Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten

1880-1964 / Patron, photographer, novelist, journalist

The Fire in the Flint—a novel by civil-rights activist Walter White—piqued white journalist Carl Van Vechten's interest in African-American art and life. He began to frequent jazz and blues clubs in Harlem, promote the work of black artists and performers, and invite Harlem literati to visit his lavish Manhattan apartment.

In an age when segregation kept people of differing skin colors apart, Van Vechten's mixed-race parties became the talk of the town. They often featured readings by James Weldon Johnson and Countee Cullen, or performances by Bill Robinson and Paul Robeson.

Van Vechten's intimate knowledge of Harlem nightlife inspired him to write Nigger Heaven, a controversial novel that blew the lid off the seamier side of the black neighborhood. The novel became a best-seller and won plaudits from Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Many others, however (W. E. B. Du Bois and Countee Cullen among them) denounced the book as a vulgar, manipulative depiction—not so much a portrayal as a betrayal.

Still, there can be no doubt that Van Vechten promoted race consciousness. He used his influence in the publishing world to help Zora Neale Hurston get her work printed. He hand-delivered Langston Hughes' first poetry manuscript, The Weary Blues, to the publisher who ultimately decided to print it up. He donated money to the black-owned literary magazines Opportunity and Fire!!.

From his unique post at the intersection of Harlem and Manhattan, Van Vechten enjoyed privileged access to large and interlocking circles of friends—luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude Stein. Many of these he captured on film: Van Vechten created more than 15,000 photographic images in his lifetime, compiling a priceless historical archive that also happens to document his fascination with black culture. Posing black subjects before bold backdrops, Van Vechten shot them as he saw them—simultaneously dignified and exotic.