For more that two decades, author Emily Bernard has been fascinated by Carl Van Vechten, a white man who played a seminal — and controversial — role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.
She was in turns appalled by Vechten's air of entitlement, amused by some of his provocations and moved by his devotion to individual artists. (For instance, Van Vechten lobbied authorities to erect a nude, anatomically correct statue in New York's Central Park of the African-American activist James Weldon Johnson. That would be a hard sell today, let alone in the 1940s, but Bernard was touched that he made the effort.)
Bernard has written two books about Van Vechten, the most recent of which is "Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White."
Her book doesn't attempt to be a definitive biography of a man who was the first major U.S. critic of modern dance, became a noted portrait photographer of prominent African-American leaders, and was Gertrude Stein's literary executor. Instead, Bernard has fashioned an account of what she describes as Van Vechten's "black life."
She's less interested in Van Vechten's 50-year marriage and his three long-term gay affairs than with his fraught and friendly relations with such African-American luminaries as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Zora Neale Hurston.
Bernard, an associate professor of English at the University of Vermont, will read from her book Tuesday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Tell us about your first encounter with Carl Van Vechten and his writing.
In my junior year at Yale, I decided to write about Van Vechten's notorious 1926 novel for a literary history class. [Bernard then named the novel, which contains a racial slur that cannot be printed in this newspaper.]
I'd never encountered anything like this — a white man writing a novel that was supposedly sympathetic to black people, but with this title. For me, this crystallizes so many anxieties in our society about race and language, and who gets to tell what story.
Has the nature of the controversy changed in the past 90 years?
It's obviously true that we make up race in every generation. It was a completely different experience legally and culturally and socially to be black in the 1920s than it is to be black in the 21st century.
Today, we talk about color-blindness and living in a post-racial society, and of course that is a fantasy. Since the last presidential election, people have been amazed at how desperately important and violently meaningful these racial stratifications are.
Why do you think Van Vechten chose such a loaded title?
He said he was using the word ironically. But it was an exercise of arrogance on Van Vechten's part, a kind of willful cultural ignorance. It's shocking that he didn't realize how unmoored some people would become. W.E.B. Du Bois said the title was "an affront to the hospitality of black folk." That response really unnerved him, and I think he came to regret the title late in life.
The controversy apparently didn't sour you permanently on Van Vechten.
He was a white man with a passion for blackness. To me, it's just such a relief to read and write about a person who wasn't afraid to talk about race out loud. He found African-American culture meaningful and glorious and pleasurable and intriguing at a time when not a lot of white people were taking that point of view.
For him to delight in blackness, even in the ways that were really kind of pushing it and that made people uncomfortable, is liberating for me.
You write that some major artists might have had less successful careers if it hadn't been for Van Vechten's help. He introduced Langston Hughes to the editor who published his first book, arranged for Paul Robeson's debut professional concert and championed Ethel Waters.
He catapulted many careers. If he hadn't created his archives at Yale, my own career would be very different than what it is today.
But, he had a very stubborn and definite idea about what black culture is. He had a very pragmatic vision, and it was that black artists should exploit their cultural birthrights. He said, "Look, you should sing spirituals, because this is the kind of thing that white people want to buy right now. You can make money and advance your career by taking advantage of their desire for blackness."
That of course can come at the cost of artistic integrity. Why should black people define themselves by what white people want? How much his attitude helped people move forward with their careers and how much it represented a source of pain for black people is a very knotty question.
But over time, his ideas about race really expanded.