The Harlem Renaissance is not characterised as being a white intellectual and cultural movement. On the contrary, it is considered to be a vital part of African American history, as it helped to develop a new social consciousness and renewed commitment to political activism, providing a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement (A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance, n.d.). Despite this, the Harlem Renaissance impassioned a young white man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten moved to New York City in 1906, where he was hired by The Times as a music and dance critic (Sanneh, 2014). Inevitably, he ended visiting the jazz clubs of Harlem and became fascinated with the emerging art and literature of the neighbourhood, as much as he wanted to be known as the "Bard of Harlem" and to write his very own "N***o novel" (Sanneh, 2014).
Van Vechten's attempt to claim ownership of the Harlem Renaissance is inherently problematic. American novelist Toni Morrison argues in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination that white American literary canon found its identity in "Africanist" characters (Morrison, 2007, pp.17), asserting that American writers sought to break away from a European identity and to define themselves in contrast to darkness. American freedom was emphasised by the bondage of slavery, and that white American’s self determination as free is juxtaposed by the unfree nature of African Americans. By having a white author claiming patronage of an African American cultural movement, this matter can be seen as White America trying to insert itself within the discourse of African American art, appropriating it to something more palatable to White American society and to reinforce White American superiority as Van Vechten's novel drew attention away from African American artists.
Figure 1: Barbecue by Archibald Motley Jr. depicting an African American party.
Carl Van Vechten would call his novel N***** Heaven, which even in the 1920s was extremely controversial; the term referred to the upper balconies of theatres, where the African American patrons would sit, segregated from the White Americans below. The novel was initially banned in Boston because of its title and Van Vechten's own father greatly opposed the title (Pfeiffer, 2000, pp.xiii), what was only the prelude to how Van Vechten's contemporaries were greatly divided about it. White Civil Rights Activist, Walter Francis White, defended Van Vetchen’s decision to keep the title and stated in his column that “intelligent N****es simply say 'we will wait and see what is in the story and let it go at that'” (Worth, 1995, pp.461). On the other hand, American sociologist W.E.B DuBois despised the novel and declared it to present "black intellectual life as a pathetic, almost futile endeavour, stifled by black snobbery on one side and white bigotry on the other" (Worth, 1995, pp.464).
Despite this controversy, the novel was extremely successful upon its release, and it was even advertised as "why go to Harlem cabarets when you can read N***** Heaven," in The New Yorker (Sanneh, 2014). Professor of English at the University of Vermont, Emily Bernard, raises the issue “does a white person, any white person, have the authority to tell a black story? In particular a story called ‘n*****?” (Bernard, 2012, pp.108). The strong debated caused and the great contemporary success it received highlights the questionable nature of the novel, since due to its success and the exposure it received by having advertising published in The New Yorker it took attention away from African American artists and inserted a white American presence in the cultural movement.
Figure 2: Carl Van Vechten in 1934.
Where Van Vechten's misunderstanding of the Harlem Renaissance is most prevalent are his descriptions of jazz music, jazz clubs and the people that attend them. In the very first part of the novel we are introduced to Anatole Longfellow, nicknamed the Scarlett Creeper, who is a pimp from the South (Van Vechten, 2000, pp.1). Anatole represents a lot of the fears contemporary readers had with the Great Migration, that African American criminals would descend to the booming metropolises and threaten the "social and cultural components of 'the American way of life'" (Jaret, 1999, pp.20). The fact that he is a pimp makes him even more frightful, because he is making money off the sexual exploitation of women in a time where they were becoming more active in society and politics. Women won the right to vote in America in 1919 and the New Woman movement had started, where they demand the same economic and political rights as men (Freedman, 1974, pp. 373). Van Vechten is furthering the juxtaposition of white and African American characters in American literature by having Africanist characters represent the dangers of this new society with liberated women. Anatole is a predator who is willing to exploit women for his own material gain, and due to the popular belief of women being innocent and unknowing in the world, then white women will become easy prey for people like him.
