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Interview: Emily Bernard on 'The Riddle of Race'

“Black people have more rhythm,” associate professor of English Emily Bernard declares in a class full of white students and there’s a collective no-you-didn’t say that sort of reaction. She’s sparring with a student who’s arguing that to talk about a uniquely black culture is to lean into limited, perhaps dangerous, territory. Bernard, in fact, agrees. She’s being deliberately provocative. But does she find joy and beauty – and, yes, rhythm in blackness? Can she say so? Could she if she were white?

One thing is certain, Carl Van Vechten, the controversial white figure consuming much of Bernard’s scholarly interest, beginning with her senior thesis at Yale, said all that and a lot more, reveling in blackness and insinuating himself in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance.

Van Vechten was a multidimensional character – arts critic for the New York Times, journalist, photographer, married and gay, among the cultured elite who gave the best parties. But in her new book, Carl Van Vechten & The Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black & White, Bernard focuses on “his black life,” one that surprisingly begins with his childhood in Iowa. Born in 1880, his progressive parents insisted he use “Mr.” and “Mrs.” with the last names of their black household help, impressing on the young Van Vechten their essential humanity – and position as his elders.

His nightclub days in Harlem took him a long way from Cedar Rapids, but something, a template, Bernard allows, was instilled that gave Van Vechten a unique perspective on blacks. First learning to see them, he started seeking their company, launching their careers. He was a forward-thinking force, insisting in the pages of Vanity Fair that “black music” – spirituals, ragtime, blues, and jazz – was the only authentic American music.

He also authored the “audaciously titled” novel Nigger Heaven, a large and lingering smoking gun in his enduring career as a figure of controversy. His fifth novel, it was a bestseller that “made a mint,” and had major supporters, white and black, among them, his longtime friend, Langston Hughes, who argued for artistic freedom. But the book also sparked inevitable outrage from the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois and Van Vechten’s father, who begged him not to use the title.

“He was very troubled with the reception of Nigger Heaven,” says Bernard, “and that was part of his own naïveté and stubbornness.” With the book he was trying, it seems, to both establish his bona fides with blacks and demonstrate to his throngs of white readers that artistic, literary blacks exist.

However one spins it, Van Vechten made an indelible mark on the Harlem Renaissance. According to Bernard, as a scholar, wherever you come down, you can’t teach the time without confronting the man. UVM Today talked with her about her long relationship with Van Vechten, her motivations for the book and what makes, as she’s termed it, the riddle of race so ineffable.

UVM Today: You wanted to write “a tale about the messy realities of race, and the complicated tangle of black and white” and that you did. What do you want us to learn from this?

Emily Bernard: There was so much excitement in many of these characters, set against this stern, serious, forbidding camp (embodied by Du Bois, who felt black artists should focus their work on uplifting the race) and they were right in some very important ways. I don’t mean to be dismissive at all. I mean to straddle the line and to raise questions. But I feel most aligned with people like (novelist) Nella Larsen and (musician) Nora Holt, the women in the book, (acclaimed performer) Ethel Waters – they just really enjoyed Van Vechten and the complexities and the antipathy that he occasioned among the conservative, literary, cultural set.

So that’s where I naturally fell in the way I approached the book. I didn’t want to make a yes or no argument. I was fascinated and intrigued by all the layers of disturbance that Van Vechten can cause. He was a passionate lover of blackness. There’s a joyful aspect to this difference and I think that’s missing from the sterile way we talk about race today. It’s not the only way we should talk about it because there are serious things to contend with – racism. But black culture is amazing. It’s rich and powerful and he appreciated that. I find it very refreshing, very inspiring, a real refuge in thinking about the culture.

In the book you write that Van Vechten “believed that black and white people were different. He also believed they were alike. Essential contradiction describes him and may be implicit in enduring debates of black art.” Can you talk about those debates?

When we talk about black art I’m trying to distinguish it from something else, it’s its own thing. But when we try to define blackness we lean over into dangerous territory, limiting what blackness is, saying it’s only that thing. And that I think is a really fragile line we travel. When do we give black artists permission to become something else – (to write about topics that aren’t black and not be shelved with African American literature)? I have to compromise in some ways my personal feelings about this because we want to celebrate black artists and what they’re doing, but again what is black art and what makes it different? There’s integrity to black art, to celebrating race and distinguishing it from whiteness.

