HIDDEN WORDS

Do you remember having to write book reports when you were in school?

I do.

All the students who attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls were required to write a book report each report card quarter. We selected our books from the school’s library list which was organized by grade level and literary genre.

In my sophomore year I had the good luck to be assigned to one of the English Department Head’s classes. Dr. Jack Edelson, usually somewhat dispassionate about topics other than William Shakespeare and Homer’s dramatic metaphors, always seemed to relish those class sessions when he would narrate a preview of every book listed for that quarter’s chosen genre. The man had a fantastic knowledge base and he would fill every moment of that day’s class period describing plots, characters, and settings, and themes. We would listen and place a little check mark next to the titles that sounded interesting.

Our first report quarter’s genre was poetry. With great enthusiasm and feigned sophistication I went to the school library in search of a volume of e.e cummings’ poetry. Failing to find one, I looked for a collection of Robert Frost’s poems. Obviously, my classmates had visited the library before I arrived, as Frost’s books were gone as well. Somewhat frustrated, I began to pay more attention to the poets’ names than to the titles inscribed on the books’ spines. Before long, I spotted a name I’d heard my parents mention, Langston Hughes. After reading the book’s preface and its first poem I knew I’d struck gold. I re-examined the tenth grade poetry list and didn’t find anything there written by Hughes. Undaunted and by now smitten with the promise of discovering something akin to magic, I signed out “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and took a chance that Dr. E. would approve of my choice. From that day on, Langston Hughes was no longer hidden from me. I’d uncovered his words and I’d uncovered his identity… or so I thought.

During the next several decades, as I grew comfortable my identity, I became curious about the intersectionality of black literature with LGBT literature. Had both been impacted by the shifts in political, economic, and social changes in the U.S.?

Much has been written about the Harlem Renaissance (1918-1935) and its writers, musicians, and artists, some of whom, although traditionally married to opposite gender spouses, were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

In describing this period Dr. Henry Louis Gates wrote, [That period was] “…surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of these.” {The Black Man’s Burden, 1993}

It was the post-WWI era. Black soldiers returning from the European battle fields hoped to be greeted as heroes, or at least as loyal patriots. Instead, they encountered the same state of racism with which they’d lived before enlisting in the armed forces. Because of the closures of the urban factories that produced war materials, they returned to rising unemployment. Despite these two realities, many black WWI vets landed service industry jobs. Employment and access to public education led to the emergence of the black middle class, especially in urban centers.

De Facto segregation in places like New York City, Detroit, and Philadelphia encouraged the formation of single ethnicity communities. Within these communities writers, musicians, and artists knew and supported each other. There were so many stories to be written, so many poems to nurture, so many canvasses to be filled with color, and so many notes to be strung together harmoniously.

The LGBT authors were known to each other, but not necessarily to their readers. The dangers of being out forced these authors to write deeply coded stories. Nonetheless, Richard Bruce Nugent’s “Smoke, Lillies, and Jade” which is considered the first published African-American gay short story, was less subtle than most of his peers’ work. The prose and poetry written by Nella Larson, Angelina Weld-Grimke, Jessie Fauset (a graduate of Phila. High School for Girls,) Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson gave nary a clue about the authors’ sexuality. Most readers were unaware of the masks these writers wore. It wasn’t until Weld-Grimke’s biographer discovered a diary and love poems written to/about the author’s same gender lovers that rumors about her lesbianism were confirmed.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson- Angelina Weld-Grimké- Countee Cullen- Richard Bruce Nugent

The Black Arts Movement (late 1950’s to 1975) continued the tradition of concealing writers’ sexualities. Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, the B.A.M. occurred during a post-war period. Black and white soldiers who survived the extremely unpopular Vietnam conflict returned to anti-war protests, unemployment, and urban unrest. The Civil Rights movement seemed to amble along too slowly for an impatient generation of young blacks who’d been mired in Asian fire fights against yellow people. Those who dared to wear “Free Angela” buttons alongside red, green, and black badges that symbolized Africa dwarfing the U.S., but did not risk taking their protests to the streets, took to their typewriters and notebooks. What followed was an explosion of poetry, essays, fiction, and plays, all of it dynamic, much of it angry.

The B.A.M. was straight black male-centric. Certainly we heard the strong female voices of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, along with poets Carolyn Rodgers, Gayl Jones, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, and June Jordan. With only two exceptions (Lorde and Clarke) these writers didn’t reveal their sexuality. They remained under cover, hidden from a significant segment of their audience, the closeted black lesbian readers who searched in vain between countless book covers for some validation of their own existence.

Thank goodness for the arrival of the post-Stonewall era and its spirit of liberation. Most LGBT writers, artists, and musicians have shed their masks. The words of Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, June Jordan, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Walker, Pat Parker, Barbara Smith, Sapphire, Julie Blackwomon, Alexis DeVeaux, Jewelle Gomez, Shay Youngblood, Jacqueline Woodson, Fiona Zedde,S. Andrea Allen, Lauren Cherelle, Cheril Clarke, Stacey L. Greer, Cheryl Head, Mercedes Lewis, Penny Mickelbury, JP Howard, and I are no longer hidden from readers.

