During the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston would be known to walk into a room, throw her arms out, and proclaim herself “Queen of Niggerati”. Much like the queer, Black writers of today, Hurston lived, laughed, created, and fought with her writer counterparts — many of whom were queer. And thus, as Henry Louis Gates — a Black scholar — was known to have said, “… the Renaissance was as gay as it was black.”
Hurston coined the term “Niggerati”, which described her effective group of friends during the Harlem Renaissance. The Niggerati Manor was a rent-free space owned by a Black New Yorker, Iolanthe Sydney, and created to provide Black artists rent-free housing. More than anything, the house became an effective symbol of the more counter-culture figures within the Black art scene in 1920’s New York. Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Collen, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman often stumbled out of the boarding house decorated with wicker furniture, which was rumored to have bright penises painted on the walls by another house visitor, Bruce Nugent. The space proved fruitful and hosted meetings to produce the literary journal, FIRE!!
One of the most notable works in FIRE!!’s first and only issue in 1926 was “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” by Richard Nugent, the first story by a Black writer to openly address homosexuality. Although successful in shaking up the literary agent and shocking Black elites, FIRE!!’s impact did not help it overcome financial troubles, which is what caused the journal to have only one issue.
At a time when the Black community was generally more concerned with racial representation than multiply-marginalized representation in their artwork, the question of making your sexuality visible was a complicated one. Publications like FIRE!! exhibit the historical significance of queer, Black artists sharing space and towards a vision of the future; a praxis that exists today among Black, queer artists and writers. Addressing race in the writing world changed drastically during the 1980s with the impact of the AIDS epidemic on queer spaces and the emergence of anthologies like In The Life, which was organized by Joseph Beam. Beam was a gay, Black poet living with HIV that often wrote about gay, Black longing in all its forms. In 1983, Hemphill and writer friends founded the DC spoken word group, Cinque, and performed throughout the city.
Niggerati, the crew, and FIRE!! also inspired the 2004 film Brother to Brother by Rodney Evans. The film explores the struggles of Black writers of the 1920s, like Hughes and Nugent. Brother to Brother was a landmark work because of its exploration of life as a Black, queer writer; something that hasn’t been represented in the world of film adequately since. For Black writers today, the problems they face while striving for success can range from fighting to get fair payment or payment at all, white gatekeeping in publishing or lack of diversity in writing rooms. With all these problems and more facing Black, queer writers, it’s more important than ever to hold space physically and digitally, and to demand more than representation as a means of elevating their craft.
Black Queer Artistry Today On and Offline
The rise of freelancing and gig work has led to the advent of coworking spaces, which many Black writers have accused of being exclusionary. Founded in March 2018 by LC Johnson, Zora’s House is a coworking and gathering space in Columbus, Ohio for women of color, and is inclusive to all sex and gender identities as well. The project broke ground on construction the same day that Johnson’s son was born and took on new meaning; a metaphor for the beauty of creation and bringing the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance to Ohio. Johnson has noted in the past the importance of a physical space for women of color to be in solidarity with each other.
Jami Jackson, the House Manager of Zora’s House, tells me, “This society has been shaped to keep us in a box, to keep us hidden and silent. We, at Zora’s House, know that it’s imperative that women of color are given the opportunity to do the exact opposite and we will continue to fight for that right as our organization improves and expands.”
Today, spoken word remains an important art form to allow queer, Black writers to use their voice and find other likeminded artists to connect with. Black Queer and Intersectional Collective, a collective that caters to the needs of Black LGBTQIA+ people, hosts monthly spoken word performances and a black power book club.
For queer, Black writers, however, the need for space is both physical and digital. Digital platforms have become just as important for advocating queer issues and inspiration for work and in recent years, queer media has had many ups and downs, making the playing field for queer, Black writers precarious. Just 18 months after launching, Grindr’s online publication, Into, laid off its staff and shut down. In contrast, OUT Magazine recently made history when it diversified its staff and also hired Raquel Willis, the publication’s first transgender editor, after longstanding criticism of the publication centering cisgender, white gay men.
Others are finding space for marginalized writers as well. Whale Prom will be hosted in San Antonio, Texas in March as an alternative space to AWP — the biggest writers conference in the country — and will “offer free space to local literary organizations devoted to QTPOC writing & interest.” The recent launch of The Drinking Gourd breaks ground as a publication dedicated to queer, black, and Muslim perspectives.
In October 2019, Yodassa Williams — a queer, Jamaican American writer based out of San Francisco — worked to make “Writers Emerging at Fly Ranch” a creative expedition for “women and nonbinary writers of color.” Williams created the event because she recognized how many obstacles in the writing and publishing world there are for marginalized writers. Fly Ranch speaks to the need for queer, Black writers to not only share space but to also find ways to provide the necessary resources and knowledge to navigate an often anti-Black industry.
When asked how things have changed since the days of the Harlem Renaissance, Jackson says, “It feels like it hasn’t really changed, other than social media being more present. We have small pockets of creative communities but not one large universal one that everyone can be a part of. I imagine that’s how it was back in the day because of everyone’s differences. While that is important, I believe it’s also important for us to come together in larger groups for a larger purpose.”
While striving for more space, Black queers writers of today only need to remember Hurston’s words on the purpose of Niggerati Manor and publications like FIRE!! In a letter to Alan Locke, Hurston states that there was a need for “more outlets for Negro fire” (as mentioned in Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert Hemenway). This Negro fire should surely include queer, Black artists’ anger against an unjust world and our love for each other as we fight for more space along the way.
This piece was originally published in WearYourVoice in February 2020.