The Wild Issue: Richard Bruce Nugent

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One of the lesser-known heroes of the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Bruce Nugent forever changed the face of black – and queer – art.

Though growing up in tumultuous, conservative times, Nugent made no secret of his gay ways. His writing, art and dance readily employed queer themes. In fact, one of his most famous short stories, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” counts itself as the first gay-tinged story written by a black man.

His erotic sketches and paintings, meanwhile, left no doubt where Nugent’s sexual loyalty lay. Learn a little more about Nugent’s wild artistic style, after the jump…

Born in Washington DC, in 1906, young Nugent seemed born for greatness. Though his father struggled as a porter, his mother – Pauline Minerva Bruce – came from a well-known black family, thus affording Nugent a leading education. Nugent excelled during the first few years schooling, but that all changed in 1920, when his father died.

Following his father’s death, fourteen-year-old Nugent headed to New York City, where he took on a job to help support his family while also attending the New York Evening School of Industrial Arts and the Traphagen School of Fashion.

These studies led Nugent to declare himself an “artist”, a moniker that superseded his occupational duties. With no job and no maternal support, Nugent headed back to DC, where he quickly fell in with the black literary elite, including Georgia Douglas Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Nugent’s friendship with Hughes would define the rest of his life. It’s Hughes who encouraged Nugent to submit his first published poem, “Shadow”. Within two years, Nugent moved back to Manhattan, setting up shop with novelist, Wallace Thurman. Nugent continued writing, but also expanded his artistic repertoire by illustrating covers for Alain Locke’s seminal magazine, Opportunity.
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Nugent still craved more, however, and in 1926 collaborated with Hughes, Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas and others to publish an art quarterly “Devoted to Younger Negro Artists”, Fire!! It’s in this short-lived magazine that Nugent published his homo-themed short story, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade”: the first such story published by a black man.

Nugent kept himself busy the next few years with his superb, challenging writings and illustrations (including many of the erotic variety), but branched out into acting in Dorothy and Du Bose Heyward’s play, Porgy. Acting seemed to stick, because Nugent acted in 1933’s Broadway self-described “negro folk drama”, Run, Little Chillun.

But Nugent didn’t give up writing – he penned a number of pieces over the next few years, including “Pope Pius The Only”. His tenacious wit, inimitable style and growing fan base helped Nugent land a job at the New Deal-created Federal Writers’ Project. The stage called again, however, and in 1941 Nugent found himself studying at Wilson Williams’ Negro Dance Company. Four years later, Warren Marr II helped Nugent publish his novel, Beyond Where the Stars Stood Still.
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Despite Nugent’s known homosexuality, he felt compelled to marry Marr’s sister, Grace, in 1952. Nugent made clear, however, that he did not love her. Nor did he lust after her. It simply seemed like the right thing to do. While married, Nugent worked with the Community Planning Conference at Columbia University to help found the Harlem Cultural Council, which he would go on to co-chair.

The council occupied most of Nugent’s time over the next five years, keeping him away from his unhappy wife, who killed herself in 1969. Following Grace’s untimely death, Nugent headed to Rome, where he took an Italian lover. The affair lasted seven years, from 1971 until 1978, when Nugent took his last trip abroad. The next years of Nugent’s life were dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and his work therein, including an interview for the groundbreaking gay film, Before Stonewall.

Nugent’s health began to decline, however, and he spent many of his days in his Hoboken, New Jersey apartment. The artist did, however, keep up his work with the Harlem Cultural Center, joining the Board of Directors in 1984. Three years later, just shy of his 81st birthday, Nugent died of congestive heart failure.

