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12 May 2010



I know I was born at the right time for who I am right now and all that, but I also think I've lived in other era's, and the Twenties was the last one I remember most! I can see myself so clearly in that photo - I fit right into the content and context of it. And, I'm sure I'd know just where to go to find Langston!

Nathan James

A noteworthy addition to the roll call of gay black artists who gave life to the Harlem Renaissance is Billy Strayhorn, composer of Duke Ellington's signature song, "Take The 'A' Train". He was an openly gay jazz pioneer who lived with his partner, Aaron Bridgers (a noted jazz musician in his own right) on Convent Ave. in Harlem during the 1940s. His open sexuality kept him hidden from the spotlight (it wasn't until the late fifties that Strayhorn was publicly credited as Ellington's composer), although he wrote songs for other musical greats like Lena Horne and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Strayhorn was a major influence on the Harlem Renaissance, composing jazz with a revolutionary new approach to tonality and syncopation.

Alas, he was forced, like iconic black gay author James Baldwin, to contend with the rampant homophobia of his era, which eventually drove him from Harlem and NYC. Yet, to this day, Harlem and the Renaissance era owe much of their legacy to Strayhorn. But we still speak of his gayness in hushed tones when in mixed company.

When, last year, the Bahamas' Tourist Bureau decided to honor Ellington by operating a restored "A" train from the Renaissance era (complete with a jazz band playing the theme song), I mentioned composer Strayhorn, and wondered if he would have approved of the advances in LGBT culture today. Several people who overheard my remark gave me cold stares usually reserved for condemned criminals...how DARE I suggest Strayhorn was gay! I just shook my head and listened to the band play, as we rode along the tracks of Strayhorn's youth...


As quiet as its kept the black community was more open to homosexuality than opposed to it back then. We simply had too many other issues to face. Then somewhere along the line we sold our soul to white american middle class values and have been proudly embracing homophobia ever since.

Chitown Kev


True but you forget the other factor.

In that era there was a VERY definitive and SECULAR black community; it was the blues culture for the most part.

Blues people were derided in the black churches even in the era of the Harlem Renaissance. But it was a definitive black culture, secular in nature, that allowed for homosexuality and/or gender nonconformity.

That opposition within black culture is still there but it remains invisible. Plus hip hop kinda sorta replaced the blues but, to an extent, nationalism came with hip hop. With nationalism comes misogyny and with misogyny comes homophobia.


This is great! I have to read more about this, thanks Rod!


I agree. This is great. It would also be great if this exhibit would travel.


@Chitown Kev id be interested in learning more about nationalism and how in the hip hop community and how it led to misogyny and homophobia.


This is really awesome. It still amazes me how a lot of blacks don't wanna come to the realization that Strayhorn and Hughes were gay. If they'd just think about it a little, they'd see it, but I guess that's the whole problem: they don't wanna see it.


There is a movie being made about Billy Strayhorn's personal life called Billy and Aaron. I saw a short on the film but I believe they are making a full length film. There is a FB page called, "Billy and Aaron" that you can join to check for updates.

Chitown Kev


Well, there is a wikipedia page on the term that can give you a start.

But remember, I'm saying that ALL nationalisms are like this. I could be talking about the Nazis (the most extreme example) some of the strains of nationalism that have revealed themselves with the fall of the Soviet Union, Serbian nationalism, the "I want my country back" teabaggers or black nationalism; all of them have a deep nasty strain of misogyny and homophobia to them.

Honut Sinti

I love the photos accompanying the article.


Wasn't there a rumor that Lena Horne had a heavy crush on Billy Strayhorn, and wanted to marry him?

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