Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 328-351
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Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative:
The Harlem Renaissance's Impolite Queers
Michael L. Cobb *
Part 2: Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies
I have long known that some queers can be astonishingly rude. I, however, did not, until recently, understand the way queer insolence has a peculiar significance for the literary articulation of characters whose interactions with race and sexuality are at odds with the dominant culture. Possibly, when one begins to investigate the overlapping representations of race and same-sex sexuality during the Harlem Renaissance, one might also be shocked, literally, to discover how vital the concept of rudeness is for the mid-1920s' literary presentations of African-American queer sexuality. The story one learns certainly has a strong relevance not only for literary history, but also for contemporary African-American studies and queer theory that both, however unawares, inherit some crucial lessons and forms taught by Harlem's impolite literary figures. But, as we shall see, it makes sense that we should forget and excuse the indecorous, especially when they may show up unannounced.
Specifically, in this paper, I want to plot the way in which acts of rudeness bring into sharp relief race criticism's sexuality amnesia, as well as sketch the formal possibilities for a black and queer literary aesthetic. For some years now, a number of powerful essays have voiced concerns about the critical divide between questions surrounding the cultural constructions of queer sexuality and race, and have consistently offered eloquent accounts about the archaic heterocentricism thematically and structurally pervading much race theory and criticism. 1 Still, explorations about queer sexuality and African-American literary production suffer from an inability to queer, substantially, the cultural expressions of race, especially once race becomes the organizing rubric under which a culture articulates a literary tradition.
It seems that intervening within the persistently rough opposition between "race" and "sexuality" is a central concern that underwrites much of Isaac Julien's Looking For Langston--a film where a black queer tradition is deliberately constructed and stylized through the literary retrieval and creative reconstruction of the queer sexuality of African-American authors like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Countee Cullen. 2 Almost uniquely, Julien's film refuses to let race dominate and eclipse the critical landscape that must also attend to same-sex sexuality; the always complicated and porous analyses between the different temporalities of the film present necessary reformulations of the nagging intellectual inquiries engaged in articulating the way people respond to, create, and reconstruct a life where issues of both race [End Page 328] and sexuality matter. Sadly, but persistently, not all projects are like Julien's film, and the literary queer tradition often does not share the same anthologized space devoted to race, even if questions of sexuality affect the way a culture shapes not only a racial thematic, but also a distinct aesthetic. 3 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., when writing about Looking for Langston, reminds us that the Harlem Renaissance's usual roll call (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and Bruce Nugent) indicates that the Renaissance was "surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of these." Gates continues, "Yet, this, in view of its emblematic importance to later movements of black creativity in this country, is what makes the powerful current of homophobia in black letters a matter of particular interest and concern" (233). Indeed, minimized discussion of the black queer's exclusion from the emergent African-American literary canon not only points to a lack in what counts as "appropriate" themes for race criticism, but such a stubborn exclusion also points to the plenitude of homophobia in critical black letters.
Poignantly, the critical and literary neglect of one of the most explicitly queer writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Bruce Nugent, echoes Gates' concern that there is a repetitive desire not to risk mixing the African-American literary tradition with a sustained and systematic discussion of same-sex sexuality. 4 Nugent's virtual absence from...