Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance:
A Portrait in Black & White
By Emily Bernard
Yale University Press
372 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“This book is a portrait of a once-controversial figure… a white man with a passion for blackness… [who] played a crucial role in helping the Harlem Renaissance… come to understand itself… Carl Van Vechten has been viewed with suspicion… [as] a racial voyeur and sexual predator, an acolyte of primitivism who misused his black artist friends and pushed them to make art that fulfilled his belief in racial stereotypes…
While his early interest in blackness was certainly inspired by sexual desire and his fascination with what he perceived as black primitivism, these features were not what sustained his interest… More important [was] his conviction that blackness was a central feature of Americanness…
Van Vechten’s enthusiasm for blacks may have catapulted many careers, but at what cost to the racial integrity of those artists, and to the Harlem Renaissance as a whole? My ambition in this book is to enlarge that question into… a tale about the messy realities of race, and the complicated tangle of black and white.”
-- Excerpted from the Introduction (pgs. 1-2)
Despite having majored in African-American Literature as an undergrad, I don’t recall having ever encountered the name Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) over the course of my studies. For this reason, I owe a debt of gratitude to Emily Bernard for filling in a critical gap with this new biography about a pioneering writer/critic/photographer and tireless advocate of African American culture.
For, this open-minded white man hailing from Cedar Rapids, Iowa came to play a pivotal role in New York City in the promotion of black artists during the period in the Twenties and Thirties which later came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. For instance, Carl is credited with introducing Langston Hughes to the editor at Knopf who would publish the aspiring poet’s first book.
According to author Bernard, a professor of English at the University of Vermont, Van Vechten played a similar role in launching the career of Paul Robeson when he arranged for the actor/singer’s debut professional concert, which took place in a theater in Greenwich Village. Ethel Waters, another one of his discoveries, appreciated the fact that he wasn’t afflicted with all the “mental pains and psychic aches” of most of the white folks she’d encountered.
To the contrary, Carl was a bon vivant who took to and immersed himself into black culture with abandon, even writing a very controversial novel entitled “Nigger Heaven.” Apparently, because he not only hung out in Harlem with brothers and sisters, but routinely invited them downtown for dinner and to attend integrated parties, he felt entitled to use the N-word, almost as if he were almost black himself.
Still, the blowback about the book’s title leveled the literary equivalent of the color line-crossing inquiry: Can white men sing the blues? Apparently, Carl emerged from the ordeal with flying colors, even if his contributions were by-and-large overlooked by history.
Today, the snub has been more than righted by Professor Bernard with this posthumous tribute to a prescient patron of the arts who recognized the richness of African-American culture at a time when most Caucasians couldn’t even see blacks as equals.