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Analytical Essay on The New Negro: Role of Same-sex Desire in Richard Bruce Nugent’s Smoke, Lilies and Jade

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Fire!! Magazine, subtitled ‘Devoted to Younger Negro artists’ was published, for the first and final time, in New York in 1926. Despite the number of African American periodicals released before this magazine, Fire!! “caused a sensation […] which had never been known in Negro journalism before”[footnoteRef:1]. Edited by Wallace Thurman with contributions from other black artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Matthew Hannah argues that Fire!! advocated for “aesthetic representations of life as it really is, regardless of the “moral” considerations of uplift ideology”[footnoteRef:2]. I am inclined to partly disagree with Hannah’s comment, his proposition that Fire!! presented “life as it really is” formulating a problematic connection between the magazine and authenticity. Utilising art and literature as its mode of enlightenment, Fire!! alternatively provides a narrative of exploration. Rather than offering a vehement reaction to thoughts about black representation made by intellectuals such as W.E.B Du Bois and Alain Locke of the New Negro movement, Fire!! is concerned with the changing attitudes of the younger generation, troubling uplift ideology through exploring topics such as, prostitution, interracial relationships and homosexuality. Often hailed as “the first overtly homoerotic story published by a black writer,” Richard Bruce Nugent’s Smoke Lilies and Jade figures prominently in the magazine for its queer sexual content[footnoteRef:3]. Through overt presentations of queer sexual fluidity, Nugent adheres to the overall aims of Fire!!, exploring new attitudes towards black representation and confronting specific discourses of racial uplift, inspiring a more complex reading of sexuality. How can we read the significance of queer sexual desire as an exploration of possibility and changing political attitudes, both personally and in relation to the spatial significance of Harlem? This essay will discuss the role of same-sex desire in Nugent’s Smoke, Lilies and Jade. I shall focus firstly on Nugent’s formal experimentations and use of overt sexual language as an exploration of the tensions between queer sexual desire and specific discourses of racial uplift. I shall then discuss the spatial significance of Harlem in the text, arguing that Nugent formulates Harlem as a space of possibility which enables Alex’s sexual exploration. [1: Abby Ann Arthur Johnson and Ronald M. Johnson, “Forgotten Pages: Black Literary Magazines in the 1920s” Journal of American Studies. 8.03 (1974), pp. 363-382, (p372).] [2: Matthew N. Hannah, “Desires Made Manifest: The Queer Modernism of Wallace Thurman’s Fire!!.” Journal of Modern Literature, 38.3, (2015), pp. 162–180, (p166).] [3: Christa Schwarz, Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), (p40). ]

