Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987) was an artist, writer, actor, dancer, dilettante, and bohemian of 1920s Harlem, was born to middle-class parents in Washington DC. His father was a Pullman porter; his mother a pianist. After his father’s death, Nugent’s mother moved with her two sons to New York City where 13-year-old Nugent worked at various odd jobs. In New York City he discovered Harlem, which was then becoming the Mecca of African-Americans during the Jazz Age.
When Nugent told his mother that he wanted to be a writer, she sent him back to DC to live with his grandmother. There Nugent began to frequent the Saturday salons hosted by poet Georgia Douglas Johnson for writers, artists, and intellectuals including Alain Locke, a gay man and the editor of The New Negro: An Interpretation, an anthology that helped ignite the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas also introduced Nugent to gay poet, Langston Hughes. Nugent followed Hughes back to Harlem, where he was introduced to Hughes’s circle of friends and literary luminaries.
In his 20s, he lived with novelist Wallace Thurman. Their apartment was referred to as ”Niggerati Manor”; his friends meant for the name to be satirical, but it stuck. On any given day, members of the Harlem Renaissance could be found in the rooms, which Nugent had painted murals, some homoerotic and some not.
Despite his ubiquitous presence in Harlem and intimate friendships with leading figures of the Renaissance, Nugent remains a minor player among the giants of that cultural movement. Yet, he has a place among the Harlem Renaissance star figures such as writers Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neal Hurston when, in 1926, he became one of the co-editors of Fire!!!, a short-lived avant-garde journal that represented the voice of the younger generation of African-American writers.
Nugent published Smoke Lilies And Jade, a landmark short story in which queerness is the central theme, in the first issue of Fire!!!. Alex, the story’s protagonist and a stand-in for Nugent, proudly embraces his gayness declaring:
”You see, I am a homosexual. I have never been in what they call ‘the closet’. It never occurred to me that it was anything to be ashamed of, and it never occurred to me that it was anybody’s business but mine.”
Unlike his more closeted renaissance peers, including Hughes, Thurman, and Hurston, Nugent was an unabashedly happy, openly same-sex loving man, an identity that may have cost him a more prominent publishing career. Still, Nugent’s many credits included publication in the journals Crisis and Opportunity, a role on Broadway in Du Bose Heyward‘s Porgy from 1927 to 1928. In the 1940s he was a member of the Negro Ballet Company. He was also a part of other dance companies, even dancing in drag with the New Negro Art Theatre Dance Troupe.
Many of Nugent’s illustrations were featured in publications such as Fire!!. His paintings were included in the Harmon Foundation’s exhibition of Negro artists, one of the few venues available for black artists in the 1930s. He served as Co-Chair of the Harlem Cultural Council in the 1960s.
His previously unpublished first novel, Gentleman Jigger, was published in 2008, more than 70 years after he wrote it and 21 years after his death.
Nugent is interviewed in the groundbreaking documentary Before Stonewall (1985).
In the film Brother To Brother (2004), written and directed by Rodney Evans, an art student named Perry (Anthony Mackie) meets an old homeless man named Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), who turns out to have been an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Recalling his friendships with other important Harlem Renaissance, he chronicles the challenges he faced as a young, black, gay writer in the 1920s and 1930s.
A silhouette am I
On the face of the moon
Or vivid brightness
But defined all the clearer
Because I am dark
Black on the face of the moon.