The Harlem Renaissance, which flourished during the 1920s, was a cultural, artistic, and political movement—many of whose participants were brilliant queer people of color. Everyday this week we’re honoring their contributions in honor of this vital movement’s centennial anniversary. Previously: Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Connections.
Of all the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Bruce Nugent is among the lesser known, but he was perhaps the most brazen and bold. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was openly gay, and is often credited with writing the first published gay African-American short story, 1926’s “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade.” Beyond that, Nugent was also an accomplished illustrator, painter, and dancer who outlived most luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, living long enough to share its importance with a new generation.
Born in 1906 in an affluent black section of Washington, D.C., to a well-to-do family—his mother was an accomplished pianist and his father a Pullman porter—Nugent’s father died when he was 13 and the family relocated to New York City shortly thereafter. Nugent made the mistake of telling his mother that he wanted to devote his life to art and so she sent him back to D.C. to live with his grandmother. There, he worked a series of odd jobs, sometimes passing for white in order to earn higher wages. At one point he was known by the rather sassy moniker of Ricardo Nugent di Dosceta.
D.C., however, had a vibrant culture and connection to the Harlem Renaissance, particularly in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s S Street Salon, a gathering place for the likes of Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Zora Neale Hurston. Though men were allowed to attend, the Salon mostly catered to black women. It was at one of these Salon meetings, around 1925, where Nugent met and befriended Hughes, who played an integral part in launching Nugent’s career. Hughes retrieved Nugent’s poem “Shadow” from the trash and helped to send it for publication in Opportunity magazine, becoming Nugent’s first published work.
In 1926, Nugent moved into fellow homosexual Wallace Thurman’s apartment on West 136th Street in Harlem; Thurman’s place would, briefly, become the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement. Nugent painted the walls with homoerotic murals, with Thurman and Hurston dubbing the space “Niggerati Manor.” Within those walls, Thurman, Hurston, Hughes, Nugent, and a handful of others created the epochal single issue of Fire!!, a literary magazine meant to disrupt the old thinking of established black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois.
Fire!! contained Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” a groundbreaking work that explicitly discussed black homosexuality and interracial desire. A short story told through stream of consciousness, Nugent describes Alex, the protagonist and a clear surrogate for the author, meeting a Latino stranger, Beauty, on the street; Alex gives Beauty a light for his cigarette and then takes him up to his room:
…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…
Alex and Beauty continue seeing each other, but Alex remains conflicted over his attraction to Beauty and his relationship with a woman, Melva. Though he ostensibly loves Melva, he can only think of Beauty and the intimate moments they share. The character of Beauty is believed to be inspired by a hotel kitchen employee Nugent met and fell in love with while working as a bellhop.
Fire!! only lasted one issue before its headquarters, Niggerati Manor, rather ironically, burned down. Nugent would go on to cultivate a flamboyant persona around Harlem, openly dating men and generally living his best life. During this time he was described as a “bizarre and eccentric vagabond poet,” as well as “cutting, good-looking, and intelligent.” So, werq.
Still, in order to avoid embarrassing his family, Nugent published under the pseudonym Richard Bruce. And though “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” was groundbreaking for the time—or, if we’re being honest, for now—Alain Locke, the “father of the Harlem Renaissance,” didn’t care for it. Locke was also gay but far more discreet, and dismissed Nugent’s story for “promoting the effeminacy and decadence associated with homosexual writers.”
Despite these criticisms, Locke was a supporter of Nugent’s and encouraged him to develop what would become one of Nugent’s only major works, Sahdji: An African Ballet, involving a queer love triangle. The ballet premiered at Howard University in the late-’20s and was eventually produced in Rochester, New York, in 1932. Long after the Harlem Renaissance ended, Nugent continued working and writing and flouting convention. He married his good friend Grace Marr in 1952, despite being a flagrant homosexual. Apparently, Marr thought she could change him, but they were married until she committed suicide in 1969. Nugent himself died of congestive heart failure in 1987 at the age of 80.
By then he had become an invaluable resource into the Harlem Renaissance, highlighting the contributions of black gay artists to the movement and to art of the 20th century. Nugent’s legacy got a boost with the 2004 film Brother to Brother, starring Anthony Mackie as Perry, a gay art student who befriends an elderly homeless man (Roger Robinson), a fictionalized version of Nugent. Nugent’s stories about the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the challenges he faced as a young, gay, black man during that time, strike a chord with Perry as they form an unlikely friendship.
Then in 2008, Nugent’s novel Gentleman Jigger, written between 1928 and 1933 about a young, gay, black writer who sleeps his way to the top of the Italian mob, was published posthumously. Publisher’s Weekly called it “a mess of a novel that’s still a useful first-hand account of Jazz Age identity politics.”
Like so many enfants terribles, perhaps Richard Bruce Nugent’s passion outstripped his talent, but his insistence on living boldly and truthfully during one of the most transformative moments for African Americans is enough to grant him a position among the greats of the Harlem Renaissance.