a conversation with emily bernard      
emily bernard

  In your introduction, you say that the Harlem Renaissance wasn't a renaissance so much as another step in the continuous evolution of black arts and letters. Would you consider it the most spectacular, the most fertile period in this evolution? Did any trends emerge that constituted major departures from what came before, or since? Did white interest in black culture intensify during this period?

Like most cultural movements, the Harlem Renaissance came into being largely because of historical and social conditions that enabled it to flourish. The early years of the twentieth century were also the years of the Great Migration, when scores of blacks fled the racism and violence of the South in search of justice and the promise of jobs in the North. Between World War I and World War II, two million African-Americans had left the South. The concentration of blacks in cities like Detroit, Washington, D.C, Philadelphia, and Chicago--in addition to post-World War I economic prosperity--made the cultural blossomings that occurred in all of these cities possible.

Harlem had a unique claim on the black imagination because of the simultaneous and interconnected social revolutions that were happening all over New York, what with the Jazz Age, the agitation for women's voting rights, and various other political struggles that were finding sympathetic audiences.

For literary hopefuls, New York was crucial because it had recently become the center of American publishing. And Jewish publishers like the Knopfs were in a position, because of rampant anti-Semitism in the industry, to consider types of writing that fell outside of the mainstream, like new black writing. It was because of all of these things that a black Harlem Renaissance writer like Langston Hughes found himself publishing with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Personally, I am partial to the glamour, the drama, and the sense of hopefulness that were all essential parts of the Jazz Age, as well as the Harlem Renaissance specifically. But there were equally important and glorious movements that preceded it. Consider the nearly unbelieveable achievements of black writers who managed to compose narratives in the age of American slavery. Post-emancipation writing by Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins (among others) bears witness to the atrocities of Reconstruction, the forgotten promises, the enduring hope, and the unquenchable belief in justice, right over wrong, and the spirit of black people. And it's not until the Harlem Renaissance is more or less over and done that we hear the voices of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. When the Civil Rights era begins, black writers make the remarkable decision to actually forge an entirely new aesthetic. In part they make this choice as a way of rejecting the philosophies of the Harlem Renaissance. But the similarities in both of these movements is actually a fascinating story in itself.

This is not to deny the singular splendor of the Harlem Renaissance. But to call this movement the "most" important movement, more significant than any other, would be to say a table is better off without its legs. Which is to say, in the end, it's all of a piece, all part of a continuum.

White interest in and support of black culture has been a continuous feature OF black culture, since the time Phyllis Wheatley was first trotted out to recite her poetry to unbelieving white listeners until the present. The nagging, constant evidence of white influence is the very thing that led black intellectuals during the 1960s to reject not only white support and involvement, but white America in general. Black arts thinkers believed the only way to insure the freedom of black art from the white "gaze," if you will, was to come up with a new language, style of dress, and creative guidelines. Obviously, these ideas did not take hold in a dramatic way, although there are many artists out there who still believe that black art cannot happen within the white power structure.

During the Harlem Renaissance, post-War prosperity coupled with new radical philosophies (Freudianism, the idea of the New Woman, the flourishing of progressive political parties) generated an "anything is possible" attitude that led white capital to black art. But then came the Crash, and the lack of that same capital and the spirit that accompanied it had a devastating effect on black New York.

Virtually the entire book takes place after the publication of Nigger Heaven, which you point to in the introduction as having killed Van Vechten's career, at least where posterity is concerned. Does he ever address the fact that his career is in decline? Is he aware of it at all, or is it a subject he would never have brought up with Hughes?

Van Vechten was as observant as he was proud, so I think that he was deeply aware that his light was dimming, but the size of his ego, in addition to the nature of his relationship with Hughes--he seemed to enjoy his role as mentor, advisor to Hughes, and persisted well beyond the point when he was needed in that capacity, arguably speaking--would have prevented him from confiding in Hughes about his fears of obscurity. I believe Van Vechten was profoundly wounded when black readers, generally speaking, failed to take to Nigger Heaven. He always talked about it as his most serious novel; he felt he had captured something essential in his book about the black cultural world around him and several black friends felt he had, as well.

I don't think it's fair to say that Van Vechten's career fell into "decline" after Nigger Heaven, but it is significant that he took up other avenues for his creative and intellectual expression, and only wrote one more novel that even his wife thought was something of a disaster. After putting his novel-writing career to bed, Van Vechten became an ardent photographer and archivist, and continued to oversee the careers of friends like Gertrude Stein and Chester Himes. Van Vechten was greater and more important as a visionary than he was a novelist; all of his work with the exception of his novels attests to this fact. Unfortunately, the kind of "background" work at which Van Vechten was so skilled ensured the lasting fame of those he discovered and promoted, but not himself.

You clearly thought Van Vechten got the short end of the stick where his cultural contributions to facilitate black writers and artists are concerned. Should Van Vechten be remembered for his writing as well? What's his most outstanding piece of writing?

