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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.4 (2002) 899-936

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Sweetback Style:
Wallace Thurman and a Queer Harlem Renaissance

Stephen Knadler

In a letter to William Jourdan Rapp, his collaborator on the plays "Harlem" and "Jeremiah the Magnificent," Wallace Thurman asserted that he wanted to formulate a "new philosophy for a new generation of younger Negroes." 1 To many of his contemporaries, Thurman not only failed to realize such a grandiose ambition, he disseminated instead what they labeled "effeminate Tommyrot" (qtd. in Thurman, "Negro Artists" 37). In such a "homophobic" denunciation of Thurman's oeuvre (one of which, however, Thurman boasted in his own autobiographical sketches), we see not only his offense against middle-class assimilationist proprieties, but equally the perceived threat he posed to a specific historical formulation of urban black masculinity. In her seminal study of the constitution of black women's bodies within Harlem culture, Hazel Carby has argued that key fictional texts such as Claude McKay's Home to Harlem depict a "journey of black masculinity in formation," a journey that depended on the protagonists' control and conquest over "threatening embodiments of the female" ("Policing" 749). While Carby's analysis points us toward an association between a new style of urban masculinity and the oppression of black women's bodies and sexuality, I want to look more closely at the ambivalence within this emergent racial masculinity. [End Page 899] In contrast to writers such as Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman developed a new philosophy for the New Negro that linked sexual deviance with the blurring of the "perpetual bugaboo" of identity-based thinking: the sweetback style. 2 While many Harlem Renaissance writers posited a hypermasculine racialized body to counter white supremacist theories of the black man's emasculation, Thurman by contrast offers his readers a queer black male body that is, as Philip Brian Harper contends, "politically volatile" precisely because its desires are unpredictable and in excess of the normative discourses of race and heterosexuality (147).

One of the chief ways that "homoeroticism" was coded within the specific language of the Harlem Renaissance was the figure of the sweetback or sheik dandy, who is a more complicated social icon than previous critics of the era and its representations have acknowledged. 3 If visitors, as Eric Garber and Neil Miller have noted, enjoyed the spectacle of the Hamilton Lodge Drag Ball during the late twenties and thirties, the outrageousness of the contestants allowed many masculine-identified gay men to deny their own proximity to the drag queen sister. 4 In contrast, the sweetback was a much more ambiguously gendered and sexualized hustler, whom the "younger generation" of Bohemian artists fashioned into their own "subcultural epistemology" (Weeks 34). In her study of dandyism and gender performance at the end of the nineteenth-century, Rhonda Garelick contends that there is a continuity between the dandy and the commercialized personalities that arose in a modern urban world of mass goods and entertainment (5, 10). But in her reading of the dandy as a highly stylized, socially constructed personality who adopts the exhibitionism most often expected of women, Garelick ignores how there might be various articulations of the dandy that are race-bound. While Garelick nicely contextualizes the white dandy in terms of consumer culture, in looking at urban versions of the black dandy or sweetback, we need to place this street exhibitionism within a specifically African-American expressive tradition of what Shane and Graham White have called "stylin.'" In this tradition of "stylin'" a boastful parading of fashion and self-adornment was a way for African Americans (even during slavery) to take back a measure of control over their bodies and their souls—to affirm themselves (238-39). Such masculine self-display, moreover, did not so clearly signal the urban dandy's attempt to incorporate into the male persona a "feminine" social performance since the [End Page 900] tradition of "stylin'" offered the African-American male an outlet for alternative models of the masculine that served as built-in transgressions finally re-enforcing a real macho ethics. Thus, constitutive of...


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