Celebrating Diversity: The Remarkable Story of a Queer Black Writer’s Path to Recognition

Reginald Harris

Levi Wise-Catoe | As a young writer, I was deterred from focusing on poetry because everyone, from my family to my friends to my dog Peanut’s veterinarian, warned me that poetry doesn’t sell and also that poets don’t make money. I became resentful of the fact that I was a poet because every literary agent I sought out never represented the genre of poetry. I intended to turn my poems into songs, and it worked for me. April is Poetry Month, and in the tradition of Poetry Month, I choose to honor Mr. Reginald M. Harris, Jr., a poet and writer and winner of the 2012 Cave Canem / Northwestern University Poetry Prize. Harris was honored during the 17th National Black Writers Conference during the Poetry Café event on ‘Day Two’ in Brooklyn. We discussed not only a writer’s journey from the dream of becoming a published writer to the actuality of what a writer’s journey truly is beyond the dream but also what it means to be a Black as well as queer writer in the day and age of censorship in America.We also discussed how to survive as a poet. 

Levi Wise-Catoe: Hello Mr. Reginald Harris, the award-winning poet himself. Who are the poets that inspired you as a young writer? Was there any one poet in particular that you modeled yourself or your work/style after?

Reginald Harris: Hello Levi. It’s interesting that you ask this question. Someone else asked me recently who were my ‘models’ growing up, and I had to answer by quoting Lucille Clifton: “what did i see to be except myself?” I encountered very few Black poets in school growing up. I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe, for example, but in terms of Black poets, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks were the only ones I remember being exposed to. Even after I graduated from college (NOT an HBCU!) I had no idea there were so many living Black poets until I went to the Cave Canem retreat in 1997. It’s sometimes difficult to realize how different the world is, particularly in the world of education, from what it was in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. The official national celebration of Black History Month didn’t start until 1976 for example, less than 40 years ago. Not so much as a role model in terms of my poetry (although I’m sure it’s there), but when I met her, I was really struck by who Gwendolyn Books was as a person. Before she came to my college to give a reading, I had a lot of dumb ideas about how someone FAMOUS, the first African American Pulitzer Prize winner, was supposed to act. Then when she arrived, she looked and acted like my grandmother or an older member of the family. Very down to earth, very generous – she bought a copy of the book 84 Charing Cross Road for a student who was about to visit England and gave away copies of some of her chapbooks to us few Black students. And she read poems written by some Chicago high school students, as well as her own work, during her presentation, which was just amazing to me. Again, very generous. I thought, so THIS is the way you’re supposed to be as a writer in the world. She’s a great model to live up to in that way.

LWC: I loved Lucille Clifton as well. As a young writer, I was always told that poetry doesn’t pay or that being a Black writer doesn’t pay. I noticed that among your accolades, you also worked ‘survival jobs’. How would you advise a young poet pursuing a career in writing in terms of survival while awaiting that big publishing break, fellowship grant, or stipend to arrive?

RH: “Survival jobs” Octavia Butler did a lot of temp jobs, and even worked on an assembly line for a while, I think, so she would have time to write. Composer Philip Glass was back to driving a cab and moving furniture the day after his first opera Einstein on the Beach premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. All that’s to say, there’s no shame at all in doing what you have to do to live while making art. That too is a natural part of the process, and I’ve never thought otherwise. Don’t quit your day job—but keep working. Writing is not a career you go into if you want to make a lot of money—Some people would say if you wanted to make ANY money. There are people who have done well as writers, but most of them are nowhere near a Mr. and Mrs. Carter level of living large. Almost all of us have ‘day jobs’—usually teaching these days—and many are fortunate enough that their jobs involve some form of writing. The only ‘survival job’ I think I’ve had was my brief time as a ‘credit liaison’ for a magazine, a job I took because a friend worked there, and I needed the money. I was that person that calls you and says, ‘Your account is overdue—where’s our money?’ and I was 100% wrong for that job. I wanted to do the other jobs I’ve had, (whether I was successful at all of them is another question), and I learned a lot everywhere I’ve been. One important shift I made when I was at the library in Baltimore, though, was that instead of thinking of myself as a librarian that writes, I began thinking I was a writer that works at the library. I still think of ‘having a job’ as one thing, and ‘working’ (i.e., writing) as something else. So, you can put in your 40 hours a week or whatever to pay for food and rent, and then think “Okay, now I need to get some work done.”

LWC: What do you love most about being a Black writer? And do you see yourself as a Black writer or simply as a writer?

RH: Well, I am a Black writer, and I love being part of the continuing conversation within the African diasporic world. I totally understand, though, how some authors want to be thought of as writers first and Black second, because far too often ‘Black’ can be used as a modifier to diminish or pigeonhole you. I remember the first line of Hilton Als’s essay on Black poet Owen Dodson in The Women, where Als is helping to reorganize Dodson’s library, and the poet tells him, “Put the niggers over there.” It’s like that: you’re a Black Writer and so it’s assumed that you write a certain way or MUST write about despair or crime or something Quote BLACK Unquote all the time, or someone who’s not Black won’t get anything out of it (or will feel attacked), or everything you write is about Race and not ‘universal human issues.’ It’s easy to see how creative people would want to totally get away from crap like that. It’s not as bad as it was, but it is still there—Have you seen American Fiction?