Some of Carl Van Vechten's journalism (collected in a book, Keep-A Inchin' Along, edited by Bruce Kellner) is absolutely prophetic. It's not just the fact that Van Vechten writes about the blues, spirituals, gospel, and Jazz at a time when NO white people are taking these art forms serious; and it's not just that by dint of the force of his charm, Van Vechten somehow manages to convince Frank Crowninshield, editor of the swank Vanity Fair, to publish his essays on this music; it's also what Van Vechten has to SAY about the music. His unique style of writing, his identification with the music AND the politics of its context, anticipates some of the great jazz criticism that would come out in the 1930s from John Hammond, Marshall Stearns, and George Frazier. These critics are indebted to Van Vechten, even though they tried to distance themselves from what they took to be (because of the Nigger Heaven controversy) his strange and possibily racist views. But they couldn't ignore Van Vechten if for no other reason than James Weldon Johnson quotes him as an authority on black music in his now-canonical preface to The Books of American Negro Spirituals.

Whenever I read Van Vechten's music criticism, I wonder what he might have produced had he chosen to stay with that medium. But it was in Van Vechten's nature to master something, and then move on, which is what he did in this instance, as well.

What is the particular fascination of the relationship between Hughes and Van Vechten? How is it unique among other "mentor"--or patron--relationships of writers and artists at the time, or among the correspondences between writers throughout history?

Certainly what distinguishes this relationship from many other fascinating patron-beneficiary relationships is race. Carl Van Vechten who fell in love with black culture at a time when African-Americans were in every way disenfranchised from American culture. Van Vechten was compelled to go against the grain and support black art, and his passion helped get black writers published, black art seen, and black music heard. He did all this without the kind of dispassionate intellectualism we associate with liberal "tolerance," but with the fervor of the convert. This is what makes his career as a supporter of black art so exciting to me, that he lived and breathed it without shame, detachment, or self-conciousness. The correspondence between Hughes and Van Vechten is even more significant when you think about the times. Remember, this was pre-desegregation. It was nearly illegal for blacks and whites to have anything save the most impersonal kinds of relationships. Blacks and whites were legally barred from congregating socially. There may have been a few places in Harlem that accepted black and white patrons, but as soon as whites began to populate these spots heavily, blacks were barred from their premises, or assigned to segregated seating.

During the 1920s and well into the 1950s in New York, black and white people could form relationships in only the most intimate of spaces: the private home, and the page. Letters provided one of the very few places for Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten to come together. Their correspondence has a special importance because it was one of the few sanctioned spaces for them to form a bond.

Did Hughes have the chance to give another writer help or advice when his own reputation became secure?

Langston Hughes was generosity personified. In fact, his magnanimousness sometimes worried Van Vechten, who knew very well how little Hughes typically had in the bank from month to month. So, yes, Hughes played a crucial role in the lives of younger writers, even before he was a household name. For instance, he was the person who engineered a meeting between Zora Neale Hurston and the notorious patron they would share, Charlotte Osgood Mason. Hughes was helpful to other contemporaries like Wallace Thurman and Arna Bontemps (in fact, his correspondence with Bontemps is a testament to Hughes' loyalty and generosity; he never misses an opportunity to inform Bontemps of a career opportunity that might be helpful to him). Gwendolyn Brooks remained indebted to Hughes until her death for his early support of her career. Nicolas Guillen, the Cuban poet, named Hughes as having had a profound impact on his poetic sensibility. Hughes was enthusiastic about Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, even though all three writers were sometimes contemptuous of him and what they considered his outdated aesthetic philosophy. Arnold Rampersad, Hughes's biographer, makes the point that, during his years of researching the book, he found almost no one who had an unkind word to say about Langston Hughes.

What was the source of Hughes's dissatisfaction with Columbia? Did he have a particular purpose in leaving the excitements of NYC to attend school at Lincoln during this period of ferment?

Hughes only spent one year at Columbia because the environment was unrelentingly racist, and his father's unpredictable financial assistance didn't help his situation any. But Columbia served one purpose that year; it got Hughes to Harlem, a place he had dreamed about. Hughes eventually graduated from the all-black, all-male Lincoln University, which is located in Pennsylvania.

What insights did you gain from these letters that another source could not provide? Are any subjects conspicuously avoided in these letters that a reader should know about?

As much as I enjoyed doing this book, I knew it would be impossible to reproduce for the reader the sense of excitement you get by encountering these letters as they are, handling Van Vechten's heavy, cream-colored stationery, unfolding Hughes's fragile telegrams, sorting through their numerous postcards, almost always sent as jokes, and comprising a very funny narrative in themselves.

When you read the letters as they appear in this book, you come to see that this was a friendship that was not bound by professional concerns, although surely that was part of what kept them bonded, but a relationship that encompassed all the aspects of a life: children born and friends and family members buried; numerous disappointments, betrayals, surprises. You read the information conveyed, but if you are attentive, you understand also the things they couldn't say to each other in letters, too.

--interview by Anson Lang
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    Photo credit: Samuel Winch