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Queer Harlem, Queer Tashkent: Langston Hughes's “Boy Dancers of Uzbekistan”

  • Jennifer Wilson

In Langston Hughes's 1934 essay “Boy Dancers of Uzbekistan,” (published in Travel magazine), the author writes mournfully about the Soviet reforms that put an end to the practice of effeminized male dancers, bachi, performing in the teahouses of Central Asia for exclusively male audiences; in doing so, Hughes expresses an enthusiasm for the queer contours of the bachi tradition. This article connects that enthusiasm with Hughes's earlier involvement in cultural efforts aimed at increasing queer visibility within the black community during the Harlem Renaissance. By situating “Boy Dancers” in this context, the underexplored role of the Russian Revolution in fostering queer solidarity among global communities of color is highlighted.

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1. Hughes, Langston, The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, 13 vols., eds. MacLaren, Joseph and Rampersad, Arnold (Columbia, Miss., 2002), 23 .

2. Ibid., 208.

3. Langston Hughes, “Boy Dancers of Uzbekistan,” Travel Magazine (December 1934): 36–37; 49–50.

4. For the contents of the issue, see: Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists 1, no. 1 (November 1926). For Locke’s review, see: Locke, Alain, “Fire: A Negro Magazine,” Survey: Midmonthly 58, nos. 10–12 (August 15–September 15, 1927): 563 .

5. In his biography of Du Bois, Manning Marable writes, “Even as advanced as he was for his time on issues of women and gender, Du Bois was still a product of the patriarchal homophobic late Victoria era. Marable, Manning, W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat (New York, 2015), 20 .”

6. Locke, 563.

7. Though “Spectacles in Color” appeared in The Big Sea, which was published in 1940, it looks back on Hughes’s experiences in the 1920s.

8. Warner, Michael, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 66 .

9. Duggan, Lisa, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston, 2014), 50 .

10. Gaines, Kevin K., Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, 1996).

11. Cohen, Cathy, “Deviance as Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics,” Du Bois Review 1, no. 1 (2004): 35 .

12. In The Delectable Negro, Vincent Woodard writes about Du Bois’s firing of Augustus Dill, an employee of the NAACP who had been arrested for having sex with another man in a tearoom, as part of Du Bois’s campaign to distance homosexuality from black causes. Woodard writes, “In firing Dill (a devoted cultural worker) for his arrest and expressing disdain towards tearoom sex, Du Bois reinforced ideas of the homoerotic anus and mouth as dangerous corporal regions that were antithetical to black experience.” Woodward, Vincent, The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism Within US Slave Culture (New York, 2014), 212 .

13. Quoted in Kisseloff, Jeff, You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II (San Diego, 1989), 288 .

14. Warner, 48.

15. Hughes, The Collected Works, Vol. 13, 208.

16. Samuel See, Spectacles in Color: The Primitive Drag of Langston Hughes,” PMLA 124, no. 3 (May 2009): 798–99.

17. Hughes, The Collected Works, Vol. 13, 209. For more on the Du Bois-Cullen wedding, particularly the fallout over Cullen’s sexuality, see: Jones, Jacqueline C., “So the Girl Marries: Class, the Black Press, and the Du Bois-Cullen Wedding of 1928,” in Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G., ed. The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters (Baltimore, 2010), 4562 .

18. Quoted in Schwarz, Christa A.B., Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington, 2003), 1 .

19. Hughes, The Collected Works, Vol. 13, 183.

20. This idea appears in Hughes’s 1926 article for The Nation magazine, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” arguably the manifesto of Fire!!. That piece ends: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” For the full article, see: Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” The Nation (June 23, 1926): 692–94.

21. Ibid., 184.

22. Reprinted in: Nugent, Richard Bruce, Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, ed. Wirth, Thomas H. (Durham, 2002).

23. Hughes, “Boy Dancers,” 36.

24. For more on this film project, including why production was halted, see: Lee, Steven S., “Langston Hughes’s ‘Moscow Movie’: Reclaiming a Lost Minority Avant-Garde,” Comparative Literature 67, no. 2 (June 2015): 185206 .

25. Hughes, Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender, 171.

26. For more on Hughes in Central Asia, see: Moore, David Chioni, “Local Color, Global ‘Color’: Langston Hughes, the Black Atlantic, and Soviet Central Asia, 1932,” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 4970 .

27. More on the effect of Sovietization on Muslim gender norms in Central Asia, see: Northrop, Douglas Taylor, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca, 2004).

28. Langston Hughes, “In an Emir’s Harem,” Woman’s Home Companion (September 1934): 12, 91–92. For the American response to “In an Emir’s Harem,” see: Wilson, Jennifer, “Writing the ‘Soviet South’: Inflections of Post-slavery America in Langston Hughes’ Ethnography of Central Asia,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie (New Literary Observer: Special Issue on “Slavery”), No. 142 (2) (6/2016), 7 ; Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1: 1902–1941, I, Too, Sing America (Oxford, 1986), 294 .

29. Hughes, “Boy Dancers,” 36.

30. Baldwin, Kate, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922–1963 (Durham, 2002), 91 . Baldwin has written that Hughes interest in the gender-queer practices of the cross-dressing bachi are connected to his larger preoccupation with the place of unveiling in Central Asia, writing: “Hughes’s meditations on unveiling retain some of the gender ambiguity that so intrigued him in the tradition of boy dancers. Each time he discusses unveiling, he is also conjuring a space of cross-gender identification, harkening back to the cross-dressing boy dancers” (Baldwin, 93).

31. Hughes, “Boy Dancers,” 36–37.

32. Baldwin, 91.

33. For more on how American domestic politics, particularly in terms of race, shaped Hughes’s understanding of Soviet Central Asia, see: Wilson, “Writing the ‘Soviet South,’” 1–7.

34. Hughes does however acknowledge that his interview subjects likely saw him as western, and perhaps for that reason were tentative to discuss the bachi tradition. He writes: “they knew [the bachi] was something that visitors from the West might not approve of, or understand.” Hughes, “Boy Dancers,” 36.

35. Ibid., 36.

36. In The Negro American Family, Du Bois associates what he calls “sexual immorality” with a lack of civilization. For more, see: Du Bois, W.E.B., The Negro American Family (Atlanta, 1909).

37. In Men Without Women, Eliot Borenstein writes that despite the “prominent rhetoric of women’s emancipation,” the values of Bolshevik Russia belied “a traditionally masculine ethos” (Borenstein, 4). Sheila Fitzpatrick also writes that “Revolutionary vanguardism had always been a male prerogative” (Fitzpatrick, 237). Borenstein, Eliot, Men Without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917–1929 (Durham, 2012). Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Cultural Front Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia (Ithaca, 1992).

38. Healey, Dan, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: the Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago, 2001), 169 .

I would like to thank the participants of the “Queering the Color Line in Eurasia” panel at the 2016 ASEEES Convention for their generous and insightful feedback, particularly our discussant Feruza Aripova. I am also very grateful to Rebecca Stanton for the feedback she gave me on this project in her role as moderator of the “Reconsidering the Russian Revolution of 1917” panel at the 2017 MLA Convention. For encouraging me to continue pursuing this topic, special thanks to Samuel Buelow and Bill Nickell. Lastly, I am indebted to Harriet Murav and the anonymous SR reviewer for their rigorous engagement with my early drafts of this piece and their incisive remarks about race, revolution, and solidarity.

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Slavic Review
  • ISSN: 0037-6779
  • EISSN: 2325-7784
  • URL: /core/journals/slavic-review
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