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  • Writer's pictureDamon J. Shearer

Unapologetically Richard Bruce Nugent

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural explosion of Black excellence that spread all over the world in the 1920's and 30's. The art, music, literature, and philosophy of the time redefined what it meant to be Black, and inspired the entire African Diaspora to create a new Black identity. It gave birth to African American culture's earliest icons, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne and so many more. We now know that some of these legends led secret same gender loving lives, with hidden imagery and codded language embedded in their bodies of work. But there were some who chose to live and love openly, in a time before Gay Pride parades and rainbow flags were a thing. Richard Bruce Nugent was one of them.

Nugent was born in 1906, in Washington D.C.. After his father's death in 1920, he moved with his family to New York City, where Nugent was introduced to the growing community of Black artists flocking to Harlem. When Nugent told his mother that he wanted to purse a life in the arts, she sent him back to D.C. to live with his grandmother. It was here that he met poets Georgia Douglas Johnson and Langston Hughes. They became friends, and Nugent followed Hughes back to Harlem.

He his first poem, "Shadow" was published in 1925. That year he published five more pieces, including his short story "Sahdji", which was based on his drawing of an African girl standing in a hut. This story was published in an anthology called "The New Negro", a book that defined the growing movement that would later became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The following year, Nugent teamed up with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Gwendolyn Bennett, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, Lewis Grandison Alexander, and Countee Colin to publish an avant-garde literary magazine called "Fire!!" (Interestingly enough, the magazine only had one issue after the building they published it in burned down.)

It was in this short-lived magazine that Nugent published his signature literary work, "Smoke, Lilies and Jade". This short story not only depicted homosexual acts of intimacy, but also interracial homosexual relationships! A double taboo that many scholars believe is the reason Nugent's star did not rise as high as his contemporaries. In the story, the main character, Alex, boldly expresses the opinion that Nugent himself held in regards to his sexuality, saying, "You see, I am a homosexual. I have never been in what they call 'the closet.' It never occurred to me that it was anything to be ashamed of, and it never occurred to me that it was anybody's business but mine."

I recently heard someone say, Pride is not as much for those who are out, but for those who are in the closet. This year, as we march in the San Diego Pride Parade, let us do so with the unapologetic spirit of Richard Bruce Nugent. For when we walk boldly, without fear or shame, we shine light into the dark closets around the world, giving our queer kinfolk, who choose not to or are unable to live openly, a glimmer of hope that they are not alone.

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