The 1920s marked a turning point for conceptions of art and culture in Northern America. After years of slavery, alienation and ill-treatment, the African-American community began a phase of rebellion and emancipation, through the affirmation of their culture, music, literature and art. Into this moment came the white dance and music critic turned renowned novelist, Carl Van Vechten, with his controversially-titled 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven.
The rebellious novel describes the difficult love story between two young people, a librarian, Mary Love, and a writer, Byron Kasson, who see their dreams limited because of the ideology and racist restrictions dominant in those years. The intelligent yet cold and emotionally-detached Love, is a member of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library and after meeting writer Kasson, she rediscovers her wild and savage sexual nature, but their love story fails and is slowly suffocated by racism.
Subject matter aside within the content of the book, the title of the novel caused much uproar when published, with even Van Vechten’s elderly father advising him against it, despite having brought his son up without racial prejudice. Many who had not read it denounced it, others reviewed scathingly, scores protested vigorously, while some did indeed defend the book, which in time became a bestseller. Indeed, the symbolism of the word “Nigger” in the title did not pass by Van Vechten without notice. On page 26 of the novel, in a footnote, he writes “while this informal epithet is freely used by Negroes among themselves, not only as a term of opprobrium, but also actually as a term of endearment, its employment by a white person is always fiercely resented.”
This recognition of the word could still apply to the modern language of race, although what made it more pertinent for Van Vechten to have said was the fact that he was writing during a period in which the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ movement had developed. It was a ‘renaissance’ that took place between the ‘black walls’ of Harlem, the African-American ghetto located at the gates of the rich and white Manhattan.
Through the voice of its supporters, the culture that had always characterised these black populations became widespread. Up until that moment, it had remained silent thanks to political and social restrictions, and most notably, the slave trade. This voice was determined to expand into the rest of the world, exploding first in a vibrant cultural firework through the streets of the black neighbourhood.
Elite American big shots and regulars of bourgeois salons in the rich ‘Big Apple’ began to gain interest in the hidden cultural waves in the black undercurrent of the city. Many were enraptured by the liveliness and energy of the nightlife, from jazz evenings to social drinking encounters. Here, a mixing period between races began, leading various white artists to fall in love with the new artistic movement and seek to find ways of getting involved.
Van Vechten was just one of them. Born in the small town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he moved to noisy New York City during 1906, and through his studies, became a passionate expert of literature, theatre and photography. His passion for the African American culture was powered by his assiduous presence in jazz clubs, where the tribal spirit mingled with the nuances of the growing metropolis.
His admiration for the new art brought the white writer to describe his point of view through his novel, which ultimately became the source of scandal and curiosity. Scandal, which derived not only from the fact that a white man was writing about African art and culture of the time, but mostly due to its title. Historically, it was more than just provocative words though. It held cultural resonance.
“Nigger Heaven” was the term used to indicate the position of the black audience during theatre performances: they were restricted to the highest balconies to avoid mixing with the whites.
The scandalous aura that characterises the novel was not due to title alone, but also caused by the intense description of Harlem's street style. Van Vechten provided his reader with a real and honest representation of the nightlife's madness, where upper-class elites discussed art in well-appointed drawing rooms, mad and lascivious drunks spent long nights in jazz clubs and young intellectuals drank coffee debating "the race problem" in walk-up apartments.
The author gave us a full picture of reality: he didn’t just concentrate his attention on folklore aspects, but he also showed the real tribal nature of this part of the population, with all its passion, jealousy and possessive feelings thrown in the mix too. Both a product and reflection of the dynamic time in which it was written, Nigger Heaven was alongside Van Vechten’s photographic works, one of the best representations of the moment where the black rebellion began to dance to the rhythm of New York jazz.
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Words: Giulia Catani
Artwork: J. Motley Jr., Street Scene, Chicago, 1936.