Strange Fruits: Rethinking the gay twenties

Mason Stokes in Transition Magazine:

I woke up this morning with my business in my hand.
If you can’t bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man.

—Kokomo Arnold, “Sissy Man Blues,” circa 1927

TR92 The historian David Levering Lewis once described Alain Locke’s 1925 essay “The New Negro”—arguably the Magna Carta of the Harlem Renaissance—as “seminal.” As it turns out, Locke was more “seminal” than Lewis may have known. There’s a story that has been making the rounds among Locke scholars in recent years. Apparently Dorothy Porter Wesley, the longtime curator of the Locke papers at Howard University, once confided to a friend that she had thrown something of Locke’s away. The friend was shocked, since Wesley was known to be an unusually scrupulous curator; destroying a piece of evidence would be a serious violation of whatever oath curators swear to uphold. Wesley was disinclined to reveal what, precisely, she had tossed, but her friend was persistent, and eventually she confessed. The item in question was Alain Locke’s semen collection.

This is all we have: a rumor that such a collection existed, and was discharged into the dustbin of history. But what kind of collection was it? Were the samples drawn from Locke himself, collected over time as a kind of autobiography—a time-lapse portrait of the great man’s virility? It seems like a redundant enterprise, archiving one’s seed, given that a fresh supply is always near to hand. But perhaps the collection was more diverse, comprising donations from friends, acquaintances, or passersby. If this is the case, then who were the donors? Might Locke’s viscous archive have been—to take just one example—another place to go “looking for Langston”?

Langston Hughes was, after all, of more than literary interest to Locke. If you look Locke up in the index to Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Hughes, you’ll find an entry called, “seduction campaign on L. H.” As Rampersad tells the story, Countee Cullen, the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, had introduced the two men. “Write to him,” Cullen advised Locke, “and arrange to meet him. You will like him; I love him.” When Locke finally put pen to paper, he composed an extraordinary letter written largely in a sort of gay code. He valued “friendship,” he wrote, “which cult I confess is my only religion, and has been ever since my early infatuation with Greek ideals of life…You see, I was caught up early in the coils of classicism.” Knowing Hughes was then living on the West Hassayampa, a ship docked at Jones Point, Locke casually noted that he was a great enthusiast of sailors. Hughes’s response was even more coy: he asked Locke if he liked Walt Whitman and confessed that he himself loved the Calarnus poems Whitman’s poem cycle on the subject of manly attachment. But if Hughes shared Locke’s general interests, he was not, it appears, inclined to Locke’s particulars. Matters never went beyond this exchange of letters, and the failure proved a bitter disappointment for Locke, who had clearly hoped to catch Hughes in the coil of classicism he so artfully dangled in his letter.

More here.