I hope some of you enjoyed this Black History Month look at the premier 1926 issue of Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. This landmark of the Harlem Renaissance announced a new generation of young Black writers, many just out their teens — artists who not only filled its pages, but organized and edited the publication. Today I’m going to tie up some loose ends and tuck in the laces on the Fire!! story and give you a few links in case you want to do your own exploring.
Here’s a fine website done recently by a group of young people who present the entire magazine itself and some of their own encounters with the meaning of the work inside.
It was there I found a link to this completely scientific and accurate Buzzfeed quiz from 2018 “Which Fire!! Magazine Author Are You Most Similar To?”
The quiz says I’m Gwendolyn Bennett. My wife’s results: Richard Bruce (Nugent). Richard Bruce too for longtime keyboard playing and alternate voice contributor to this Project Dave Moore. Dave’s artist partner joined me in the Gwendolyn Bennett result.
So, we looked at the first issue of Fire!! this month. What about the next issue, other issues? There wasn’t one. The magazine, founded by young artists, was not well funded, and selling and distributing didn’t go well. The gatekeepers were at least privately aghast at some of the content, so their advice and word of mouth was to disparage and discourage this effort. I’ve already mentioned when presenting two of the four poets I selected for musical performance that publication in Fire!! did not guarantee lasting readership or note for these young people. So, Fire!! folded, and in a lead-eared note of irony, the mostly unsold print run was destroyed in a storeroom fire. John Keats epitaph says his name was writ in water. Fire!! and some of its writer’s names were writ in fire, and it all died down.
I often suspect many folks who find these blog posts are looking for homework help or teaching resources. To what I (an old person) can understand, being a teacher or a student covers wider territories than in my days, but there are still skirmishes at the borders and difficult areas under the control of different warlords. Fire!! magazine sought to cross those borders then — and if one is to study it and its contributors in any depth, it still does. Not only did Fire!! bring forward new young writers — many committed to Modernist art and radical politics — it purposefully sought to express elements of life that the older generation of gatekeepers wanted to suppress or keep only within the tribe. One of those things was sexuality. So teachers and students, here we have a group of young creators in 1926 writing on race, injustice, and sexual expression that isn’t in committed relationships or straight. On what authority did these audacious writers take to break through those barriers? Not only were the instigators and contributors of Fire!! young, gifted and Black, they also were often somewhere on the spectrum we could label today as queer.*
A drawing by Richard Bruce Nugent from Fire!!
So, to teach or discuss Fire!! and its creators beyond a surface is to go to places where teaching and learning is still constrained. I’d say to learners (a class that includes nearly all teachers) you may choose to go there even if traveling alone. Literature, music, the arts are the forged identity papers that let you cross borders. Though the writers of Fire!! are all dead, they won’t mind speaking with you.
In the spirit of gratitude to Afro-Americans and their vital contribution to American culture let me repost my Buzzfeed Fire!! contributor-like Gwendolyn Bennett’s summary in poetic “Song.” Graphical player below, or a backup player will open in a new tab link here.
*Here’s one web post by someone who taught school, doing a better job than I can today of discussing the queer aspects woven into the Harlem Renaissance. There is also this low-budget indie movie Brother to Brother made nearly a decade ago centering on Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman, and the non-straight circle that organized Fire!! The film has some PG13 level sex scenes and self-violence. I found it available for rental from the usual online sources like Apple TV or Amazon Prime.