“It was the bright young talents of the 20s who went cosmopolite when they were advised to go racial, who went exhibitionist instead of going documentarian, who got jazz-mad and cabaret-crazy instead of getting folk-wise and sociologically sober.” Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro (Wallace Thurman: Gay Impresario of the Harlem Renaissance by Stephen O. Murray).
In a massively influential 1903 essay, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “[The Negro race] is going to be saved by its exceptional men … the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”
Wallace Thurman epitomized all the qualities of Alain Locke’s above lament, as well as that of Du Bois. Wallace boldly excoriated the statements of Du Bois and his legions, all that “celebrating the Black bourgeoisie rather than writing about low-down (and proto down-low) rural and urban life ways about which Du Bois was ashamed,” according to Murray.
The Black bourgeoisie? Arriving on Labor Day, 1925, from Salt Lake City via University of Southern California, Wallace was dark-skinned, a heavy drinker, usually broke and someone who evidently had a strong appetite for public sex (he had been arrested within weeks of arriving in New York for having sex with a white hairdresser in a bathroom, according to George Chauncey in “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940.”
Thurman lived with his white lover in a famous rooming house on West 136th Street. The building’s arts-loving owner, Iolanthe Syd, welcomed all sorts of artists, who could snag rooms for free so they could create.
Dubbed Niggerati Manor by Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace was the acknowledged mayor while she was the queen. The swirling cavalcade of citizenry included Uptown Renaissance members, sometimes Downtown bohemians and various hangers-on.
Hurston’s biographer, the late Atlantan Valerie Boyd, described Niggerati as “an inspired moniker that was simultaneously self-mocking and self-glorifying, and sure to shock the stuffy Black bourgeoisie.”
Essentially, the Niggerati were the self-styled avant-garde, who refused to propagandize how alike Black Americans were to whites. Instead, the Niggerati eschewed this and sought to show the lives of the vast majority of African Americans, in all their vivid cacophony.
Wallace would say things such as, “Beloved, we join hands here to pray for gin. An aridity defiles us. Our innards thirst for the juice of juniper. Something must be done. The drought threatens to destroy us. Surely, God who let manna fall from the heavens so that the holy children of Israel might eat, will not let the equally holy children of Niggerati Manor die from the want of a little gin. Children, let us pray.”
Such a crew! Wallace and Hurston and Hughes, plus almost everyone who worked on the legendary Fire!! magazine, including the openly queer Bruce Nugent.
Wallace had serious issues with his queerness. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he denied it. In fact, he married Louise Thompson on August 22, 1928. This union lasted only six months. Thompson subsequently called Wallace, who refused to declare it, “a homosexual.”
His outsider status is reflected in his work, especially 1929’s “The Blacker the Berry, the Sweeter the Juice.” The story tracks the difficult experiences of the dark-skinned Emma Lou, who runs from Boise to U.S.C. to Harlem, and at each turn must deal with sexism and colorism. For instance, she stops to check her reflection in a Harlem shop window, notices a few men nearby, and hears, “There’s a girl for you Fats,” to which Fats replies, “Man, you know I don’t shovel no coal.”
In 1929, an adaptation of a Thurman short story opened on Broadway as the play Harlem. It ran for 93 performances. By then, though, disillusionment gripped him. He looked at the personalities around him and the era and he found selfish, snobbish social and artistic “elites.”
His final project was quite a roman a clef: Infants of the Spring. Lightly spooled, with much action consisting of talking, it features a house full of sex, partying, crazy pairings, and some art.
Shortly thereafter, Wallace died at age 32 from tuberculosis, probably exacerbated by his long years of alcoholism. He left a compelling bulk of work behind, including short stories, two plays, essays, the sharp editing he did for young writers, a co-written novel, and his own two books.
Wallace Thurman: Gay Impresario of the Harlem Renaissance, Stephen O. Murray, https://www.tangentgroup.org/wallace-thurman/
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890 – 1940—George Chauncey. 1994.
Wallace Thurman, http://blackusa.com/wallace-thurman
The Niggerati Manor In Harlem, https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/the-niggerati-manor-in-harlem/