Richard Bruce Nugent

Richard Bruce Nugent

Richard Bruce Nugent in 1982
Richard Bruce Nugent in 1982 

Richard Bruce Nugent (July 2, 1906 – May 27, 1987), aka Richard Bruce or Bruce Nugent, was an African American atist, writer, painter.  Most notably, he was the openly gay black intellectual during the Harlem Renaissance.

He was born in Washington, DC  on July 2nd 1906 to a middle-class African American family of ‘high’ social position in the black community.  He was the oldest child of parents Richard H. Nugent, Jr., a train porter, and Pauline Minerva Bruce, an accomplished pianist who was trained as a schoolteacher.

He was a protégé of Alain Locke, to whom he was connected via their families and he was also a contemporary of Langston HughesAaron DouglasWallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston.   He was a roommate of Wallace Thurman and was for over thirty years, and was the only openly gay African American writer.

Richard Bruce Nugent 

Richard Bruce Nugent

While his literary and artistic outputs were relatively modest relative to his contemporaries of the time, Richard Bruce Nugent was a key player in the New Negro movement.  His unique and unorthodox personal style and sexual conventions snubbed the established mores of the time.  Nugent’s lifestyle was that of the ultimate bohemian.  Because of the notoriety surrounding him, and to avoid the disapproval of and embarrassment to his family, he assumed the pseudonym of Richard Bruce.  It is this pseudonym that is often attached to his writings and drawings.  He has been described as a “bizarre and eccentric vagabond poet,” and “a non-conformist who refused to accept so-called middle class standards.”  Other attributes used to describe him were “cutting-edge, good-looking, great sense of humor, and intelligent.”

Nugent was a frequent participant at poet Georgia Douglas Johnson’s famous artistic salon where writers and intellectuals congregated in Washington.  In June 1925, at Georgia’s place, he met Langston Hughes whose first book, “The Weary Blues”, was about to be published within a few months.  An immediate friendship was struck between the two men.   According to Eric Garber in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, from their first meeting it was evident that “Nugent was captivated by the rising young poet’s [Langston] handsome appearance, his worldly experiences, his gentle manner, and his literary success”. 

In August 1925, Nugent accompanied Hughes from DC to New York, where Hughes introduced him to Carl Van Vechten, Countee Cullen, and other Harlem Renaissance luminaries.  Nugent later returned and decided to take up residence permanently in New York.  Howard University professor and Rhodes scholar Alain Locke had family ties to Nugent and included Nugent's story "Sahdji"in The New Negro in 1925.   This story came about surreptitiously.  Locke asked Nugent to write a brief explanation of a drawing that he had done of a young African woman. The narrative ended up being more useful than the graphic that Nugent had done.  Locke continuously encouraged Nugent in his artistic endeavors.  As it turned out, The New Negro would underpin much of the New Negro Movement/ Harlem Renaissance with the help of Nugent and Locke.


Shortly thereafter, Nugent was able to get some of his works published on the cover of Opportunity.  He then moved in with Wallace Thurman, joined Jean Toomer's Harlem “Gurdjieff” group, and collaborated with all of the notables - Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett and John P. Davis to publish the premier issue of FIRE!!.  The New Negro movement needed to show white Americans that blacks were not inferior without being fostering dishonesty and propaganda.  FIRE!! was meant to be the younger generation's declaration of independence from the older black bourgeoisie’s ideals and expectations.

Richard Bruce Nugent and wife Grace circa 1950s 

Richard Bruce Nugent and wife Grace, circa 1950s

In 1926, Nugent published “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade”, a short story regarded by many scholars as the first publication by an African American to depict homosexuality openly.  The story, on which he collaborated with other authors, appeared in the only issue of Fire!!, which closed soon after its first run.   His creative involvement included two brush and ink drawings and a short story.  This short story was the first literary work on a purely homosexual theme that had been published by an African American.  By today’s standards, “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” is mild in its treatment of same-sex encounters.

To deliver his message in the short story, Richard Bruce used elliptics throughout the narrative.  In electing to use elliptics, as a style to emulate speech and thought processes, he aimed to approximate actual speech, giving short and long pauses to reflect a more nature speech pattern.  Nugent was also involved with a second magazine undertaking.  In 1928, he served as associated editor of Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life.  The only issue of Harlem was published in November 1928.  In its short life, Richard Bruce wrote the theatre reviews.

Richard Bruce Nugent  

Richard Bruce Nugent

Nugent did not follow the usual expectations and norms of a society that he felt created restrictive boundaries.  In his own words, he stated that he was always called flamboyant. His unwillingness to live up to societal expectations is exemplified in his assessment of Locke.  According to Nugent, “Alain Locke had decided that he had his finger on the pulse of every black person who was doing anything. Almost everybody listened to his dictates, except Wally [Wallace Thurman] and me.” (Smith, p. 216)

Many of his illustrations were featured in publications, such as Opportunity and Palms.  Four of his works were included in the Harmon Foundation’s exhibition of Negro artist, which was one of the few venues available for black artists to show their work in 1931.  His only stand-alone publication, “Beyond Where the Stars Stood Still”, was issued in a limited edition by Warren Marr II in 1945.  He later married Marr's sister, Grace on December 5, 1952.  This marriage was never consummated since he was openly gay, but she insisted they marry with the notion that she could change him.   It was not seen as a ploy to hide his homosexuality.  He admits without any hesitation that the love he had for her was not a physical love or lust. They were married for seventeen years. 

He attended the Community Planning Conference at Columbia University in 1964 as an invited speaker. The conference was held under the auspices of the Borough President of Manhattan/Community Planning Board 10 and Columbia.  The idea of forming an organization to promote the arts in Harlem emerged from the conference’s Cultural Planning workshop and led to the formation of the Harlem Cultural Council.  Nugent took an active role in this effort and attended numerous subsequent meetings. Nugent was elected co-chair (a position equivalent to vice president) of this council. He also served as chair of the Program Committee until March, 1967.

His wife Grace died of ovarian cancer in 1969 and Nugent of congestive heart failure seventeen years later in 1987.  Spending a large part of his life in New York City, he died just outside the state in Hoboken, New Jersey. 

Popular Culture Portrayal

Bibliography

  • Shadow
  • My Love
  • Narcissus
  • Incest
  • Who Asks This Thing?
  • Bastard Song
  • Sahdji
  • Smoke, Lilies and Jade
  • The Now Discordant Song of Bells
  • Slender Length of Beauty
  • Tunic with a Thousand Pleats
  • Pope Pius the Only
  • On Harlem
  • On Georgette Harvey
  • On Gloria Swanson
  • Lunatique
  • Pattern for Future Dirges

 

 

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