Harlem Rebel: Richard Bruce Nugent
Generally, when we think of the Harlem Renaissance, that great outpouring of African American cultural creativity in the 1920s, we think of the major figures of that movement, i.e., Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay, among others. Theirs was a two-pronged, sometimes contradictory cultural effort; on the one hand, to express an original African American voice in literature and the other arts, independent of dominant white culture; on the other hand, to have African American creative expression find a respected place as an integral part of American culture.
Writer, artist, actor, and dancer Richard Bruce Nugent had a rather different attitude. For him, the concept of acceptance by the mainstream, both Black and white, was less important than a life—and an art—lived in personal truth.
Though it was an open secret that a number of the Harlem Renaissance’s most noted figures were homosexual, it was nevertheless still treated as a secret, the details of their gay life kept among themselves. Nugent was having none of that.
So who was Richard Bruce Nugent?
He was born in Washington, DC, in 1906, to Richard Henry Nugent and Pauline Minerva Bruce Nugent. The family was solidly middle class, with Henry’s secure job as a Pullman porter and Pauline’s career as a pianist. When Henry died of tuberculosis when Richard was just 13 years old, Pauline moved with Richard and his younger brother Gary to New York’s Harlem.
The neighborhood was in its early stages as a Mecca of African American culture and politics, and young Richard thrived in the brewing energy. He worked odd jobs through the age of 18 to contribute money to the family, but his inner energy was quickly plugging into Harlem’s evolving cultural excitement. Sometime in 1924, he admitted to his mother that he wanted to become a writer. Pauline, worried about her son leading the unstable life of an artist, sent him back to Washington to live with his grandmother.
But the urge to create was too strong in young Richard, and luck, too, was on his side. According to Nugent’s bio at the Academy of American Poets, Nugent became a regular attendee at the Saturday night literary salons hosted by playwright and poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. It was at one of these evenings in 1925 that Nugent met poet Langston Hughes. The two became friends, and Nugent returned to Harlem with Hughes, who introduced the young aspiring writer to Harlem’s other literary and artistic figures.
It was now that Nugent’s radical spirit found its strength. Rather than practice an art which sought a place in the dominant heterosexual literary and cultural worlds, Nugent, who had fully embraced his homosexuality, began writing works which reflected this personal truth. Together with Hughes and novelist Wallace Thurman, Nugent launched the culturally radical publication Fire!!
The magazine’s first—and, sadly, only—issue featured Nugent’s short story, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade.” The story is credited as the first literary work by an African American with homosexuality as its central theme. The story’s protagonist, Alex, proudly states, “You see, I am a homosexual. I have never been in what they call ‘the closet.’ It never occurred to me that it was anything to be ashamed of, and it never occurred to me that it was anybody’s business but mine.”
That was in 1926, when such declarations could get you arrested, or worse. How’s that for Out and Proud?! Nugent lived his gay life openly, refusing to hide or sublimate it.
In addition to his literary life, Nugent was also an actor and dancer. In 1927, he appeared in Porgy, the non-musical play which prefigured Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and in 1933 Nugent danced in the Broadway production of Run, Little Chillun.
Nugent remained faithful to the idea of a unique and independent African American art and culture centered in Harlem, and in the 1960s became one of the founders and guiding lights of the Harlem Cultural Council. The council was largely responsible for much of the funding for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, an institution which still thrives today under the auspices of the New York Public Library system.
In the 1980s, Nugent’s work gained new attention. His literature was featured in Michael J. Smith’s 1983 publication, Black Men/White Men: A Gay Anthology. In 1986, his interview with Joseph Bream was published in In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology.
Writer, actor, dancer, visual artist—Richard Bruce Nugent was a true Renaissance man of Harlem. Out and proud, indeed. ▼
Ann Aptaker is the author of short stories and the Lambda & Goldie award winning Cantor Gold series. Her new book, A Crime of Secrets, was released July 4, 2023.