Kathleen Drowne, English professor at the University of Missouri S&T, theorises that "Van Vechten’s intentions appear to have been far broader than merely to depict the goings-on in the speakeasies and cabarets of Jazz Age Harlem, for his story addresses such important issues as white racism, race loyalty and interracial colour prejudice” (Drowne, 2005, pp.121). What Drowne ignores here is that Van Vechten is supporting white prejudices about the African American community, himself having a reputation amongst white Americans as being an expert in African American culture due to his position in The Times as a critic and having significant influence in publicising of African American art (Shaw, 2009, pp.22). Where Van Vechten can be seen as doing the most damage to African American art are his presentations of jazz: "they descended the stairs to the basement. As they walked down the long hallway which led to the dance-floor, the sensual blare of jazz, slow wailing jazz, stroked their ears" (Van Vechten, 2000, pp.12). Drowne attributes this to "highlighting the side of Harlem life that consistently defied government-mandated temperance" (Drowne, 2005, pp.121). However, this lacks a closer reading of Van Vechten's prose.
Figure 3: E. McKnight Kauffer's illustration of the Scarlet Creeper in N***** Heaven.
Van Vechten states they “descended the stairs to the basement”, a subterranean descent that is suggestive of a fall into Hell (Van Vechten, 2000, pp.12). He also adds to the Hellish environment he is creating “couples were dancing in such close proximity that their bodies melted together as they swayed and rocked to the tormented howling of the brass, the barbaric beating of the drum” (Van Vechten, 2000, pp.12). In such a way, he depicts a setting of carnal lust by highlighting “bodies melted together,” implying close intimate contact, something that contemporary society would greatly disagree with. Nevertheless, it matches the morality of the setting the characters are in because of prohibition and the illegal sale of alcohol. Van Vechten makes the scene more infernal by creating an atmosphere of dread: “howling of the brass, the barbaric beating of the drum”. The “howling” produces images of a wolf and the heart chilling noise they make, which combined with the plosive alliteration of “brass… barbaric beating,” constructs an intimidating feel to the scene. The author likens the speakeasy to Hell, through writing a scene filled with carnal lust and dread that also reflects what a lot of American society believes these places to be. The banning of the production and sale of alcohol meant the speakeasy was closely associated immorality — the speakeasy was common in neighbourhoods like Harlem, so by depicting them as immoral and racialising them as African American, Van Vechten’s description only serves to detriment African Americans and their culture.
Figure 4: E. McKnight Kauffer's illustration of a dancer performing at the Winter Palace (a jazz club in the novel).
This is not the only time that Van Vechten likens a jazz club to Hell. Whilst Byron, one of the protagonists of the novel and a failed writer, is on a cocaine and alcohol infused binge with disgraced socialite Lasca Sartoris, she instructs the driver of their cab to “drive to hell” (Van Vechten, 2000, pp.252). Van Vechten adds: “An invisible band, silent at the moment they had entered this deserted room, now began to perform wild music, music that moaned and lacerated one’s breast with brazen claws of tone, shrieking, tortured music from the depths of hell. And now the hall became peopled, as dancers slipped through the folds of the hangings, men and women with weary faces, faces tired of passion and pleasure. Were these the faces of dead prostitutes and murderers? Pleasure seekers from the cold slabs of the morgue?” (Van Vechten, 2000, pp.254). Once again, the author creates an intimidating tone in the scene, describing the music as “shrieking” and “tortured”, so furthering the Hellish imagery, “shrieking” would be the sound of the damned souls and “tortured” being the punishment. Van Vechten juxtaposes the reaction of the dancers to the sounds and sights of the dance hall, “faces tired from passion and pleasure,” which implies a sadomasochistic enjoyment of the environment. Deriving from the description of the faces, “were these the faces of dead prostitutes and murderers?”, he was highlighting the immorality in the club. This is harmful as these are two groups of people that 1920s American society would deem to be amongst the most depraved.