LWC: What was that moment like in 2012 when you won the Cave Canem/Northwestern University Poetry Prize? Do you ever get used to the accolades, or is it always something that feels brand new every time?

 RH: My first response when I got the call about the award was, ‘You’re kidding, right?” And the person on the other side sounded like she was offended! “No, what do you mean I’m kidding? You won!” Being recognized for anything is wonderful, and for me, it usually feels new and unexpected. And I’m very grateful and happy when it happens.

LWC: How does it feel to be an LGTB author in a day and age of book banning and anti-woke agendas in which the communities of “others” are under attack? Does it make you want to distance yourself from the rhetoric or forge yourself head-first into the line of conservative fire?

RH: When I was in my 20’s, the only Black gay writers I knew were James Baldwin and me. Then my first partner took me to DC, and we saw Essex Hemphill and Wayson Jones perform, which was astonishing (and made me think “I’ll never write again” because Essex was so damn good). Black women and men created—and rediscovered—an African-American LGBTQ+ writing tradition in the late 1970’s and 80s, and the book banning forces and others want to erase that time and that tradition, to ‘return’ to some heterosexual, misogynist, white Christian Nationalist world that never actually existed. So, as a Black person, a Gay person, a writer, a library worker, I take all this very personally, and there is no ‘going back’ into their suffocating fantasy world. Even though we’re tired and the struggle will be long, their agenda must be fought.

LWC: Your book Autogeography touches on the themes of race and sexuality in a variety of landscapes and locations, from Havana, Cuba, to Baltimore, which is an amazing artistic achievement. I found it awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. Afrolatinidad is a part of the African Diaspora that is sometimes ignored, especially in the United States during election seasons. Considering this year’s theme of the Black Writers Conference, All That We Carry: Where Do We Go From Here?, as writers of the vast African diasporic communities, which include Afro-Latinos, Latinx, and Queer communities, where do we go as a community? 

RH: We have to recognize that we ARE a community, that we’re all in this together. There are differences between us, of course, between the experiences of those from across the African diaspora throughout the Americas, but there are many commonalities also. And we all suffer from dealing with life under white supremacy and white supremacist thinking. A few years ago, a friend got into a discussion with someone working at a Cuban restaurant in Jersey City over the lack of any mention of Africa in the thumbnail history of Cuba they had printed on their placemats. False histories like that just can’t continue to be repeated. 

LWC: Growing up in the Baltimore/Maryland area, what are your feelings regarding the Francis Scott Key bridge collapse? 

RH: Baltimore was (is?) very “East Side” vs “West Side.” I’m from the West Side and the Bridge is on the East Side, so I had very few opportunities to use it. And it was one of the few bridges I didn’t particularly like going over—it was too high, or I didn’t like the way the guardrails looked or something, I don’t know. It feels weird, sacrilegious, to say I didn’t care for it now that it’s gone. But it is painful. I’m deeply saddened—hurt, actually—by the loss of the Mexican and Central American construction workers during the accident and I think about them and their families a lot. Baltimore is such a difficult city, sad and wonderful and beautiful and terrifying, sometimes all at the same time. I’m still a Baltimorean (in exile) and the city really needs a break. We need time to grieve, and to think about what this might mean in terms of creating the kind of city that we want. 

LWC: What are your feelings regarding the racist attacks against Baltimore’s mayor being referred to as the ‘DEI Mayor’ following the bridge collapse?


RH: Do you mean the ‘Duly Elected Incumbent’? Mayor Scott’s response was terrific, I thought, when he said they can say what they want about me because it’s nothing compared to what our ancestors went through. And he’s right when he says it’s just a way for them to get away with calling him The N Word. I also love how the Governor said he didn’t have time for foolishness when a reporter tried to get him to make a comment about it also. Some people have not recovered from Barack Obama being elected president of the United States, and Donald Trump and his ilk have made even more visible this country’s racism—that was always there (usually) just below the surface.

LWC: What are your feelings regarding Morgan State canceling its recent homecoming football game after a shooting on campus that left five people injured? Do you think this attack against HBCU is fueled by the current, anti-Critical Race Theory, DEI, Affirmative Action right-wing propaganda?

RH: I’m not sure what the motive was behind the shooting, so I can’t say if it was related to Right Wing propaganda or not. I do know incidents like that can and will be used to fuel stereotypes of Black people and Black cities as violent and dangerous. It will be more fuel on the fire against college affirmative action programs—“see even their so-called college students are thugs! We can’t let them near Our Children!” Anything negative large or small will be used against us.

LWC: How was your young upbringing growing up in Maryland and how did it shape and inform you as a Black writer and as a Queer Black author? Which in some cases might be a double-negative.

