We Are Everywhere: Lesbians in the Archive

The Queer Harlem Renaissance

“Homme ou Femme?” from Voila magazine, May 27, 1933

In the words of scholar Henry Louis Gates, the Harlem Renaissance was “surely as gay as it was Black.” In the early twentieth century, Harlem’s queer subculture was an open secret. Blueswomen like Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan sang openly about same-sex female desire. Literary giants like Langston Hughes attended queer parties at A’Lelia Walker’s “Dark Tower.” In May 1933, the French magazine Voila published an issue devoted to the cultural life of Harlem, with a feature on Harlem’s ballroom scene, shown here.

However, as America fell into the Great Depression and a more conservative political culture took hold of the country, the queer history of Harlem was deliberately censored. Queer writers remained closeted, fearing that publicly coming out would make it impossible to publish their work. The Cold War’s moral crusades conflated homosexuality with communism, a “Lavender Scare” running parallel to the “Red Scare.” In the 1950s and 60s, Black activists feared that discussing queerness openly would threaten their fight for civil rights. In the library, archival materials related to queer Harlem Renaissance figures were rarely catalogued as “gay” and never catalogued as “lesbian.”

Harlem Renaissance era archives hide queerness in plain sight. To reconstitute the day-to-day workings of queer Harlem, we must take absences and margins as imaginative starting points for historical discoveries. The queer women of the Harlem Renaissance are difficult to uncover, but we—as a result of the tireless work of Black Feminist scholars like Angela Davis and Akasha Gloria Hull—can bring their voices to the forefront.

A’Lelia Walker, businesswoman and arts patron, was a key player in the queer Harlem Renaissance. She hosted a variety of social events at her West 136th Street Apartment, affectionately termed “The Dark Tower.”

An invitation to A’Lelia Walker’s salon (undated)

Some events, like the one advertised on the invitation shown, were arts-related talks and lectures. Some were parties where men and women could freely express their sexuality and gender. Langston Hughes called Walker “the joy goddess of the twenties.”

A’Lelia Walker Robinson (1926)

The majority of Harlem Renaissance-era archives at Yale document the lives of men: Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen. Though underrepresented in the archive, Black queer women writers were key contributors to the movement. We can locate women in the margins of men’s archives. Beinecke owns this copy of Black Opals, shown below, because it is annotated by Langston Hughes. However, it is exceptional for another reason: it contains the first poem ever published by Mae Cowdery, a bisexual woman whose book We Lift Our Voices (1936) was one of the only full-length poetry collections published by a Black woman during the first half of the twentieth century. “My Body,” published while Cowdery was still in high school, marks the beginning of her extraordinary but infrequently remembered literary career.

Mae Cowdery’s “My Body” was published in Black Opals while she was still in high school.