Intersectionality: Gay Harlem

A playlist of some of the “songs of gay Harlem” mentioned by Steven Blier.

“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”

“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene might have been like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.

“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show. Note that she is gotten up in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”

Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”

“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:

“Witness,” one of the many spirituals Hall Johnson arranged, sung by Marti Newland:

Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”

The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:

“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:

“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.

  • What historical, social, and cultural factors led to the Harlem Renaissance?
  • Describe the music of the Harlem Renaissance. What did it sound like? Did it draw strictly from African-American musical traditions, or from diverse traditions? Give an example to back up your answer.
  • Why do you think Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans?

12 thoughts on “Intersectionality: Gay Harlem

  1. Right off the bat, the great migration after world war 1 comes to mind as a factor that lead to the Harlem renaissance, due to there being a location with a large population of them congregating. Singers like Bessy Smith took concepts from blues and jazz. I feel like many music traditions have become intermixed so in that since they used from all diffrent types, but at the same time I’m sure they wanted to create something for themselves, creating their own legacy’s. One concept for providing refuge could be that they felt the need to all stick together in a group of like individuals.

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  2. As for what led to the Harlem Renaissance, the great migration was crucial, it is what got all the African Americans together and what led them to start their new American lives. World War 1 was also a factor for it because it gave lots of job in factories throughout the country. After listening to “Worried Blues” by Gladys Bentley, I would say it sounds definitely liked African American music, but it also sounds diverse. It is something that I could also see a white person singing. Personally, I believe Harlem provided refuge for gay African Americans because of people like Gladys Bentley. People wanted to hear more of their voices and ignored that they were gay, also, at the time, lots of African Americans had each other’s back in those rough times.

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  3. The Harlem Renaissance occurred as a result of the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities and the First World War which created new work opportunities for thousands of people. During the time of the Harlem Renaissance jazz was very popular. This music of the Harlem Renaissance had ragtime syncopation, brass bands, gospel choirs, and many aspects of the blues incorporated into it. The music of the Harlem Renaissance drew from diverse traditions and different types of music throughout history to form one. One example of a song from this period is “I’m Wild About that Thing” by Bessie Smith. I think Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans because it was a center of art, music, and African American culture. It was a place where many African-Americans felt accepted among their own community compared to the white communities they previously lived in. They felt comfortable enough to embrace who they truly were.

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  4. Harlem was a place where black people could be themselves, they had more black people per square mile than anywhere else.It was in the heart manhattan and was a well developed community.Along with the great migration and all the clubs and bars,black people could gather freely.All this allowed for the progression of black people in Harlem.Music in Harlem was mostly jazz and blues,genres that had the sophistication of classical music.It was new, something people would call their own.Also Harlem provide and safehaven for homosexuals, it was seen as a place where the taboo can thrive so why not homosexuals.

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  5. The major contribution towards the start of the Harlem renaissance was The Great migration of African-americans to northern cities such as New York Harlem. White people saw this sudden increase in African togetherness as an invasion of their harlem which made them panic and flee. This left many deserted houses that the loan/bank companies of these houses preferred to stay that way instead of leasing, renting the houses to colored people. Music of the Harlem renaissance sounded like songs of pride while the instrumentals like “In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger gave off upbeat, jolly good times vibes. Most of these songs made me think of a happy version of the blues mixed with jazz. Gay African Americans were provided refuge due to the african americans of harlem supporting eachother and working as a community through tough times to survive and make harlem their own home.

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    1. Great points, Tireke. Thank you for demonstrating an excellent grasp of the social and economic conditions, particularly in regard to housing and white flight, that led to the birth of Harlem as a center of black culture.

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  6. The Great Migration is what really helped the Harlem Renaissance grow. The economy was booming, which gave African Americans and every race a great opportunity. During that period, Jazz and Swing were two of the biggest style of music. Most beginning artists of Jazz were African American. Because of the Great Depression, African American owned businesses and publications were hurt. That movement brought attention to the Arts of the Harlem Renaissance which made it grow even larger. I believe the music from the Harlem Renaissance was mostly drawn in from African Americans. Even though “Underneath The Harlem Moon” by Ethel Waters is a song that can be sung by any race, it just seems that it has more of an African American, emotional feel to it.

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  7. The Great Migration was an integral factor that led to the Harlem Renaissance. Millions of African Americans moved out of the rural South to the North in order to flee Jim Crow laws and terror against African Americans that plagued the South, as well as to escape the life of being a sharecropper as they were often exploited. The North appealed to African Americans during this time seeing as majority of the white men were sent off to fight in WWI; hence, there was an influx of availability of jobs in the industrial factories. As the North was advertised as the “Promised Land”, African Americans migrated to the North in order to seek economic and social mobility with the promises of better employment opportunities. This eventually led to the Harlem Renaissance as those who migrated to the North were only able to live in segregated communities for African Americans rather than integrated communities such as in Harlem.

    Harlem first became dominated by African Americans due to Philip A. Payton proposing to fill the empty and partially empty houses in Harlem’s newly built apartments with black tenants. Harlem did not attract many white tenants at the time due to it being considered a remote location since the Lenox Avenue Subway wasn’t built yet. Gradually more and more African Americans began to purchase property in Harlem despite the great opposition from their conniving white counterparts.

    The music genre that dominated the Harlem Renaissance was jazz. Jazz can be described to have syncopated rhythms and improvised instrumental solos. The genre evolved from slave work songs, African American spirituals, blues, and also ragtime. An example of the jazz music that dominated this time is Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”. If listened carefully, one can hear the mixed influences of ragtime (with its syncopated rhythm), blues, and band music with an orchestra containing instruments such as the piano, bass, saxophones, and much more.

    I believe Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans despite it being frowned upon for numerous reasons. For instance, Harlem flourished with cultural and artistic expression and in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, there were famous courageous artists such as Billy Strayhorn who were uncloseted and extremely successful. As a result of the influence held by such artists and the fact that the community of Harlem was tight-knit, Harlem provided refuge for gay African-Americans since as a community they had to look out for one another and plenty of the said gay African-Americans were also extremely talented in the arts.

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  8. The major contribution towards the start of the Harlem renaissance was The Great migration of African-americans to northern cities such as New York Harlem. White people saw this sudden increase in African togetherness as an invasion of their harlem which made them panic and flee. This left many deserted houses that the loan/bank companies of these houses preferred to stay that way instead of leasing, renting the houses to colored people. Music of the Harlem renaissance sounded like songs of pride while the instrumentals like “In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger gave off upbeat, jolly good times vibes. Most of these songs made me think of a happy version of the blues mixed with jazz. Gay African Americans were provided refuge due to the african americans of harlem supporting eachother and working as a community through tough times to survive and make harlem their own home.

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  9. Great work, everyone! I especially commend Tireke and Zerin for their detailed explanations of the complex social, historical, and economic conditions that led to the explosion of culture in Harlem in the 1920s.

    Those of you who took 19th-century music with me might remember the German word “Bildung,” which means self-development, the maturation of the inner self. In Harlem in the 1920s, for the first time in American history, you have a center of black Bildung, as it were — a special place dedicated to the development, through art, music, and literature, of the inner lives of African-Americans. The Harlem Renaissance was the creation of unique conditions that perhaps can never be replicated.

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