Undoubtedly, Nugent’s most striking formal experimentation in Smoke, Lilies and Jade is structuring the text through persistent use of ellipses. Although ellipses typically indicate omission, Nugent’s technique elegantly connects thought and speech, dream and reality, formulating a free indirect discourse in which “very little is unsaid, very little is repressed”[footnoteRef:4]. From the section opening “the church was crowded…”[footnoteRef:5], the reader becomes entangled in Alex’s sexual thoughts. Interlaced through ellipses, queer fantasy and reality exist within the same sentence and the visualisation of the exterior world becomes blurred by Alex’s subconscious desire – “the young man was singing it again…Beauty’s lips had pressed hard…cool” (p38). This continues, Alex’s head “swollen” from overwhelming, “expanding…contracting” (p38) desire as the fantasy of Beauty dominates the writing. Language builds to an orgasmic effect, the repeating motif “fy ah Lawd, fy ah gonna burn ma soul” (p38) suspended by ellipses as the final moments of the section lingers at the point of climax, “he could feel Beauty’s body…close against his…hot…tense…white…and soft…” (p38). Reality is exceeded by Alex’s unapologetic queer fantasy. Performing the role of the artist he desires to be, rather than resisting fantasy, Alex takes pleasure in finding the words to sexually imagine his beloved[footnoteRef:6]. The ellipses support this, connecting fragmentations of sexual thoughts to present, as Micheal Cobb notes, “unrestrained queer expression”[footnoteRef:7]. It is important to emphasise that Cobb’s remark on homoerotic expression does not mean Nugent’s text should be read as a manifesto for gay, black love. Garber calls Smoke, Lilies and Jade a “defence of homosexual love,”[footnoteRef:8] wrongly assigning a gay rights consciousness to the text and reducing the complexity in Nugent’s writing. It is, I argue, more useful to analyse the role of same-sex desire through the lens of sexual and political exploration. Cobb is conscious of the ellipses’ multiplicity, also proposing: “the ellipses indicate the opposite of Locke’s smooth racial veneer, and offers, instead, the choppy incompleteness of sentence fragments strewn together by a thematic or interracial queerness”[footnoteRef:9]. Cobb’s choice of language implies an undercurrent of disruption beneath Alex’s unrestrained language of desire. This disruption confronts the political ethos of the New Negro, whose key goals were to “fight social battles and compensate social wrongs’ through a discourse of uplift, characterised by embodying respectability and opposing “the psychology of implied inferiority”[footnoteRef:10]. Returning to the repeated motif “fyah…,” whilst also punctuating orgasmic intensity, echoes Langston Hughes’ opening forward to Fire!!, “Fy-ah Lawd, Fy-ah gonna burn ma soul” (p1). Cobb’s assertion of elliptical disruption converts same-sex desire into a rallying cry, troubling the conservatism of uplift ideology[footnoteRef:11]. Thus, Nugent uses Alex to explore the tension between queer sexual desire and racial uplift, posing the question: can one be themselves, free in their desires, in relation to discourses of racial uplift? The role of same-sex fantasy and desire becomes an exploration of racial self and sexual possibility, pondering the questions of a younger artistic generation in contention with the ethos of the New Negro. [4: Hannah, “Desires Made Manifest: The Queer Modernism of Wallace Thurman’s Fire!!.” (p174). Michael L. Cobb, “Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative: The Harlem Renaissance’s Impolite Queers” Callaloo. 23.1 (2000) pp.328–351, (p344).] [5: Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists (1926), reissue edited by Richard Bruce Nugent and Thomas H.Wirth (1982). Accessed on https://issuu.com/poczineproject/docs/poczp_fire_1926_readview [27 October 2020]. (p38). Further references will be indicated through brackets in the main text. ] [6: Cobb, “Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative: The Harlem Renaissance’s Impolite Queers,’ (p344).] [7: ibid, 345.] [8: Eric Garber, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” in Hidden in History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. by Martin Duberman (New York: New York American Library, 1989), pp. 318–33 (p330).] [9: Cobb, “Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative: The Harlem Renaissance’s Impolite Queers” (p345).] [10: Eric King Watts, “African American ethos and hermeneutical rhetoric: An exploration of Alain Locke’sThe New Negro” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 88.1 (2002) pp.19-32, (p25).] [11: Cobb, “Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative: The Harlem Renaissance’s Impolite Queers” (p345).]

