The Overlooked LGBTQ History of the Harlem RenaissanceHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, LGBTQ history, Harlem renaissance, Nella Larsen
When Passing debuts on Netflix on Nov. 10, the film—starring Oscar nominee Ruth Negga (Loving) and Tessa Thompson—will draw new attention to Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel on which it is based. The story and its title most obviously raise questions about race in American society, with the tale of two light-skinned Black women, childhood friends Irene and Clare, navigating the phenomenon of passing as white. But Passing also shines a light on the often overlooked role of sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance.
“Clare makes Irene uncomfortable in lots of ways…Might she be attracted to Clare herself?” TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote after the movie’s premiere at Sundance this year. “The dance these two perform with one another is entrancing and heady and a little mysterious—its steps not easily parsed but always captivating.”
Questions about attraction between the protagonists in this novel have made it not only one of the milestone works to come out of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, but also a milestone work in LGBTQ+ history. Scholars of this period point out that acknowledging the queer culture and nightlife of the Harlem Renaissance is essential in order to paint a full picture of the time—and also to show that there was a thriving LGBTQ+ scene in New York City that long predated the 1969 Stonewall uprising, even though that moment is often credited with ushering in the modern LGBTQ+ movement. For LGBTQ+ History Month and Monday’s National Coming Out Day, the above video looks back at the overlooked queer artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Literary scholars consider Nella Larsen, the first Black female Guggenheim fellowship recipient, one of the “queer figures” of the Harlem Renaissance, says Octavio R. González, an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Wellesley College and an expert on the Harlem Renaissance. González describes Passing as a novel that exhibits “same-sex desire between the two female protagonists.”
The rising influence of LGBTQ+ social life in the 1920s came about just as Harlem became the nation’s largest Black urban neighborhood. The Great Migration of the early 20th century—the movement of Black people from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities for job opportunities—enabled Harlem to become a center for Black cultural life and fostered “a sense of new possibilities,” as González puts it. “Sexuality became a form of freedom…expressing sexuality became a form of emancipation.”
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