Pat Parker- Alice Walker- Barbara Smith- Audre Lorde- Jewelle Gomez, and Cheryl Clarke

It is in appreciation of their bravery and words that I’ve called their names. Those whose work was published before mine were chanted the courage I needed to be visible and proud to claim the title, black lesbian writer.

Renee Bess is the author of short fiction, five novels, and a year’s worth of blogs here on Women and Words. Feel free to visit her website, http://www.reneebess.com .


    • You are welcome, Sacchi. Sometimes you just have to pay tribute to those who tried to clear the rocks from the road in order to make your journey less bumpy. In discovering treasures once hidden, it’s possible to discover oneself as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I was born and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. In the mid-eighties I was preparing to emigrate to London and I remember this woman gave me a copy of Zami A New Spelling of My Name by Audrey Lorde as a going-away gift. I had no idea what it was about and when I got around to reading it in London, I was thinking, ‘Good book but why did she give it to me?’
    Of course it was obvious to her that I was dyke and it didn’t take long for me to own up to that and immerse myself in the lesbian scene in London. I’ll never forget how important that book was to me and how grateful I am to women like Audrey Lorde who spoke up and spoke out when that was not easy.
    I didn’t know about the movements you chronicled in your blog. It is so interesting to find out about the history of lesbian and gay writing. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jean, thank you for reading my post and sharing your memories of coming out and claiming your truth. I may be totally wrong when I say it’s my impression that being gay, bisexual, or lesbian in London is/was a bit more comfortable than living truthfully in Ireland. How wonderful to that you found strength as a result of reading “Zami, A New Spelling of My Name.” Perhaps the gratitude you express regarding Audre Lorde’s courage is soooo genuine because you spoke up and out also.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, Renee, you would not be wrong in assuming that London was a much better place to be a lesbian in the eighties. It was still a huge taboo in Ireland, thankfully things have changed. Rather should I say, we have changed them. I live in Ireland now, in the rural county of Mayo and am out and proud and have never encountered a problem with that. Of course there are still homophobes around, but probably no more than anywhere else. Yes, I did do my share of speaking out, and continue to add my voice to the struggle for justice and equality, especially for lesbians and women in general.
        I enjoyed reading your post because it reminded me that when we speak out today, when we write our stories and our poetry we are adding to a noble and worthwhile tradition and I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation for the women and men who did so in the past, sometimes at great personal risk.
        PS sorry for the mis-spelling of Audre Lorde’s name! I have a friend called Audrey, she just got married and I think she was on my mind!

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  2. Thank you for this beautiful post, Renee! My scholarly research, current career path as publisher, editor, and writer, were all inspired by the writers you mentioned. Also, thank you for including me on your list of post-Stonewall writers. I’m deeply honored and humbled that you thought of me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for reading the blog post, Stephanie. And thank you for taking on the work of publishing, editing, and writing. I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say it’s important to name and thank those writers who preceded us. I understand why they had to hide important facts about themselves. Their survival depended upon their ability to keep their secrets. I’ve found affirmation in learning their truths.

    I wish you good luck and good times as you pursue your various literary paths,

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a beautiful post, Renee. I love your tribute to writers who have blazed trails and kicked open doors so that we may walk through. It’s very important to recognize and name those brave and daring and genius talents whose words and lives continue to inspire today. My favorite part of your piece: You added “I” at the end of the list of creative talents. You are surely worthy of the list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many, many thanks, L.M. I’m finding that the older I’m fortunate to become, the more I admire those who came before me.


  5. Thank you for this. Langston Hughes opened the doors of poetry for me as well, back in my school days in Philadelphia. I think it’s so important to remember those writers who paved the way, opened our hearts, and made us think. And what a list you have. Looks like I have some reading to do!


    • Thank you for reading and appreciating my blog post, Clifford. One day we’ll have to chat about our school days in Phila. I hope all is going well for you.


  6. Thanks for sending me your blogpost, Renee. It was beautifully written and opened my mind to all sorts of literary accomplishments that I had no knowledge of.. I wonder if there is a reason that you did not mention Maya Angelou (Not Lesbian?) You made me think of her and I went back to a video I have of her at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, reciting her beautiful “On The Pulse of Morning.” I did not know several of the writers you mentioned so will be haunting the library or computer for more information about them.
    Thanks again for thinking of me.


  7. You’re welcome, Nance. And thank you for reading the post. After having read memorable books written by authors whose work I admire, it’s been so self-affirming to learn that the authors and I had more in common than ethnicity. The discovery is like finding a diamond hidden within the book.

    You’re correct on both points regarding Maya Angelou. She did not identify as lesbian and her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” is beautiful.


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