The History and Power of Queer, Black Friendships

The first time I knew that my words had triggered some deep in someone was when I finished a two-week, summer writers workshop when I was 15. I climbed into my mother’s car, read her poem, and watched her face change as she heard it. It was then when I realized some people have to go out into the world to search for their queer and creative communities.

As a black teenager, I hungered for so many things, but one of the things that I’m most proud that I’ve fought for other the years is the connection with other black artists, especially black, queer artists, I’ve cultivated. 

So for Black History Month, we’ll be going down memory lane to look at somewhat lesser-known, but still important queer, black friendships.

#1: James Baldwin and Eugene Worth

Last year, I wrote an essay for Catapult Story that started this way:

James Baldwin met Eugene Worth, a black member of the Young People’s Socialist League, in December 1943, shortly after moving to Greenwich Village. The two were best friends and black Socialists who dreamed of a better world. They battled landlords, worked jobs, were fired, and lived hungrily. Baldwin eventually became disillusioned with politics because he learned “to despise the world right back and decide that I would accomplish, in time, with patience and cunning and by becoming indestructible, what I might not, in the moment, achieve by force or persuasion.”

The two friends sat at a diner in the Village and, despite being best friends, the two bickered bitterly over their existential differences. Baldwin could hate. Worth could not.

“You’re a poet, and you don’t believe in love,” Worth said to Baldwin before laying his head on the table and crying.

There isn’t much text or research about Baldwin and Worth’s friendship, but an acclaimed biography on James Baldwin’s life by David Leeming sheds a lot of light. In the years before Baldwin’s death, Leeming and Baldwin became very good friends, even to the point of Leeming visiting Baldwin on his deathbed.

Baldwin and Worth met in December 1943 and by 1946, Worth would be dead by suicide; much like the character of Rufus in Baldwin’s novel, Another Country. The two were best friends, talked politics, worked jobs together, and were fired together. The relationship touched Baldwin in such a deep way that he never confessed his romantic feelings for Worth, even once when Worth wondered aloud, “I think I may be in love with you.”

Eugene Worth’s passing would prove to be a powerful catalyst for much of Baldwin’s life sadness and the characters in his works.

#3 Niggerati Manor Crew (Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Bruce Nugent)

Niggeratti Manor was known as a boarding house in Harlem that poor, usually black artists could stay at for next to no costs.

Hurston coined the term “Niggerati”, which described her effective group of friends during the Harlem Renaissance. The Niggerati Manor was a rent-free space owned by a Black New Yorker, Iolanthe Sydney, and created to provide Black artists rent-free housing. More than anything, the house became an effective symbol of the more counter-culture figures within the Black art scene in 1920’s New York. Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Collen, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman often stumbled out of the boarding house decorated with wicker furniture, which was rumored to have bright penises painted on the walls by another house visitor, Bruce Nugent. The space proved fruitful and hosted meetings to produce the literary journal, FIRE!!

The Niggerati crew were known to hang out at local restaurants, drink, and laugh loudly. The friends challenged much of the Harlem Renaissance’s pursuit of “black excellence” and the notion of joining the “Talented Tenth”. Instead, the group of friends and creatives were more worried about pushing boundaries, like featuring the first short story with explicit homosexuality by Richard Nugent in FIRE!!’s first edition.

#3 Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam

Essex Hemphill (1957–1995) and Joseph Beam (1954–1988) were both relatively acclaimed, queer, black writers during their lives, although their importance became more realized after their deaths. 

 Essex Hemphill was an openly gay poet and activist in Washington DC. In the early 1980s, he formed the spoken word group “Cinque”. He gained even more acclaim when his writings appeared in Beam’s anthology, IN THE LIFE. He also appeared in a number of films that explore the black, queer experience throughout 20th century America (Tongues Untied, Looking for Langston, etc). After Beam’s death, Hemphill moved in with Dorothy Beam, Joseph’s mother (as mentioned in Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence by Darius Bost). Together, they worked on the sequel to IN THE LIFE and honored Beam’s legacy.

Joseph Beam returned to Philadelphia in 1979 after studying for university elsewhere. He became a key figure at the prominent Philly bookstore, Giovanni’s Room, where many young, LGBTQIA people gathered. He worked tirelessly to collect writings from other gay, black men during some of the heights of the AIDS epidemic, something largely unheard of. He would go on to published IN THE LIFEin 1986 and become close friends with Hemphill. Though much is not known about their connection, Hemphill did not later on that Beam was interested in him romantically, but Hemphill was persistent that they stay friends.

#4 Angela Davis and Toni Morrison

Through their friendship and the editing process, Davis was consistently surprised with Morrison’s ability to set personal, creative, and professional boundaries, as well as her work ethic on her first novel, The Bluest Eye

In 1972, Morrison even wrote a scathing review of a racist biography about Angela Davis by Regina Nadelson for the New York Times. “…Regina lives in the 20th century and is an enlightened racist who knows about cultural determinism.”

To read more of the 2004 Q&A between Angela Davis and Toni Morrison.

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