RH: I saw the James Baldwin biography The Price of the Ticket when it came on PBS in 1989, and there’s a bit in there where an interviewer says to him, when you were starting out, you were Black, poor, and homosexual. You must have thought, “How disadvantaged can you get?” and Baldwin says, “No, I thought I’d hit the jackpot!” I’ve always loved that. We were working class, working poor, I guess, but I never felt ‘poor.’ I always thought we were middle class, and when I got a scholarship to a private high school—see, I was DEI before DEI!—I thought most of the people out there were rich and really rich. I’ve never looked at where I’m from or any situation I’ve been in from the point of view of it being a disadvantage. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “I am not tragically Colored.” And Baltimore really is a good place to get creative work done: a lot of great resources, close enough to the so-called “Big Time” of New York, yet far enough away that you’re not caught up in all that’s going on up here every day. As for being gay—there really is something to be said for being ‘different’ or out of the mainstream. The view of the world is in many ways clearer from over here. And just as Black people know more about white people than they know about themselves and the larger culture, so too Queers know more and can see things more clearly about so-called straight life than heterosexuals do. And look at who the individuals are that are the true creators and generators of art, music, and culture: mainly all of us over here ‘on the margins.’

LWC: Can you discuss Lambda and some of the things that they are doing in the LGTB community to raise awareness beyond the LGTB community for causes that are often overlooked?

RH: Over the years, Lambda Literary has been extremely important in promoting and championing LGBTQ+ books and authors. The Lammy awards have helped to raise the profile of a wide range of works from various communities in a wide range of styles and genres. The Writers in Schools program is doing essential work in introducing queer literature to young people. Lambda has also been very forceful in fighting against the various book bans going on around the country. Lambda is going through a transitional period right now—as with many organizations, COVID  and the immediate post-lockdown times were difficult, and things haven’t gotten fully back on track—but I’m sure it will always be an important part of the literary community.

LWC: What is the one thought that you would like to leave people with today? It can be a quote from an ancestor or a thought from the top of your head.

RH: I’ll use another James Baldwin quote. I think about the part about how the world is held together all the time: “Love has never been a popular movement. And no one’s ever wanted, really, to be free. The world is held together, really it is held together, by the love and the passion of a very few people. Otherwise, of course, you can despair. Walk down the street of any city, any afternoon, and look around you. What you’ve got to remember is what you’re looking at is also you. Everyone you’re looking at is also you. You could be that person. You could be that monster, you could be that cop. And you have to decide, in yourself, not to be.”

 LWC: Thank you so much for your wonderfully engaging responses. For me, my early inspiration from James Baldwin was his book Giovanni’s Room (1956), and believe it or not it was a straight white woman, Madonna, who introduced me to it when I read somewhere that she had obtained the rights to the book to remake it as a film. I agree with you, growing up I never felt poor. I grew up in the CCP projects in Paterson, NJ, and when I would watch The Jeffersons “Movin’ On Up”, I thought that was us because we also lived in a tall red brick building with a terrace.We lived on the 13th floor and the penthouse 15th floor. Yes, I did see American Fiction and read the book Erasure and thought that both were amazing!!!

RH: I have a strange relationship with Giovanni’s Room: I discovered an old 1950s paperback copy of it on a US Coast Guard Cutter in Mobile Alabama, which was weird enough. But then I read it in one night after a bad break-up. So it was a VERY emotional experience. I’ve been a little afraid of the book ever since because it has such personal meaning for me. PS: Percival Everett’s new book, James, is fantastic.

LWC: Duly noted… How are you feeling today in an adjective?

RH: ‘Emerging’ seems to be the adjective of the day for me today, particularly as it applies to myself as a person, a human being in the world.

LWC: Aren’t we all…? Thank you so much Mr. Harris for speaking with me.

RH: My pleasure!

3 thoughts on “Celebrating Diversity: The Remarkable Story of a Queer Black Writer’s Path to Recognition”

  1. Monalisa DeGross

    What a wonderful insightful interview. I work with Reggie in Baltimore and to see his responses to many brought back memories of his voice always filled with humor and wisdom.

  2. Felicia Morgenstern

    It is wonderful to see Reginald Harris receive the recognition he so richly deserves.

    He is as kind and generous with his time and heart as he is talented – which is very.

    He performed for and spoke earnestly with my (adult) Baltimore city poetry students when I was Poet-in-Residence for a literacy center. They hung on his every word.

    His first chapbook – “10 Tongues”, if memory serves, was earnest and extraordinary. I lent my (now out of print) copy in the early 2000s and it never found its way back to me. I still mourn its loss almost a quarter century later. I’m thrilled to learn there’s more Reggie Harris to read. Lucky me, lucky us.

    ~ Felicia Morgenstern

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact Us

Center for Black Literature (CBL)
at Medgar Evers College, CUNY
1534 Bedford Avenue | 2nd Floor
Brooklyn, New York 11216
(Click HERE for the Postal Mailing Address)

Main Phone: (718) 804-8884
Main Office: info@centerforblackliterature.org

Donate to CBL Today!

To carry out our literary programs and special events, we depend on financial support from the public. Donations are welcome year-round. Please click HERE to donate. Thank you!
The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College is supported in part by an American Rescue Plan Act grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support general operating expenses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We're Where You Are!

Get The Latest News!

Sign-up to receive news about our programs!

Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Copyright © 2023, Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College.

Scroll to Top