“Second-Hand Soul Clothes”: The [black] Life of Carl Van Vechten

Carl Van Vechten
I’VE JUST stepped out of the spell of Emily Bernard’s new book, Carl Van Vechten & The Harlem Renaissance I’m reviewing it for the L.A. Times and the piece runs on Sunday, but I’ve been telling people already about the book and the complicated structure that Bernard constructs that tells his story, connected to her own.

I’d begun to associate the name Van Vechten with the Harlem Renaissance through his photographs — it would appear in thin, microscopic font in the photo credit in history books or on the back of postcards of literary luminaries I admired and scotch-taped above my writing desk. Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen — and then later, James Baldwin and then some.

I didn’t realize truly how instrumental his role was — as not just patron, urging publishers to bring out the work the Harlem set, but as catalyst. He became a lightening rod. His interest in and proximity to (and liberties he’d taken with) black culture stirred up debate that has reverberated for decades.

Bernard has set to writing about what she terms Van Vechten’s “black” life, his years in and out of clubs, theaters, dining rooms, with New York’s black intelligentsia — jazz musicians, poets, novelists and critics. Her writing is elegant and she is an absorbing storyteller. She takes on the tangle of race relations but even more so, the more elusive territory of language as it relates to race, class and privilege.

The quote in the heading above comes from an essay written by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of Van Vechten’s more vociferous detractors. Du Bois was wary of the role of patrons and how they might influence what a writer may or may not say:

Of Du Bois’ stance, Bernard writes:

He believed strongly that African American writing ought to serve as a vehicle for transformation of black social and political lives. There fore, black art must present black people in a manner that made obvious their respectability according to bourgeois norms. “We are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as second-hand soul clothes of white patrons,” he explained . . . . “In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.”

Ultimately, the presence of Van Vechten forced that conversation, but what happened on the way there is the rich territory of Bernard’s absorbing book.

photo: Carl Van Vechten, via Beinecke Library @ Yale

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