Conjuring Shadows

by Craig Laurance Gidney


Silhouette
On the face of the moon
Am I.
A dark shadow in the light.
A silhouette am I
On the face of the moon
Lacking color
Or vivid brightness
But defined all the clearer
Because
I am dark,
Black on the face of the moon.
A shadow am I
Growing in the light,
Not understood as is the day,
But more easily seen
Because
I am a shadow in the light.
–“Shadow,” by Richard Bruce Nugent (1925)

Mrs. Alberta Dufresne’s collection of Harlem Renaissance era art is small but impressive.  She has a William Johnson piece, a sketch by Jacob Lawrence, and a maquette by Augusta Savage.  Lesser known artists are included, along with a smattering a of first edition volumes (Van Vetchen’s Nigger Heaven, Hurston’s Of Mules and Men) and a file cabinet of correspondence.  The collection is housed in the library of her Washington, DC home, which is situated in the newly revitalized Logan Circle area.  Mrs. Dufresne has lent out pieces of her collection to various traveling exhibits and museums in addition to providing (by appointment only) access to curious visitors and scholars.  But there is one piece she has that never leaves her collection.  In fact, it is not even properly a part of collection, as she has sequestered it in her bedroom.

“Empress” rests on her bed’s headboard.  At first glance, it appears to be some kind of Art Deco vase.  It’s a smooth black oblong, about the size of an infant. The surface is scored with double lines, like seams.   The sculpture rests on “feet” and elongated “arms,” as if it is kneeling in a supplicant’s pose.  The front of the piece has three faint indentations—eyes, a mouth—that suggest a face. “Empress” suggests form, even as it blurs the distinction between the abstract and the representational.

The material that “Empress” is made of is as intriguing as the piece itself.  Neither clay nor stone nor metal, it seems to have properties of all qualities.  The glaze is a kind of living blackness that shimmers.  Even when there is no light—as Mrs. Dufresne graciously demonstrated when she turned the light off in her bedroom—the piece pulsates.  The form stands out in low light.  The supplicant’s shape seems to absorb what ever light there is, and radiate it out.   It is does not shine; there is no spectrum.  Only a void.

The feel of the piece is warm and smooth.  Even soft, like the fur of some animal.  And—

“Can you feel it?” asks Mrs. Dufresne.  “There’s a pulse there.  A heartbeat.”

Not much is known about the artist, Courtney Vaughan (1898-1961).  He was raised in North Carolina.  Attended Howard University, where he was mentored by Augusta Savage, and socialized with Langston Hughes and Zora Hurston.  Most of his work is representational, reflecting the Great Migration, and while technically proficient, is not particularly of note.  The only thing that survives of his papers is a widely anthologized piece of short fiction that captures the zeitgeist of 1920s Harlem and the life of black homosexuals in that era.

Temple Cats
By Courtney Vaughan

Midnight in Darkytown.  All the decent folks are asleep, safe in God’s loving arms.  But we others, the prodigal sons, we never sleep.  We roam the neon night, restless with sin.  There is an alley, a normal alley haunted by laundry floating on lines like ghosts.  Cats prowl in garbage, risking all nine of their lives.  We’re bigger cats in zootsuits, who sneak in hidden nooks and corners, smoking catnip and tobacco.  Silken cresses, konked hair, swishing tails.  All of us converge around a door in the alley.  The basement of an apartment building with a door the color of wine.  One by one, we go to the door.  We knock.  A viewhole opens.  A password is whispered, the door opens.  Light and music spill out, only to be shut again.  What is behind the door?

Down the marble steps, we enter the Temple.  The floor is black and white, like a chessboard.  Rugs with geometric designs interrupt the tiles.  Potted palms sway in fan-stirred air.  The wallpaper has Ancient Egyptian art on it, men and women with the heads of beasts.  Column lintels are encrusted with blue and green stones. An oud rests against one wall; a stuffed peacock, tail in a full fan, glares from another.  A bar with illicit hard liquor beckons while on a dais a trio of upright bass, cocktail drum, and trumpet plays.  The smell of incense curls around the floor, and good, clean tobacco. But this elaborate set up is not why we are here, not most of us, anyway.

We are here for this:  Men, in darker hues, who dance the dance of the Prodigal.  The kiss, the caress, the flirt.  The thing that can never be seen in the world of Above.  Masks are removed, mannerisms relaxed.  In the Temple, we are free to worship the flesh, away from judging eyes.  Here, we are free from euphemism, conjecture, scandal and gossip.  We whisper our secrets.  Deals and rendezvous are made in shadowed corners.  We are safe here.  We temple cats weave and purr in the subterranean basement, attuned to the rhythms of night, jazz, and, yes, the sacred.

An hour passes, two.  Spirits are imbibed, as are kisses.  Gradually, silence descends.  We pause, and glance at the stage.  The musicians have stopped playing.  The bass lies on its side like a woman laying down.  And a woman emerges from the shadows.  A giantess, her hips and breasts shaped like the bass.  And she’s strung with a sheer white gown that floats on her ebony body.  It’s belted at the waist with a golden snake of a belt.  Her muscled arms are bare.  Her hair is hidden by an elaborate white headdress, made of horn, shells and feathers, that glows.  We gasp and sigh in wonder—she is the goddess-empress of this domain.  She steps up to the lip of the stage.  In her nacre heels with silver straps, and her headdress, she stands nearly eight feet tall.

