Outlaw representation

Pub date April 2, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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I love Dick and I cannot lie. I am of course referring to my Chocolate City homeboy Richard Bruce Nugent — who was never called "Dick," but was outfitted with "Paul Arbian" and other choice names by his friend, rival, and fellow Harlem/Negro Renaissance leader Wallace Thurman. Nugent, who died impoverished but grand in 1987, has been one of my abiding heroes since childhood. But with the rediscovery and publication of Gentleman Jigger (Da Capo Press, 332 pages, $18), in which Nugent names and reclaims his uptown good and hard times from speakeasies to sidewalks, the youngest Harlem Renaissance genius truly ceases to be a cipher.

I first read about Nugent at age 10, in David Levering Lewis’s epic study When Harlem Was in Vogue (Penguin, 1989). A provocative iconoclast and bon vivant, Nugent — who’d had the nerve to live past 27 and even be a vital raconteur during his sunset-and-threadbare years — enjoyed a meteoric ascent into the flux of my prepubescent consciousness. My Nuge was clearly brilliant, and a proto–rock star due to the mere rumor of his gay lit landmark from 1926, the short story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade." Though raised sheltered in Washington, DC’s Adams-Morgan black bohemia of the 1980s, I inchoately got that the Harlem Renaissance was the official coming out of black queer radical subculture — a coming out linked to Nugent’s historic meet-cute with Langston Hughes at one of DC salon hostess Georgia Douglas Johnson’s "Saturday nighters."

Having followed a trajectory similar to Nugent’s leap from DC to NYC, I still find him inspiring. His Gentleman Jigger reads eerily, stunningly, as if it were written about a black blogospheric bohemia that continues to wrestle with the ish Hughes laid out in his famed 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Although Nugent appears to have been scooped (possibly ripped off) in defining le tout fashionable Harlem by his prematurely dead and duskier podnuh Thurman, he almost lived to witness the emergence of such latter-day inheritors of his vision as poet Essex Hemphill and cultural critic Ernest Hardy.

Editor Thomas Wirth, who maintains a Nugent Web site and worked on Duke University Press’s 2002 Nugent collection Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, has done us all a great service by unearthing and recolutf8g Nugent’s masterful roman á clef. It’s an intriguing, nudge-winky funhouse that holds a mirror to the New Negritude milieu circa 1927 while presenting a flipside to the Niggerati Manor events captured in Thurman’s 1932 Infants of the Spring (Northeastern). With its wit, passion, racial skullduggery, fearless self-analysis, and an arch framing of uptown/downtown creative types fit to rival Ann Douglass’s nonfiction ’20s Manhattan history Terrible Honesty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Gentleman Jigger pulls off the shroud of dilettante-ism that obscured Nugent for decades. Twentieth-century sexual revolt was not always about a Revue Négre pickaninny and her bananas — or a notorious Englishman’s liver lips. It was also the province of dangerous minds with a will to political or social activism.

In Gentleman Jigger, at a soiree held by Serge Von Vertner, Nugent’s alter-ego Stuart Brennen holds forth: "Oh, I always sprawl," he declaims. "Sprawling is a Negro art. Else you might never know I was one. Appearances are so deceitful, and that would never do. So I merely flaunt a trademark."

If that ain’t a postmortem fit for the post-Basquiat, post-Gnarls, Black Renaissance 3.0 era, then I don’t know what is.