There is no shortage of super talented gay writers in the world, but one group that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is gay black writers.
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s saw the first emergence of gay black writers and artists, including Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman, and James Weldon Johnson.
The 1980s saw another renaissance of sorts for gay black writers, with voices like Joseph Beam, Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs gaining national attention.
Here are some of our favorite gay black writers from over the years. Add more to the list in the comments section below.
Essex Hemphill’s writing has been published in dozens of journals, anthologies, and magazines including Gay Community News, The Advocate, and Essence, among countless others.
His most popular collection of poems and essays was 1993’s Ceremonies, which addressed issues including the sexual objectification of black men in white culture, relationships between gay black men and heterosexual black men, how HIV/AIDS affected the black community, and the meaning of family.
Hemphill died of AIDS-related complications in 1995. He was 38 years old. A biography about him called Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS written by award-winning gay author Martin Duberman was published last year.
James Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and critic who first rose to prominence in 1953 with his semi-autobiographical debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. He followed that up with his 1956’s Giovanni’s Room, a groundbreaking novel that offered readers a complex representation of homosexuality and same-sex desire rarely depicted in literature before.
According to Baldwin, his publisher initially told him to “burn the book,” fearing that the theme of homosexuality would alienate his readers. Indeed, after it was published, Baldwin received quite a bit of backlash. Today, Giovanni’s Room is considered to be one of the most important gay novels of the 20th century.
Assotto Saint was a Haitian-born American poet, short story writer, essayist, and performance artist. His work has been featured in a variety of anthologies and in 1992 he was awarded the Lambda Literary Award in poetry from his anthology The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets.
Saint died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Two years later, his posthumous book called Spells of a Voodoo Doll: The Poems, Fiction, Essays and Plays of Assotto Saint, which blended elements of autobiography with an anthology of his previously published writings, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Biography or Autobiography category.
Langston Hughes was a poet, short story writer, novelist, columnist and leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Despite his celebrity writer status, he remained tight-lipped about his personal life, though it is widely agreed upon by many academics and biographers that he was gay.
Hughes often wrote in code. His poem “To F.S.” is believed to be about Ferdinand Smith, a sailor from Jamaica whom Hughes maintained a close relationship with for over thirty years, and a collection of unpublished love poems frequently refer to another man as “Beauty.”
Originally from rural North Carolina, much of Randall Kenan’s fiction explores what it means to be black and gay in the southern United States. Among his critically-acclaimed books is the collection of short stories Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1992, and a 2011 anthology of previously unpublished works by James Baldwin which Kenan compiled and edited.
Kenan is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the John Dos Passos Prize.
Joseph Beam was a writer and activist whose articles and short stories were featured in numerous gay publications, including Gay Community News, Philadelphia Gay News, The Advocate, and the Windy City Times, among others. In 1984, he was awarded a certificate for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist by the Lesbian and Gay Press Association.
His 1986 book In the Life was the first anthology of writing by gay black men. Although it was initially ignored by critics and academic institutions, today it is widely regarded as a literary and cultural milestone in gay literature.
E. Lynn Harris
E. Lynn Harris was a popular urban novelist who wrote ten consecutive books all of which reached The New York Times Best Seller list, making him one of the most successful gay, African American authors of his generation. In addition to his novels, his 2003 memoir What Becomes of the Brokenhearted became a national bestseller. He died in 2009.
Charles M. Blow
Charles M. Blow’s bestselling memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones describes growing up as a bisexual youth in a African-American town in Louisiana and the struggles he faced as a young adult coming to terms with his sexuality. The book, which was published in fall 2014, has been lauded by critics and was included on the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books 0f 2014 and Publishers Weekly list of Best Books of 2014.