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This persistence for exploration is littered throughout the text, Nugent continually experimenting with form to complicate the role of same-sex desire in Smoke, Lilies and Jade. Alex’s awakening passion for Beauty is explored through the reconfiguration of the traditional blazon. The blazon catalogues, often through a male voice, the physical attributes of a desired female subject making the form transmittal of heteronormative sexual desire. In Smoke, Lilies and Jade, Nugent transforms the heteronormative blazon into explorations of queer, interracial desire[footnoteRef:12]. Alex’s eyes begin to “wander,” fixated on Beauty’s body as he sexualises his physiognomy from “the muscular hocks to the firm white thighs” to his “brown eyes looking at him”(p37). It would be easy to a read the replaced male subject as Nugent’s justification of queer desire but, as previously acknowledged, Smoke, Lilies and Jade refuses to sit comfortably as a manifesto for homosexuality. I suggest, the significance of Nugent’s formal reconfiguration is not to undermine the blazon but rather to stun the form into something innovative. Thus, transformation of form comes to represent a transformed thinking process, again, confronting the conservatism of uplift ideology. Dorothea Löbbermann notes, “racial uplift excluded (queer) sexuality from its discourse,” acknowledging that sexuality was disregarded in Locke’s The New Negro, despite the majority of his organised network of correspondents identifying as homosexual[footnoteRef:13]. By rewriting the blazon to include queer sexuality, Nugent provides a possible exploration to the question posed by elliptical disruption – can one freely express queer sexual desire in relation to discourses of racial uplift? Nugent’s revision of the heteronormative form suggests that heteronormative discourses of uplift must also be reconsidered to allow for an inclusive representation of blackness including those who do not identify as heterosexual. Same-sex desire thus becomes a tool to express reformed thinking, adhering to the principles of Fire!! by overtly exploring the new ways to express black, gay selfhood outside the confines of racial uplift. [12: Hannah, “Desires Made Manifest: The Queer Modernism of Wallace Thurman’s Fire!!.” (p174).] [13: Dorothea Löbbermann, “Richard Bruce Nugent and the Queer Memory of Harlem” in Race Capital? : Harlem as Setting and Symbol. Ed. Andrew Fearnley and Daniel Matlin, vols. (Columbia University Press, 2018), pp.221–240, (p226).]

As demonstrated, Nugent’s portrayal of same-sex desire acts as a means to explore new possibilities for black representation and identity practice. However, Smoke, Lilies and Jade also connects the exploration of sexuality to the spatial significance of Harlem. When Alex leaves to take a nighttime walk, he describes it in sensuous terms, “the street was long and narrow . . . […] in the distance it reached the stars […] Alex walked music” (p36). Shane Hunter notes that Nugent’s use of free indirect discourse connects “Alex’s internal world to the geography of the urban centre”[footnoteRef:14]. However, it is essential to analyse what specific geography of Harlem Nugent is portraying. Rather than extravagant drag balls and speakeasies brimming with reckless abandon, we get a night hung in stillness, the only action a quiet exchange of a match[footnoteRef:15]. This exchange marks Alex and Beauty’s meeting and, unconfined to the extravagant nightlife, Alex is awoken to the sexual possibilities of Harlem in the 1920s[footnoteRef:16]. As Joseph Boone notes, “Alex’s mental world resembles […] a space crossed by myriad, conflicting impressions, sensations, and desires”[footnoteRef:17]. To return to Hunter’s observation with Boone’s interpretation in consideration, the geography of Harlem becomes attached to Alex’s multitudinous internal world, intrigued by interracial homosexual desire through his attraction to Beauty and his heterosexual attraction to Melva. Harlem and sexual possibility become interconnected. Harlem becomes a space of possibility, enabling individuals to explore their sexual desires and fantasies – exactly the narrative Alex follows in the text. Thus, Nugent is able to explore, through Alex, a myriad of topics such as his queer sexual fantasy, overt sexual desire and fluidity. [14: Shane C. Hunter, ‘Jazz Epidemics and Deep Set Diseases: The De-Pathologization of the Black Body in the Work of three Harlem Renaissance Writers” Dissertations, Theses, and Student Research: Department of English. 110 (2016), (p163).] [15: ibid, 163.] [16: ibid,163.] [17: Joseph Allen Boone, Libidinal Currents : Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism (Chicago (Ill.) ; London: The University Of Chicago Press, 1998), (p224).]