What makes Van Vechten’s descriptions of Harlem nightlife so problematic is the way the book was marketed, as to peak the interest of the white American reader who was interested in up-town life. An advertisement in The New Yorker asked directly: “why go to Harlem when you can read ‘N***** Heaven’?" (Sanneh, 2014). With these Hellish descriptions of clubs and jazz music, it would confirm the readers' prejudice against African American music and culture, because of the lustful decadent descriptions of these clubs, and attending the ways he describes the music, this would only alienate the white American reader from African Americans more.
Figure 5: A jazz band by Miguel Covarrubias including famous blues performer W.C Handy
In a final analysis, when applying Morrison’s hypothesis of there being an Africanist presence in white American literature to highlight white American superiority, it deepens the inherently negative nature of the novel. Carl Van Vechten uses an Africanist culture to present African American idiosyncrasy as immoral when compared to white American's, and it helps spotlight the perceived morality of white Americans. The depiction of the Scarlet Creeper as a pimp from the Southern states serves to play on white American fears about the Great Migration, the movement African Americans from the Southern states to Northern cities, and additionally his profession of being a pimp, preying and exploiting vulnerable women, coincided with the New Woman movement, where white American men feared that white women could be taken advantage of by people like this. When analysing Van Vechten’s portrayal of Jazz in the novel, it seems to only serve to validate white stereotypes about jazz. Each club is described as being Hellish and rife with immorality, for what Van Vechten creates a tone of terror with the way he describes the music: “wild music, music that moaned and lacerated one's breast” (Van Vechten, 2000, pp.254). Overall, Van Vechten uses Jazz as an Africanist presence in the novel as almost an attempt to warn white Americans of the immorality to be found in African American culture. By using one of the most significant cultural elements of the Harlem Renaissance as a weapon against African Americans, it only serves to alienate white Americans and display the morality of white culture over African American culture.
Bernard, E. (2012). Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White. Yale University Press.
Drowne, K. M. (2005). Spirits of defiance: National prohibition and jazz age literature, 1920-1933. Ohio State University Press.
Freedman, E. B. (1974). The new woman: Changing views of women in the 1920s. The Journal of American History, 61(2), 372-393.
Jaret, Charles. “Troubled by Newcomers: Anti-Immigrant Attitudes and Action during Two Eras of Mass Immigration to the United States.” Journal of American Ethnic History 18, no. 3 (1999): 9–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27502448.
Morrison, T. (2007). Playing in the Dark. Vintage.
Pfeiffer, K. (2000). Introduction to N***** Heaven. Cambridge University Press.
Sanneh, K. (2014, February 10). White Mischief. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/17/white-mischief-2
Shaw, P. (2009). Jean Toomer and Carl Van Vechten: Identity, Exploitation, and the Harlem Renaissance (Doctoral dissertation, University of Denver).
The Smitsonian, A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance. (n.d.). National Museum of African American History and Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance
Van Vechten, C. (2000). N***** heaven. University of Illinois Press.
Worth, R. F. (1995). N***** Heaven and the Harlem Renaissance. African American Review, 29(3), 461-473.
Cover Image: (c.1930). The Cotton Club [Photograph]. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Harlem-Renaissance-American-literature-and-art/images-videos
Figure 1: Motley, A. (1934). Barbecue [Oil on canvas]. Amon Carter Museum of Art. https://www.cartermuseum.org/exhibitions/archibald-motley-jazz-age-modernist
Figure 2: Van Vechten, C. (1934). Self-Portrait of Carl Van Vechten [Photograph]. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Van_Vechten#/media/File:Self-Portrait_of_Carl_Van_Vechten_Crisco_edit.jpg
Figure 3: McKnight Kauffer, E. (1931). The Scarlet Creeper from N***** Heaven [Illustration]. MoMA. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/85914
Figure 4: McKnight Kauffer, E. (1931). At the Winter Palace from N***** Heaven [Illustration].
Figure 5: Covarrubias, M. (1926). A Jazz Band [Painting]. The Syncopated Times. https://syncopatedtimes.com/the-harlem-renaissance/