American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 171-182
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Say My Name
In a letter to Langston Hughes dated 5 December 1928, Harlem Renaissance writer and personality Wallace Thurman begins with an admittedly "informal salutation." "Dear Lank-y-yank-yank," he writes (115). Lank-y-yank-yank? Any new piece of information about the notoriously private and unreadable Hughes is always welcome, and one wonders if Thurman's pet name for the famous poet offers some sort of a clue. What could possibly earn a person named Langston the quasi-obscene sobriquet of Lank-y-yank-yank? What would such a name imply? What activities might it suggest? Apart from a letter to Alain Locke in which Hughes mentions his fondness for Walt Whitman's Calamus poems (Rampersad 69), this seems as close as we're likely to get to any hint of the inscrutable Hughes's sex life. As Thurman tells Hughes in another letter, anticipating our own project of looking for Langston, "You are in the final analysis the most consarned and diabolical creature, to say nothing of being either the most egregiously simple or excessively complex, person I know. Pee on you!!" (122)
We now know about Hughes's rather unfortunate nickname—and Thurman's facility with the pithy put-down—through the welcome publication of The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader, edited by Amritjit Singh and Daniel M. Scott III. Along with Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, published in 2002, this collection of Thurman's writings forms part of a renewed interest in heretofore "minor" figures in the Harlem Renaissance, and both offer the scholarly treasure troves of easy and expansive access to both published and unpublished materials. They also form part of a burgeoning scholarly interest in one particular aspect of 1920s Harlem: its location as the birthing ground of one of the country's earliest and most diverse queer cultures. Indeed, for queer black studies, Harlem in the 1920s has become both a central possibility and a central problematic. On the one hand, the Harlem Renaissance provides an ideal opportunity to witness and interrogate the sometimes dizzying interaction of race and sexuality in the early part of the twentieth century. At the same time, however, scholars are struggling [End Page 171] to find the right language for that witness, and the right questions for that interrogation. The best of this new work offers up a supple and historicized analysis that avoids shaping the past to fit the too-easy categories of the present. At its worst, however, this new work enacts a fetishized relationship to gay acts and gestures, whereby the merest fey whiff from the black poet of the moment becomes evidence of identity, of membership in a sexual citizenry dedicated to transgression and upheaval. Where we used to go looking for Langston, we now seem too often bent on looking for yank-yank.
In their introduction to The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman, Singh and Scott do an excellent job of presenting Thurman as the complex, multifaceted, talented yet diffuse individual that he was. And the collection itself is a welcome testament to all of these things, showing Thurman in the many roles he inhabited before his premature death in 1934 at the age of 32. The volume is broken up into a number of sections: "Essays on Harlem" and "Social Essays and Journalism," bringing together both published and unpublished pieces on topics ranging from Harlem rent parties to "The Bump" to the origin and significance of Christmas (written on what must have been the slowest day ever on Lennox Avenue); "Correspondence," collecting letters to Hughes, William Jourdan Rapp, W. E. B. DuBois, Claude McKay, Locke, Granville Hicks, Harold Jackman, and Dorothy West; "Literary Essays and Reviews," clearly the strongest and most interesting section of...