The History and Power of Queer Black Friendships

Four legendary creative collaborations

Toni Morrison with Susan Taylor, Rita Dove, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, and others in Winston-Salem, NC on September 6, 1994. Photo: Will Mcintyre/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

The first time I knew my words had triggered something deep in someone was when I finished a two-week summer writers workshop when I was 15. I climbed into my mother’s car, read her one of my poems, and watched her face change as she heard it. If my own flesh and blood could not wrap her head around my work, then I would have to search elsewhere for creative understanding.

As a Black teenager, I hungered for so many things, but one of the things I’m most proud that I’ve fought for over the years is the connection I’ve cultivated with other Black artists — especially queer Black artists.

So, in celebration of Black History Month, here’s a look at somewhat lesser-known, but still important, queer Black friendships.

1. James Baldwin and Eugene Worth

Last year, I wrote an essay for Catapult about Baldwin’s legacy. It began:

James Baldwin met Eugene Worth, a Black member of the Young People’s Socialist League, in December 1943, shortly after moving to Greenwich Village. The two were best friends and Black Socialists who dreamed of a better world. They battled landlords, worked jobs, were fired, and lived hungrily. Baldwin eventually became disillusioned with politics because he learned “to despise the world right back and decide that I would accomplish, in time, with patience and cunning and by becoming indestructible, what I might not, in the moment, achieve by force or persuasion.”

The two friends sat at a diner in the Village and, despite being best friends, the two bickered bitterly over their existential differences. Baldwin could hate. Worth could not.

“You’re a poet, and you don’t believe in love,” Worth said to Baldwin before laying his head on the table and crying.

There isn’t much research about Baldwin and Worth’s friendship, but an acclaimed biography on James Baldwin’s life by David A. Leeming sheds a lot of light. In the years before Baldwin’s death, Leeming and Baldwin became very good friends. Leeming even visited Baldwin on his deathbed.

Baldwin and Worth met in December 1943. By 1946, Worth would be dead by suicide. The two were best friends. They talked politics, got fired from jobs together, and navigated romance with various partners. At the time of his death, Worth was dating a White woman and had recently been beaten by a group of White men because of it.

Baldwin’s relationship with Worth touched him so deeply that he never confessed his romantic feelings for Worth, even after Worth once wondered aloud, “I think I may be in love with you.”

Eugene Worth’s passing would prove to be a powerful catalyst for Baldwin’s work, most notably inspiring the character of Rufus in his 1962 book, Another Country, who dies of the same fate — jumping off of the George Washington Bridge.

2. The Niggerati Manor crew (Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Bruce Nugent)

Niggeratti Manor was known as a boarding house in Harlem where poor, usually Black artists could stay for next to no cost. As I wrote in a story for Wear Your Voice:

Hurston coined the term “Niggerati,” which described her effective group of friends during the Harlem Renaissance. The Niggerati Manor was a rent-free space owned by a Black New Yorker, Iolanthe Sydney, and created to provide Black artists rent-free housing. More than anything, the house became an effective symbol of the more counterculture figures within the Black art scene in 1920s New York. Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman often stumbled out of the boarding house… which was rumored to have bright penises painted on the walls by another house visitor, Bruce Nugent. The space proved fruitful and hosted meetings to produce the literary journal, FIRE!!

The Niggerati crew were known to hang out at local restaurants, drinking and laughing loudly. They challenged much of the Harlem Renaissance’s pursuit of “Black excellence” and the notion of joining the “Talented Tenth.” Instead, this group of friends and creatives pushed boundaries — like when they published Nugent’s short story, which featured explicit homosexuality, in FIRE!!’s first edition.

3. Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam

Essex Hemphill (1957–1995) and Joseph Beam (1954–1988) were both relatively acclaimed, queer, Black writers during their lives — although they grew in importance after their deaths.

Essex Hemphill was an openly gay poet and activist in Washington, D.C. In the early 1980s, he formed the spoken word group “Cinque.” He gained even more acclaim when his work appeared in Joseph Beam’s anthology of Black gay writers, In The Life. Hemphill also appeared in a number of films that explore the queer Black experience throughout 20th century America (Tongues Untied, Looking for Langston).

Born in Philadelphia, Beam returned to the city in 1979 after attending college in Indiana. He became a key figure at the prominent Philly bookstore Giovanni’s Room, where many young LGBTQIA+ people gathered. He worked tirelessly to collect writings from other gay Black men at the height of the AIDS epidemic, eventually publishing them in In the Life. Though much is not known about his and Hemphill’s connection, Hemphill did note later that Beam was interested in him romantically, but Hemphill was persistent that they remain friends.

As Darius Bost explains in Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence, after Beam’s death, Hemphill moved in with Dorothy Beam, Joseph’s mother. Together, they worked on a sequel to In The Life to honor Beam’s legacy.

4. Toni Morrison and Angela Davis

In 1970, Toni Morrison reached out to Angela Davis and asked her if she’d be interested in writing an autobiography. Morrison offered to edit it. Only 26 years old at the time, Davis was jarred by the offer, despite having already appeared on the FBI’s most wanted list for her radical organizing.

After the book was completed, Morrison described the process as more than just editing: “Working with Angela was so generative, and I didn’t just edit her book,” Morrison said “I went on her book tour with her; I was her handler! All over.”

Through their friendship and the editing process, Davis was consistently surprised with Morrison’s ability to set personal, creative, and professional boundaries, as well as her work ethic while writing her first novel, The Bluest Eye. A few years later, in 1972, Morrison wrote a scathing New York Times review of a racist biography of Angela Davis by Regina Nadelson. Morrison wrote: “…Regina lives in the 20th century and is an enlightened racist who knows about cultural determinism.”

In a world of so many wrongs, especially those done to the Black LGBTQIA+ community, it is more important than ever that we celebrate the queer Black connections that help us navigate the world.

If you are looking for ways to support the Black LGBTQIA+ community, please consider donating to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.

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Writer for @TeenVogue @DailyDot @TheAppeal | Editing debut memoir | | Twitter @prshakur

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