In celebration of this groundbreaking writer’s breathtaking work, here’s an excerpt from his seminal story, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade”, published in 1926:

He wanted to do something…to write or draw…or something…but it was so comfortable just to lay there on the bed…his shoes off…and think…think of everything…short disconnected thoughts…to wonder…to remember…to think and smoke…why wasn’t he worried that he had no money…he had had five cents…but he had been hungry…he was hungry and still…all he wanted to do was…lay there comfortably smoking…think…wishing he were writing…or drawing…or something…something about the things he felt and thought…but what did he think…he remembered how his mother had awakened him one night…ages ago…six years ago…Alex…he had always wondered at the strangeness of it…she had seemed so…so…so just the same…Alex…I think your father is dead…and it hadn’t seemed so strange…yet…one’s mother didn’t say that…didn’t wake one at midnight every night to say…feel him…put your hand on his head…then whisper with a catch in her voice…I’m afraid…ssh don’t wake Lam…yet it hadn’t seemed as it should have seemed…even when he had felt his father’s cool wet forehead…it hadn’t been tragic…the light had been turned very low…and flickered…yet it hadn’t been tragic…or weird…not at all as one should feel when one’s father died…even his reply of…yes he is dead…had been commonplace…hadn’t been dramatic…there had been no tears…no sobs…not even a sorrow…and yet he must have realized that one’s father couldn’t smile…or sing anymore…after he had died…everyone remembered his father’s voice…it had been a lush voice…a promise…then that dressing together…his mother and himself…in the bathroom…why was the bathroom always the warmest room in the winter…as they had put on their clothes…his mother had been telling him what he must do . . and cried softly…and that had made him cry too but you mustn’t cry Alex…remember you have to be a little man now…and that was all…didn’t other wives and sons cry more for their dead than that…anyway people never cried for beautiful sunsets…or music…and those were the things that hurt…the things to sympathize with…then out into the snow and dark of the morning…first to the undertaker’s…no first to Uncle Frank’s…Why did Aunt Lula have to act like that…to ask again and again…but when did he die…when did he die…I just can’t believe it…poor Minerva…then out into the snow and dark again…how had his mother expected him to know where to find the night bell at the undertaker’s…he was the most sensible of them all though…all he had said was…what…Harry Francis…too bad…tell mamma I’ll be there first thing in the morning…then down the deserted streets again…to grandmother’s…it was growing light now…it must be terrible to die in daylight…grandpa had been sweeping the snow off the yard…he had been glad of that because…well he could tell him better than grandma…grandpa…father’s dead…and he hadn’t acted strange either…books lied…he had just looked at Alex a moment then continued sweeping…all he said was…what time did he die…she’ll want to know…then passing through the lonesome street toward home…Mrs. Mamie Grant was closing a window and spied him…hallow Alex…an’ how’s your father this mornin’…dead…get out…tch tch tch an’ I was just around there with a cup a’ custard yesterday…Alex puffed contentedly on his cigarette…he was hungry and comfortable…and he had an ivory holder inlaid with red jade and green…funny how the smoke seemed to climb up that ray of sunlight…went up the slant just like imagination…was imagination blue…or was it because he had spent his last five cents and couldn’t worry…anyway it was nice to lay there and wonder…and remember…why was he so different from other people…the only things he remembered of his father’s funeral were the crowded church and the ride in the hack…so many people there in the church…and ladies with tears in their eyes…and on their cheeks…and some men too…why did people cry . . vanity that was all…yet they weren’t exactly hypocrites…but why…it had made him furious…all these people crying…it wasn’t their father…and he wasn’t crying couldn’t cry for sorrow although he had loved his father more than…than…it had made him so angry that tears had come to his eyes…and he had been ashamed of his mother…crying into a handkerchief…so ashamed that tears had run down his cheeks and he had frowned…and some one…a woman…had said…look at that poor little dear…Alex is just like his father…and the tears had run fast…because he wasn’t like his father…he couldn’t sing…he didn’t want to sing…he didn’t want to sing…Alex blew a cloud of smoke…blue smoke…when they had taken his father from the vault three weeks later…he had grown beautiful…his nose had become perfect and clear…his hair had turned jet black and glossy and silky…and his skin was a transparent green…like the sea only not so deep…and where it was drawn over the cheek bones a pale beautiful red appeared…like a blush…why hadn’t his father looked like that always…but no…to have sung would have broken the wondrous repose of his lips and maybe that was his beauty…maybe it was wrong to think thoughts like these…but they were nice and pleasant and comfortable…when one was smoking a cigarette through an ivory holder…inlaid with red jade and green………..
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Read the stunningly touching piece in its entirety here.
And for more on Richard Bruce Nugent, check out his posthumous website.

[All images copyright Thomas H. Wirth]