We tend to think of jazz as the center of the Harlem Renaissance, but music was only a small part.
In the great migration between the wars, when blacks fled poverty and racial violence in the South, a wealth of organizations sprang to life to foster social and political progress. The publishing industry took a lead role, and Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) was the impetus that fostered the talents of so many, helping provide a voice to offset long-held stereotypes. Already a published author and close friend of the Knopfs, Van Vechten became a conduit for works of the men and women he met in Harlem, at his well-attended parties and through his work as a dance, theater and music critic. Indeed, Knopf came to rely almost exclusively on Van Vechten’s judgment of works submitted to them. Bernard (English and Ethnic Studies/Univ. of Vermont; Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships, 2005, etc.), who has devoted years to the study of the Harlem Renaissance, delivers a semester’s worth of knowledge in a smooth, edifying narrative. The available documents and well-preserved correspondence in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University provided the author information for volumes of work on Van Vechten and the Renaissance he promoted. Bernard’s subject helped establish that collection and donated all his correspondence to it while he encouraged his friends to do the same. His own work, Nigger Heaven (1925), was a bestseller and drew both raves and rants. Some referred to it as a black book written by a white man, while others saw it as an illustration of the power of language in the relation between race and art.
The development of literature by and about African-Americans owes its birth to Van Vechten, and Bernard ably brings him to life.