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Nugent, Richard Bruce(1906–1987) - Writer, Writings, Chronology, The Arts, Impact on Black Culture

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Richard Bruce Nugent was part of the Harlem Renaissance. While he did not produce a vast body of work, he is connected to others in this period through his experimentation, candor, freedom, collaboration, creativity, and attitude. Given his longevity, he was able to serve as a resource for information on the Harlem Renaissance in the latter years of his life. Nugent was as at home in the African American community of Harlem as he was in the white community of Greenwich Village. He used the name Bruce Nugent or Richard Bruce to avoid embarrassment that might have come from the content of his work.

Richard Bruce Nugent was born on July 2, 1906 in Washington, D.C., to a socially prominent family. His mother, Pauline Minerva Bruce Nugent, was a trained schoolteacher and his father, Richard Henry Nugent Jr., initially was a Pullman porter, but later became an elevator operator at the Capitol building in Washington. He attended the famous Dunbar High School where he studied with Angelina Grimké. He was a frequent visitor of the salon hosted by the writer Georgia Douglas Johnson; it was here he met Langston Hughes who became a force in the literary and artistic career of Nugent. Growing up, Nugent was surrounded by art; the family often attended plays performed by the Lafayette Players (an African American theatre group) and hosted artists in their home. His father was a member of the Clef Club and an avid reader. Nugent was able to read at the early age of five years old.

At the age of thirteen, he had to leave Washington and the life he had known. His father died of tuberculosis and asthma; his mother moved their family to New York where she passed for white for economic reasons. In spite of her talents and training, she sought work as a domestic and waitress. Nugent augmented their income by working as an errand boy and a bellhop. He also worked at the Martha Hotel (an all women’s establishment) as an ironworker, a designer, an elevator operator, and a secretary to a modiste. On one of these jobs, he even experimented with passing for white using the name Ricardo Nugent di Dosceta.

Writings

Nugent’s first short story “Sadhji” was published in Alain Locke’s The New Negro in 1925. The short story grew as a result of a drawing Nugent had completed. Locke asked for an explanation of the drawing and liked the explanation more than the drawing. Nugent’s first published poem, “Shadows,” was rescued from the trash by Hughes and was published in Opportunity that same year and reprinted in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk in 1927. Locke and Nugent collaborated to create a one-act play, “Sadhji: An African Ballet,” which was published in Locke’s Plays of Negro Life: A Source Book of Native American Drama in 1927 and produced in 1932.

In 1926, Nugent and other African American artists (Wallace Thurman, Zorro Neal Huston, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, and Gwendolyn Bennett) collaborated on a new quarterly that was to provide a vehicle for the work of young artists. This magazine, Fire!! , was edited by Wallace Thurman and contained two brush and ink drawings and a short story by Nugent. The short story, “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” the first overtly homosexual work by an African American writer, made its author famous. Nugent used ellipsis to emulate speech and thought and the stream of consciousness technique, prevalent in his day, in this story of a young artist’s discovering homosexual connection with a stranger. Fire!! lasted one issue and was followed by Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life , edited by Thurman with illustrations and theatre reviews by Nugent, under the pseudonym Richard Bruce.

Nugent is depicted in Thurman’s satirical novel, Infants of the Spring , as Paul Arbian, a painter of the “bizarre and erotic.” Nugent wrote an unpublished parallel to Thurman’s novel, titled Gentleman Jigger . He utilizes the ellipses again in his short story, “Geisha Man,” which presents a Japanese American protagonist and describes his encounters with other men. Like “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” the emphasis is on male beauty and sensuality and not on sexual contact or affairs. In the 1930s, he wrote biographical sketches of African American historical figures and articles on African American history for the Federal Writers Project, and in 1937, he published “Pope Pius the Only” in Challenge . He continued to be candid about the gay experience in his writing. In 1970, he published “Beyond Where the Star Stood Still” in Crisis .

Chronology

1906

Born in Washington, D.C. on July 2

1919

Moves to New York

1925

Publishes short story “Sadjhi” in The New Negro ; publishes poem “Shadows” in Opportunity

1926

Collaborates with other artists on a new quarterly Fire!! ; short story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” is published in the magazine’s first and only issue

1927

Publishes one-act play “Sadhji: An African Ballet” in Plays of Negro Life: A Source Book of Native American Drama

1928

Produces art series Salome

1929

Appears in a non-speaking role in Porgy

1931

Presents four of his works in an exhibition by the Harmon Foundation

1933

Appears as a dancer in Run, Little Chillun

1937

Publishes “Pope Pius the Only” in Challenge

1970

Publishes “Beyond Where the Star Stood Still” in Crisis

1987

Dies in Hoboken, New Jersey on May 27

The Arts

Nugent’s illustrations and later artwork show the influence of artists such as Aaron Douglas, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and Erté. He worked with Douglas on a series of murals on the walls of Harlem nightclubs. His illustrations are marked by full-bodied women; explicit, sensuous, and attractive men; and backgrounds that are rife with suggestion. In 1928, he produced the Salome series which portrays images of female bodies, many of them named for biblical characters. This series also contains a painting of Lucifer with a full erection. Nugent’s drawings were frequently used in Opportunity by Charles S. Johnson and he included Nugent’s Drawings for Mulattoes series in his Ebony and Topaz . In 1931, the Harmon Foundation presented four of his works in an exhibition.

In addition to writing and drawing, Nugent engaged in dance and acting. He appeared in a non-speaking role with Wallace Thurman and Dorothy West in Dubose and Dorothy Heyward’s play Porgy in 1929. He joined several African American dance companies and appeared as a dancer in the play Run, Little Chillun (1933) and became a member of the Wilson William’s Negro Ballet Company in the 1940s. In 1984, he was interviewed in Before Stonewall , a gay documentary.

Impact on Black Culture

Nugent’s work became more erotic and explicit as the years progressed. In spite of the fact that he did not conform to the Harlem Renaissance’s emphasis on racial uplift and his output was small, he made a lasting contribution. With Romare Bearden and others, he founded the Harlem Cultural Council, which sponsored the Jazzmobile and the Dancemobile, where major artists performed on stages on the flatbeds of trucks. His small artistic output helped define and describe the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1952, Nugent married Grace Elizabeth Marr; she committed suicide in 1969. Nugent died of congestive heart failure in Hoboken, New Jersey on May 27, 1987.

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