Harlem Renaissance at 100: The First Black Gay Short Story Ever Published

From 1926, Richard Bruce Nugent's "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade" is an ode to interracial same-sex desire.

Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.

…Alex turned in his doorway…up the stairs and the stranger waited for him to light the room…no need for words…they had always known each other…as they undressed by the blue dawn…Alex knew he had never seen a more perfect being…his body was all symmetry and music…and Alex called him Beauty…long they lay…blowing smoke and exchanging thoughts…and Alex swallowed with difficulty…he felt a glow of tremor…and they talked and…slept…

— “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” Richard Bruce Nugent

Fresh off being fired and riding high on unemployment insurance, I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post back in 2014, “Why I’ve Given Up on Hooking Up,” detailing, rather explicitly, my frustration with dating, dating apps, and the general culture around them as it pertained to gay men. It inspired a few response pieces, was translated into other languages (like one—German, I believe), and I still get the occasional DM from a homosexual with whom it resonates.

At the time, blogging had become rather solipsistic and I was among the many writers mining my personal life for the Thinkpiece of the Week. While I’ve never been wholly comfortable writing about my love life, or lack thereof, the reaction I got from that piece taught me that there was value in sharing my experience—in that it could make other people who had felt similarly feel less alone.

And while I thought I was just living my best Carrie Bradshaw life, I didn’t realize I was continuing in a tradition set forth some 80-plus years ago; this sharing of same-sex desire that by its very existence spoke profoundly to the depth and variety of black life in America.

Unapologetically gay, Richard Bruce Nugent, the enfant terrible of the Harlem Renaissance, was one of the founders of the seminal literary magazine Fire!!, whose first and only issue was published in 1926. Nugent contributed several drawings for the issue, as well the short story originally titled, “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade, A Novel, Part I”—indicating that it was meant to be part of a larger work.

In it, the protagonist Alex describes falling for a beautiful Latino man named Adrian, whom he calls Beauty; Beauty, in turn, calls him Dulce. The character of Beauty is possibly based on a hotel kitchen employee Nugent met on one of his many odd jobs, working as a bellhop.

Nugent goes on to describe his fascination with Beauty, comparing it to his more traditional (read: heterosexual) relationship with Melva. Even though he professes to love them both, Beauty transfixes him like Melva does not—or cannot—as he recounts in a dream:

he was in a field…a field of blue smoke and black poppies and red calla lilies…he was searching and pushed aside poppy stems…and saw two strong legs…dancer’s legs…the contours pleased him…his eyes wandered…on past the muscular hocks to the firm white thighs…the rounded buttocks…then the lithe narrow waist…strong torso and broad deep chest…the heavy shoulders…the graceful muscled neck…squared chin and quizzical lips…grecian nose with its temperamental nostrils…the brown eyes looking at him…like…like Monty looked at Zora…his hair curly and black and all tousled…and it was Beauty…and Beauty smiled and looked at him and smiled…said…I’ll wait Alex…

Nugent ends the story by vacillating between images of Melva and Beauty, eventually settling on Beauty and contemplating his…well, beauty:

…Beauty’s hair was so black…and soft…blue smoke from an ivory holder…was that why he loved Beauty…one can…or because his body was beautiful…and white and warm…or because his eyes…one can love….

This story spoke to me in so many ways and on so many levels. I felt seen, just as how my little essays about hooking up made other people I had never met feel seen. The way Nugent describes the blue smoke curling into the air reminded me of the hours I’ve spent smoking blunts in my room, hypnotized by own swirling plumes.

And then there is his meditation on Beauty—for black queer men, interracial desire has always been fraught with an inner tension. Speaking personally and from conversations I’ve had with other black gay men, we often feel marginalized within our own queer community, while the history of race in America essentially means a white man is the symbol of our oppression, regardless of our desire.

Still, it seems fitting that the first published gay story from the black experience would be about an interracial romance—the attraction is complex and complicated and the Harlem Renaissance was all about challenging the norms of traditional society. Both white and black. Being gay in 1926 was bad enough, but miscegenation was illegal until 1967’s ruling in Loving vs. Virginia. So “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” is doubly taboo—and all the more interesting as a product of its time.

Nugent’s spiritual scion James Baldwin didn’t publish Giovanni’s Room, one of the finest gay novels, until 1956; but even then, as a black writer, his characters were white. Baldwin explained that tackling homosexuality and race at the same time would have been a near impossible task for him.

Corgi Book

“I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ’Negro problem,'” Baldwin explained. “The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

Nugent handled these propositions in his own way; not by delving into the politics of same-sex interracial desire, but simply presenting it as an option.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat