Date of Award
Master of Arts
Candis LaPrade, Ph.D.
Martha E. Cook, Ph.D.
Kathleen T. Flanagan, Ph.D.
Carl Van Vechten became a predominant figure within Harlem Renaissance literary circles because of his patronage of black artists and his 1926 novel Nigger Heaven. The novel depicts scenes of cabarets and Harlem night life, emphasizing themes of racial prejudice and the struggle for identity in the black culture. Van Vechten's fictional portrayal of Harlem received mixed reviews--to say the least. Many black authors and critics aligned themselves with W.E.B. Du Bois and lambasted the bawdy scenes and racially derogatory title. Others, including James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, defended Van Vechten' s astute observations of Harlem and his skillful crafting of real, believable black characters.
Van Vechten's characters reveal the conflict that raged during the Harlem Renaissance concerning black identity. Essays such as Alain Locke's "The New Negro" and William Stanley Braithwaite's "The Negro in American Literature" brought to the forefront the dilemma the black culture faced in defining a truly African American identity. On one hand, some black authors believed that identifying strongly with the African past, a movement that came to be known as Primitivism, provided the most ideal means for constructing an authentic identity. On the other hand, many other writers insisted that the connection to the primitive only reinforced the noble savage stereotype of the African American. In their view, focusing on this identity would impede racial progress. Many critics believed that Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven reinforced such a degrading stereotype, and that he was white exacerbated their outrage.
Rather than shattering the African American identity, Van Vechten's novel creates characters that dramatize the struggle of African Americans to forge a new identity. His savage princess, Lasca Sartoris, illustrates the necessity of a strong connection to the African past and the folk tradition whereas Mary Love, a struggling middle-class intellectual, shows the repulsion many artists felt towards what was considered the lower stratum of Negro life. And Byron Kasson, the male protagonist, wavers somewhere in between the two extremes, grappling with a divided self and attempting to determine where the true African American identity lies. Close examination of the actions and motives of the characters of Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven reveals the struggle of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance to define an authentic black identity. The characters dramatize the need to discover whether embracing or discarding the African past best helped to define African Americans in the 1920's.
The introduction of this study presents Van Vechten as a patron of the arts, discusses the critical reception of Nigger Heaven, introduces the conflict over black identity and Primitivism, and highlights the major spokespersons in this conflict. Chapter One explains the Primitivism movement and provides examples and critical perspectives on the two sides of the argument. Chapters Two through Four analyze the characters that dramatize this argument, beginning with Lasca in Chapter Two, Mary in Three, and Byron in Four. The conclusion synthesizes the ideas of Primitivism, characterization in Nigger Heaven, and the struggle for identity and provides closing arguments for the study.
Simone, Michelle Lynn, "Exploring African American Identity in Harlem: Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven" (1997). Theses, Dissertations & Honors Papers. 337.