identity.