This essay proves Smoke, Lilies and Jade to be a striking exploration into the role of same-sex desire, continually complicating simplified readings of sexuality to establish a broader significance. Enabled through free indirect discourse, Harlem is established as a place of sexual possibility. Alex’s meeting of Beauty propels the narrative into an unapologetic portrayal of sexual desire and fantasy, Nugent utilising both form and language to negotiate Alex’s sexual fluidity to celebrate exploration. Additionally, Smoke, Lilies and Jade establishes same-sex desire with essential political significance. The inclusion of same-sex desire presents a specific reaction to discourses of racial uplift, troubling the preoccupation with respectability and the exclusion of homosexuality from its narratives. Smoke, Lilies and Jade presents the reader with modern thought, representing the changing attitudes of a younger artistic generation. Nugent is not writing with an aim to please. He is not advocating for authenticity nor an aggressive discourse of reaction. He is not, through the overt presentation of sexual desire, utilising the text as a celebration of gay black love. Nugent is writing to explore, engaging the reader in a renewed thinking process concerning gay, black identity. The role of same-sex desire in Smoke Lilies and Jade is thus multiple and complex, but undoubtedly thrives in this complexity.

Bibliography

  1. Boone, Joseph Allan, Libidinal currents : sexuality and the shaping of modernism. Chicago (Ill.) ; London: The University Of Chicago Press, 1998.
  2. Cobb, Micheal L. “Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative: The Harlem Renaissance’s Impolite Queers” Callaloo. 23.1 (2000) pp.328–351.
  3. Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists (1926), reissue edited by Richard Bruce Nugent and Thomas H.Wirth (1982). Accessed on https://issuu.com/poczineproject/docs/poczp_fire_1926_readview [27 October 2020].
  4. Garber, Eric, “‘A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,’” In Hidden in History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Ed. Martin Duberman, (New York: New York American Library, 1989) pp.318–333.
  5. Hannah, Matthew N., “Desires Made Manifest: The Queer Modernism of Wallace Thurman’s Fire!!.” Journal of Modern Literature, 38.3, (2015), pp. 162–180.
  6. Johnson, Abby Ann Arthur and Johnson, Ronald, M., “Forgotten Pages: Black Literary Magazines in the 1920s” Journal of American Studies. 8.03 (1974), pp. 363-382.
  7. Löbbermann, Dorothea, “Richard Bruce Nugent and the Queer Memory of Harlem” in Race Capital? : Harlem as Setting and Symbol. Ed. Andrew Fearnley and Daniel Matlin, vols. (Columbia University Press, 2018), pp.221–240.
  8. Schwarz, Christina, Gay voices of the Harlem Renaissance. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).
  9. Shane C. Hunter, ‘Jazz Epidemics and Deep Set Diseases: The De-Pathologization of the Black Body in the Work of three Harlem Renaissance Writers” Dissertations, Theses, and Student Research: Department of English. 110 (2016).
  10. Watts, Eric King, “African American ethos and hermeneutical rhetoric: An exploration of Alain Locke’sThe New Negro” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 88.1 (2002) pp.19-32

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Analytical Essay on The New Negro: Role of Same-sex Desire in Richard Bruce Nugent’s Smoke, Lilies and Jade. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/analytical-essay-on-the-new-negro-role-of-same-sex-desire-in-richard-bruce-nugents-smoke-lilies-and-jade/
“Analytical Essay on The New Negro: Role of Same-sex Desire in Richard Bruce Nugent’s Smoke, Lilies and Jade.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/analytical-essay-on-the-new-negro-role-of-same-sex-desire-in-richard-bruce-nugents-smoke-lilies-and-jade/
Analytical Essay on The New Negro: Role of Same-sex Desire in Richard Bruce Nugent’s Smoke, Lilies and Jade. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/analytical-essay-on-the-new-negro-role-of-same-sex-desire-in-richard-bruce-nugents-smoke-lilies-and-jade/> [Accessed 31 Jan. 2023].
Analytical Essay on The New Negro: Role of Same-sex Desire in Richard Bruce Nugent’s Smoke, Lilies and Jade [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Jan 31]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/analytical-essay-on-the-new-negro-role-of-same-sex-desire-in-richard-bruce-nugents-smoke-lilies-and-jade/
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