Willard Motley and the Black Queer Archive

This is not a blog of personal revelation, but I will confess this: I have a hard time shaking the Romance of the Archive. Postcolonial scholarship in particular has rightly highlighted the ways imperial archives (and they’re all imperial) shape historical knowledge and remove certain subjects and identities from memory—though even the fantastic essays in a collection like Archive Stories can’t help but reinscribe some of the very romance they seek to dismantle, in their engaging narratives of seeking access to restricted documents from India to Uzbekistan through charm, subterfuge, or any means necessary. Meanwhile, I’m so haunted by Derrida’s deconstruction of “archive fever” that I sometimes—and this is as far as the confessional goes—walk around the house humming its title to the tune of the amazing Angel Haze.

Yet I continue to dig in archives rather tenaciously, and can’t help feeling a thrill when I come across buried treasures, be they a letter from Bertrand Russell to gay activists in the early 1960s pledging his support in absentia or a letter from then-unknown literature professor Kurt Vonnegut offering to testify at an Iowa obscenity trial. Though the archive must always be viewed with suspicion toward the power formations that structured it and are in turn replicated through it, and always supplemented with other sources of knowledge, I do subscribe to the value of unearthing what remains hidden in its recesses.

Which brings me to Willard Motley. I confess, I know little of the black Chicago author, though upon reviewing Michael Bronski’s essay “Back to the Future: Recovering Our Literary Past” in the Drewey Wayne Gunn-edited collection The Golden Age of Gay Fiction yesterday, I re-read a passage I had underlined, about Motley . His 1947 novel Knock on Any Door had been purged of its queer content for the 1949 Bogart film, like so many other stories from the Production Code era, from Lost Weekend to all those hilariously sweaty heterosexual Charlton Heston epics. Bronski writes that Motley has been largely forgotten, “because he wrote only about white people and because his overt homosexuality and (what was called in the black press) ‘effeminacy’ made him and his books suspect as good role models for African Americans.”


That caught my eye. (Confession #2: I’m preparing to write about another lost queer author, and I am never so interested in fascinating new topics as when they help me procrastinate on my own). So I dug around a little; Bronski (an important and brilliant gay historian) has consistently been a Motley booster, mentioning him also in Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps as well as his recent Queer History of the United States, but there hadn’t been that much attention otherwise. To an extent, that’s to be expected—Motley only wrote a few more novels, and never topped the success of his debut. There’s a scholarly essay about him from 1976, and recent brief capsule discussions in Anthony Slade’s Lost Gay Novels and St. Sukie de la Criox’s Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall. Rebecca Schreiber has an essay on his Mexican exile, and most substantively, Alan Wald has considerable discussion of Motley in his new book American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War, documenting the FBI’s monitoring of the author and his unrealized plan to write a novel about postwar gay life.

So, Motley can’t be described as wholly forgotten, by any means, even if Bronski is assuredly right that he’s barely remembered. But to return to the archive, and the source of my excitement: the colonial nature of the archive casts a multiple burden on historians working to excavate black queer history. First, the racial inequities of history have already left black history less documented in the form of things that get preserved archivally, namely paper trails—diaries, letters, state records, etc. Next, queer history at large has been historically suppressed. Finally, queer black history specifically has been marginalized within a white-dominated gay movement and a heteronormative African American politics.

This erasure has been documented and combated by legions of historians and scholars, from Cathy Cohen in The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics to Tim Retzloff’s great article about Detroit’s Prophet Jones. I’m just scratching the tip of the iceberg here, of course—look at the 2011 AHA panel on Black Queer Politics with Timothy Stewart-Winter, Kwame Holmes, and Tristan Cabello, then imagine how amazing their books will be! (Not to mention Cookie Woolner’s work on “Beau Brummells and Bulldaggers”—with which I was honored to share a panel, also on that page).

Still, few would dispute that writing black queer history entails serious obstacles in regard to sources (gay-history pioneer John D’Emilio has an astonishing afterword in the recent Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History in which he discusses locating some of the central source material for his Bayard Rustin biography fortuitously, through a lucky social connection!). The legal archive remains useful, but limited; E. Patrick Johnson uses oral history beautifully in Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South; Shane Vogel makes use of performance studies approaches in The Scene of Harlem Cabaret; Laura Grantmyre reconstructs the history of African American female impersonators in Pittsburgh through photographs; but even at leading archival repositories like the ONE Institute, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection, and the New York Public Library’s International Gay Information Center, black queer history remains relatively sparse (though certainly present, I wouldn’t want to be misread as suggesting otherwise). Outside LGBT-oriented archives, the situation is even more dire.

So, unless I’m woefully mistaken, the Willard Motley Collection at Northern Illinois University appears to be an underused potential goldmine. Look at this finding aid: seventy-four boxes of stuff, full of diaries, correspondence, unpublished work, drafts of his books, good lord, my archive fever is flaring up and I’m having trouble not typing in all-caps here! It might all be flat and dull, but I doubt it—look at box 23, folder 68, “Handwritten notes on and account of a homosexual encounter, no date.”

I can’t lie, I saw this and said, “hot damn, here’s my next project!” But the reality is, I’m backlogged to oblivion and, to ‘fess up fully, haven’t even read any of Motley’s published work (I have seen the movie version of Knock on Any Door and found it pretty dull; as early Nick Ray films go, it’s no They Live By Night). Maybe someone’s already working on this—I hope so. But if not, this post, after all its rather wordy detours and blathering (oh right, I’m supposed to be starting my own next article, oops!), is basically my plea to the world: someone needs to write a full biography of Willard Motley. The material is there, and with all respect to the impressive works I’ve mentioned above, the story clearly remains largely unwritten. While it’s true that black queer archives remain precious and rare, here’s one just sitting there begging for further investigation.

And if anyone is working on Motley, please let me know, I’d love to hear about it!

2 thoughts on “Willard Motley and the Black Queer Archive

    • Whoops, sorry I’m late here–but no, I must confess I have not. Still hoping someone (you?) will make more use of his papers, though!

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