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
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.