- Closing Time:Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife
See One restless in the exotic time! and ever, Till the air is cured of its fever.Gwendolyn Brooks, "Langston Hughes"
Rumor has it Langston Hughes was gay. Such speculation began early in his career—when less ambiguous homosexuals like Alain Locke and Countee Cullen traded clandestine letters about the young poet's potential seducibility—and tip-toed around him throughout his life. The circumstantial evidence is compelling to those eager to reconstruct narratives of African-American gay and lesbian history. There is Hughes's knowledge of sexual underworlds—from his description of Harlem's drag balls to his attendance at the parties of close friends Carl Van Vechten and A'Leila Walker, as well as less swanky affairs—which suggests both familiarity and comfort with the codes of modern U.S. sexual subcultures. Then there are his infrequent literary explorations of overt homosexuality—such as his poem "Café: 3 a.m." (1951) and his short stories "Blessed Assurance" (1963) and "Seven People Dancing" (unpublished). But with the exception of one opposite-sex relationship early in his life, Hughes himself refused to indicate a sexual identity, preferring to cultivate a sexual ambiguity and doing little to end conjecture about his intimate life.1
In the late 1980s, two events propelled the speculation about Hughes's sexuality beyond the realm of whispered innuendo and into the public sphere: the publication of Arnold Rampersad's two-volume authorized biography of Hughes (volume 1, I, Too, Sing America, 1986 and volume 2, I Dream a World, 1988) and the release of Isaac Julien's film, Looking for Langston (1988). Rampersad's biography brought to the question the weight of archival rigor and a plenitude of detail, fact, and context by which to interpret Hughes's inner life. Governed by a fidelity to the [End Page 397] archive and the protocols of objective scholarship, Rampersad found the subject of Hughes's sexuality shrouded in "rumor and suspicion."2 Twenty years after Hughes's death, Rampersad writes, "no one could recall any concrete evidence for his reputation [as a homosexual]. No one could offer the name of a man who had been involved with Hughes, or recall an incident, even at second hand, involving Langston's presumed homosexuality."3 Given this lack of eyewitnesses and documentary evidence, Rampersad interpreted the gaps in knowledge around Hughes's sexual desire as an absence of desire, or at least of a knowable desire. Without verifiable proof of homosexuality, he advanced the thesis that Hughes was basically asexual, his sexual desire "not so much sublimated as vaporized."4 Several critics subsequently accused his work of closeting Hughes through this insistence on Hughes's asexuality and interpretations that voided the many queerly rich scenes in Hughes's life and writing of any likelihood of same-sex desire.
Released around the same time as Rampersad's biography, British-based artist Isaac Julien's mythopoetic film about queer Harlem, Looking for Langston (1988), offered a very different take on the problem of Hughes's sexuality. A montage of text, music, visual images, archival footage, and tableaux, the film established a dialogue between and across black queer culture makers of the twentieth century, including Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, James Baldwin, and Essex Hemphill. The film is set in a Harlem nightclub during the Jazz Age, where black and white men in tuxedos drink champagne, socialize, and dance late into the morning. Departing from this scene, the film veers into a number of dreamscapes that imagine various configurations of queer male comings-together in a city street, a park, an open field, a movie house, a bedroom, and under an elevated train. Through the use of literary citation and sonic cues (such as the movement from the classic blues to techno house music), the past and present bleed into each other as these queer transatlantic contacts seep across temporal boundaries and upset linear narrative history. Looking for Langston does less to unearth a gay black past hidden from history than to meditate on the ways in which history—like desire—is dynamic and unfixed.5
Unfixed, I should add, for some...