“Greetings, my children,” she says, extending her arms out in a gesture of welcome that holds all of as to her.  We thrill at the sound of her voice—that rich, deep contralto.  And we are her children.  We gather closer, eager for what is to come.

The bassist comes and stands his instrument up, and begins to pluck notes from it.  The Goddess-Empress begins to recite poetry in a foreign tongue.  Both sounds bounce off the walls of the Temple.  It’s a wild, mad journey through sound.  This, indeed, is our church, and she shout-sings the words like gospel hymns.  Shouts of “praise be!” rise from the audience.  One cat in a charcoal gray suit swoons, and claps and stomps his feet in some religious mania.  The poem ends with yell that echoes through the Temple.  The trumpeter takes up his golden horn and sends out a moan, and she recites another poem, this one in English.  Her cadence and phrasing is beautiful.  Do a few cheeks glisten with tears?  Perhaps.  She smiles at us, her faithful congregation.  The music plays on.  But before she leaves the stage to mingle with the masses, she blows a kiss out to us.

The kiss, that collection of darkness and breath, flows through us.  Each of us feels the moist tingle of lips on our throats, the atoms of the Goddess-Empress’s breath.  It is warm. It’s a mother’s kiss, more.  It’s both sacred and profane—much like our midnight love.  And that is the color of the kiss, the breath—midnight.  It’s a tangible thing, this expelled breath.  It roams the Temple.  It soars in the ceiling, bouncing from the draperies that depend from the rafters, a bird of shadow.  It circles the pillars, an asp of shade.  It prowls the checkered floor, pantherlike.

We return to our various coteries after having been blessed by her Kiss.  Drinks flow.  Cigarette smoke rises.  Music swells.  And kisses begin to fall like rain—

A ferocious pounding on the door interrupts the sway of things.  The music stops, as does the chatter.  The doorman opens the viewhole.  There’s an aggressive exchange between the outside and the doorman.

“It’s the police, ya’ll!”

We tense, ready to flee.  But it is hopeless.  Where is there to go?  We only know of the one entrance.  The doorman looks to the Goddess-Empress.

“Let them in,” she says.

The door is unlocked, and in they flow, boys in blue, clubs and guns drawn.  One of them, a tall brute of a fellow with mustache like a comb, says in a booming voice:  “Police!  You are all under arrest, for unlawful and immoral congregation, according to the Decency code…”  We listen to him rattle off boilerplate legalese.  We cease to coalesce; the wreckage of destroyed careers and families looms in front of us.

When the lead officer finishes his speech, the Goddess-Empress proudly parts the masses that throng around her.  She towers over him, in her ivory gown and baroque headdress.

“Officer,” she says in her dark honey voice, “I am sure that we can come to an arrangement.”

The officer steps back suddenly, almost as if she’d attacked him.  Another steps forward, and cracks her across the cheek.  The Goddess-Empress stumbles.  Her headdress teeters, then crashes to the floor.  And she is revealed.   She is bald, and beneath the garish makeup are the features of a man.  Blood drips on her creamy white gown.  One of the cops laughs.  Another murmurs, “freak.”

The Goddess-Empress raises her noble head, gestures and–

The Kiss, that substance made of breath and darkness rises.  It is a sphere of black.  It rises until it hangs over us all, police and criminals.  Our eyes are transfixed.  The Kiss eats our vision.  Someone yells, “What the hell is that thing?”  A gunshot is fired, right into the heart of the sphere.  The bullet is absorbed with barely the hint of a ripple.  The Kiss roams over the crowd.  Those beneath its shadow begin to paw each other.  We begin to kiss each other.  The police are absorbed into us as they are touched by the Kiss’s shadow, and they, too, begin to kiss.  Clothes and uniforms fly off.  Flesh touches flesh.  Fingers, lips and other things find each other.

We become temple cats, all of us.

The Goddess-Empress calmly restores her headdress to its rightful place.  She weaves between the couples, and dims the Temple’s lights.

Some rituals are meant for darkness. (1926)

While Vaughn’s piece is undoubtedly a piece of florid fantasia, there are oblique references to events, places and even persons in the Harlem Renaissance in New York.  For instance, there was a underground speakeasy in Harlem, a known hang out for gay black men, called Timbuktu.  Rather than a fixed location, this was a party that drifted from apartment to basement to abandoned hall, protected by passwords—known in the parlance of then as ‘charms‘–to avoid the unwelcome attention of the police.  Timbuktu managed to avoid the Prohibition and Decency raids for quite while, but there is a record of at least one such unfortunate event that ruined many reputations.

The Goddess-Empress character closely—but not completely—resembles a personage that frequented both the art world and black gay scene, known as Madame Isis.  She is mentioned here and there:  a statuesque and theatrical woman who skirted around the edges of these milieus.  Reports, cobbled together from letters and interviews claim that she was a wealthy patron of the arts.  Other denizens believe that she was a kind of a literal madame, with her speciality clientele being men “in the life.”  Some thought that she was just a meddlesome fag hag, while others believed that she had sapphic inclinations herself and lived vicariously through the lives of her ubiquitous coterie.  Vaughn’s tale is not the only one that casts her as transgender.  Wilder rumors have her connected to the mob, and some claim that she was some kind of conjure-woman, trained in the arts of obeah.  All accounts claim that she was a giantess.

No image of her survives.

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