Know your past live your future

Richard Bruce Nugent by Cakes Da Killa

Richard Bruce Nugent by Cakes Da Killa

Illustration by Fernando Monroy

Cakes Da Killa is a writer, rapper & nightlife fixture based in Brooklyn, New York. In 2012 he received unground & commercial buzz as a key player in the queer rap explosion. Since then Cakes has toured the world, released a debut album entitled Hedonism and survived another mid mid life crisis.

Black people invented swag! This is an undeniable truth that is not up for debate. With that said, around the world our history along with our impact and influence on culture, commerce and art is usually or completely swept underneath the rug. As an African-American I couldn’t tell you much about my culture if I solely based my knowledge on what I was taught in the American public school system – even while it was our sweat, our blood and generations of unpaid laborers that drummed up the pulse and laid the foundation of this nation.

But that is not exactly what this piece is about.

More specifically, I want to take some time to shine a little light on the figures that don't identify or fit in a perceived heterosexual lifestyle, figures that are usually missing from textbooks completely. Growing up in New Jersey I spent hours in the library’s gay section losing my mind.  I discovered my history was something to be stored in the farthest, dustiest, cobweb ridden shelves, impossible to reach, as if the secrets were too vulgar for the public to know about. I loved it! It was a true process of self-discovery.

This concealing of gay and black history speaks to the issue of why many people may not be familiar with the subject of this love letter, Richard Bruce Nugent. Nugent was an African-American writer, actor, illustrator and painter whose work was first published thanks to his close friend and collaborator Langston Hughes. A Washington, DC native, he migrated to New York and became a key player in the exciting era known as the Harlem Renaissance.

This powerful awakening of black excellence poured from the Jazz clubs of Manhattan and into the streets and minds of an entire generation of visionaries. Nugent found himself brushing shoulders with some of the brightest stars of the movement. His clique included great minds like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Wallace Thurman, Gwendolyn Bennett, and John P. Davis. The group would throw lavish parties where they picked each other’s brains till the wee hours of the morning and exchanged works to praise and critique. Many of these sessions took place in a brownstone called the “Niggerati Manor,” which I think just sounds fucking kickass.

Harlem quickly became an epicenter of cultural expression for black creatives. One example of Nugent’s contribution to this wave came in the form of  Fire!! a magazine that went against the grain of the already radical black literary establishment. This was due to its content that at that time was considered very lewd. In Fire!! Nugent printed the first African-American short story with a gay theme entitled “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade.”  Many of his more conservative peers considered his presence on the scene a smudge on the resume of the “New Negro.” You think that stopped Richard though? Because I’m going to tell you it definitely didn’t.

I stumbled on Nugent’s work during my college years at Montclair State University. It was my freshman year, I had finished every E. Lynn Harris book and had decided to move on to films. During that phase I discovered a movie called Brother to Brother starring Anthony Mackie, who, sidebar, is still one of my top 5 celebrity crushes because of his role in the film.

The film follows a gay black art student named Perry (Mackie) who after being kicked out of his father’s house goes on a quest of self-exploration through art and poetry. Long story short: he’s fucking this white guy on campus, he has this straight best friend who’s a poet that is not completely cool with his lifestyle, and then he meets this older gentleman who intrigues him but not in a creepy way, and it ends up being Richard Bruce Nugent who shockingly, is living at the homeless shelter Perry works at. I know. It’s a lot to take in. Anyway, Nugent takes Perry on this trip down memory lane sharing stories from his younger years with Hughes and the crew and together they go on this metaphorical pilgrimage into the past that parallels Perry’s current reality.

It’s really a cute ass movie!

Because of this film I was able to learn about the rich gay history that was blooming during the Harlem Renaissance that I had no idea existed. Nugent died in Hoboken, NJ in 1987 from heart failure. 3 years later I would be born in the same city.

Fast forward a couple years, I’ve graduated college and moved to New York. I’m making a name for myself as an entertainer and on this day I’m making a trip to Hot 97, one the biggest hip hop/urban radio stations on the East Coast to be interviewed. There I was, on the train, when a sickness came over me. For the first time in a long time I actually feel nervous. Was this how Nugent felt among his peers who commonly wrote him off as a bizarre eccentric? You know the type, just another bohemian whose sexual convention just doesn’t fit their mold for manhood. And here I was, a rapper who was not only openly gay, but dare I say, femme. This is an issue today. So many gay black youth feeling ostracized from the tribe, suddenly becoming a black sheep among black sheep.

I sat on that train and suddenly I saw the silver lining. If Richard Bruce Nugent didn’t give a fuck then I surely wasn’t going to start giving a fuck now. I walked into the interview with him on my heart, my head held high and I never looked back.  

Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.

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