But Du Bois said there is no distinction and to insist on one is to lean over into racism. This is what we’ve been fighting for since the era of slavery. If you think about there being any kind of scientific, cultural difference between black and white people that’s part of a dangerous way of thinking in terms of history, it sort of justifies slavery – black and white people are different so they don’t belong together, the three-fifths human thing. So it’s important politically to people like Du Bois. Van Vechten, too, in some of his critical essays, says in essence: there’s no difference between black and white people, I get that, but I love black culture and there’s a true black way of performing and entertaining that I love. It’s hard to traffic in this whole thing without contradicting yourself. But as I tell my students, this is an African American studies class, if you don’t believe in race why are you here?

Van Vechten is a complicated character. He was appropriating black culture in a way that many find offensive, yet he was unlike the whites who came to Harlem for entertainment, indulging their boredom and desire for the exotic, while keeping Jim Crow intact – the audience at The Cotton Club was white only, right? How does he differ in his patronage?

There’s one essay that inspired me called, “Did Van Vechten Make or Take Hughes' Blues?” Which I thought was great – as either/or, which I don’t believe in but many people do. And so did he make or take? Black culture has been thriving since there were black people in this country, so it would have happened anyway. It may have taken different form. I think it’s impossible for us to imagine that somebody like Lanston Hughes wouldn’t have found an audience, right?

The economic underpinnings of the Harlem renaissance was from white money, we have to remember that, and to have a thriving black scene uptown which made money for black clubs, which kept greasing the wheels of the Harlem Renaissance, you needed white money and that meant you had to make concessions to Jim Crow. There were so few clubs where you could just go and be yourself (if you were black) – and Van Vechten liked to go to the black spots, the little hidden, dusky juke joints. He was exceptional. It’s not important what I think, but look at the black artists. We respect Hurston, Hughes, Ethel Waters, Nora Holt, James Weldon Johnson as this kind of elite. They saw him as exceptional. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t have critiques of him behind closed doors, but they saw him as exceptional. On what grounds? Personally, they just liked him. Nora Holt and he were just simpatico. They were friends. And in a subtle way, black writers put Van Vechten in a secondary position. 

A lot of people say blacks were manipulated by him. Well then you take away their agency and you decide they’re just puppets. That’s really offensive to me. They had complicated reasons for affiliating themselves with him. So let’s hear from them. They saw that what he was doing was useful and funny and they used him as a platform to make their own arguments about race. I love the mystery of human connections, and that’s also there and those are the stories I wanted to paint.

I tell my students, racism is not a state of being, it’s a set of behaviors. It’s about action. In some ways, does it matter how you feel? Well how you feel doesn’t necessarily translate into action. If I had a choice to make, I would rather see antiracist action than passive antiracist sentiment. Whether or not he was racist is not a meaningful question to me. If you are Carl Van Vechten you have an imprimatur. You understand that to associate your name with a black artist is to inspire crossover appeal and help her make a living, and that’s what you want wherever it comes from. I’m not trying to excuse him from any of the complicated ways that we think about racism. (The book) is not trying to be an apologia for him, but it’s trying to keep the complexities alive.

You can write political tracts about what people should do to uplift blacks and treat them fairly, but I think what he did was more meaningful. He used his social clout to introduce black artists to moneyed white people. He had these parties where you could make connections. A few cocktails, and suddenly bonds are formed. Your career could be changed. You suddenly went from being a porter to somebody who could actually make art.

At a time when black and white social interactions were determined by Jim Crow, for Van Vechten to have parties that were interracial was a tiny bit short of revolutionary. He would invite his black friends to these hoity-toity white restaurants and say, ‘I dare you.’ He was very aggressive in his personality, he didn’t back down, he would confront anybody about it. He understood his social power and used it in public to make white people uncomfortable. So that was meaningful for me to write about. Was it for his personal pleasure? Yes. Does the intention matter? There are results. And I think that’s just as important as intention if not more so.

You love Van Vechten.

I’m passionate about him. I think he’s hilarious – those raunchy moments in the third chapter when he said to Walter White, ‘Do I have to get lynched to get your attention?’ I just crack up!

He gloried in difference. He is a relief to me because he was unafraid to bring these issues up that are so tender in our culture and even more than glorifying – celebrating difference. Again, we talk about blackness, about whiteness. This is how we live our lives. We have to be honest about that. And I wanted to do something new, to come up with a different way to talk about this.