You probably have heard of the Harlem Renaissance, an arts movement after World War II in Harlem as the visual, written, and performing arts thrived. Jazz clubs lit up the night. This was the age of writers like Langston Hughes and Bruce Nugent and literary and graphic magazines like Fire!!, whose work sought to reframe Black identity as something empowering, bold, celebrating those same African qualities that white culture had marginalized and denigrated. It was also a time of unexpected queerness. Drag balls, masquerades, and house parties allowed queer people of color opportunities for gender and sexual expression outside the normative boundaries at the time, and songs like Ma Rainey’s “Prove It on Me” playfully teased at queer themes.
When I taught LGBTQ history, this was my favorite period to teach because students did not expect the kind of gender norm defiance and open queerness that historians have located in a time period that came so far before Stonewall. It’s also an exciting time because it was such a period of intersectionality – the Harlem Renaissance can’t be divorced from Blackness, and it really can’t be divorced from queerness either. (Some historians have noted how white people would sometimes venture to Harlem on the weekends because it was a place where they could express their gender and sexual identity more freely than in their own communities.)
It’s in this world that my Bold Strokes Book fellow author Anne Shade has set her latest novel, Masquerade. It’s the story of Dinah and Celine, both of whom have come to Harlem for work and opportunities in a fictionalized account of the very real “Great Northern Migration.” Great numbers of Black Americans migrated from the South, where economic depression hit rural communities hard, to the North, where industrialization meant more jobs. As Dinah and Celine navigate the exciting new world of Harlem, they encounter glamour and danger at equal turns.
To celebrate the release of Masquerade, Anne Shade threw an actual masquerade. The (virtual) party began with “Prove It on Me” and transitioned to poetry, readings from the novel, and interpretive performance. Attendees were encouraged to dress queerly, and Shade led the charge, wearing – if I remember right – menswear with a sexy bra exposed underneath and facial hair. It was a really wonderful way to launch a book, especially one this special that celebrates a much lesser known history that is important to people of color, queer people, and the intersections of both.
Shade has inspired me to think about how to launch The Queen Has a Cold best. I didn’t throw a party for The Holiday Detour. I guess it didn’t occur to me in the peak of the pandemic, and with my household in the middle of a masked-up move into a new house. But I think Queen might deserve a royal launch. In the coming weeks, look for more details, and I hope you’ll think of joining the celebration.
In the meantime, please go read Masquerade and write a review. It’s the best way to ensure publishers will continue contracting works by BIPOC writers about BIPOC characters, and it will ensure this precious bit of American, queer, Black history is brought into light.