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Carl Van Vechten - NIGGER HEAVEN

1 rating: 4.0
1926 Classic Harlem Renaissance Novel. Showed the brilliant intellectual and artistic life of Harlem.
1 review about Carl Van Vechten - NIGGER HEAVEN

Van Vechten considered calling his novel THE GREAT BLACK WALLED CITY, WHITE TAR or REST YO COAT

  • Nov 10, 2010

In 1926 white novelist, literary critic and future photographer Carl Van Vechten considered calling his new book THE GREAT BLACK WALLED CITY, WHITE TAR or REST YO COAT. Instead, he cited the fresh off the press (1926) FOLK BELIEFS OF THE SOUTHERN NEGRO and called his blockbuster novel NIGGER HEAVEN.  ***   


Not everyone liked the book. Everyone, it seemed, wished Van Vechten had used another title. The scholarly passage he used to justify his choice reads: 


"Nigger Heaven is an American slang expression for the topmost gallery of a theatre, so called because in certain of the United States, Negroes are arbitrarily forced to sit in these cheap seats.  ... The geographical position of Harlem, the Negro quarter of New York, corresponds to the location of the gallery in a theatre" (Introduction by Professor Kathleen Pfeiffer, University of Illinois Press edition, 2000).   ***   


I was born in Mississippi in 1935, grew up in Louisiana and Texas during the hey-day of racial segregation. Our two sons were never conscious of segregation. Our eight grandchildren can barely believe that it ever happened. For the life of me, however, I do not recall hearing the expression "Nigger Heaven," though I do recall black people having to sit in the back of buses, drink from segregated water fountains and being forced way, way back in theater balconies. Our Catholic Church in Shreveport was considered very brave for  marking one pew in the back "Reserved For Colored." At the time it was illegal in Louisiana for blacks and whites to worship in one church, or so I was told.   ***   


In the 1920s, American Negroes made up important pockets in Chicago, Detroit and, notably, in Manhattan's Harlem. Many white Americans like Carl Van Vechten and H. L. Mencken became mesmerized by all things black: jazz, temperamental gaiety, cabarets, Spirituals, voodoo and on and on. And Harlem is where they went. Van Vechten was introduced to elites there by NAACP leader and novelist Walter White. He got drunk in Harlem cabarets. Experts say that Carl Van Vechten accurately presents much of the then Harlem scene.   ***   


NIGGER HEAVEN is about two light-brown young adult Negroes: Mary Love and Byron Kasson. Neither looks African. Each could "pass" for aryan or possibly Hispanic. Neither chooses to, though 8,000 New York Negroes are already living white lives. In the process, the "passers" or "new pinks" acquire better jobs, their children go to better schools, they become the envy of darker-skinned Americans. Byron has just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and is a wannabe writer. He had to leave Philadelphia in a hurry, after an irate white husband found him having an affair with his wife. Mary is a prim librarian, detached, afraid to be touched by a man. Early on she turns down a marriage proposal from Randolph Pettijohn. Ran had made his money selling hotdogs, then moved into numbers and ownership of a jumping Harlem nightclub. He is rich, counts as a good man in Harlem society and loves Mary. But she wants someone more educated.   ***   


That image is fulfilled perfectly by Byron. By their third meeting, Mary loves Byron with an undying love. He finds her okay but falls for an older, passionate light brown rich woman just back for Paris, Lasca Sartoris. The novel does not end well for either Mary or Byron, especially Byron. But before it does, the reader moves deep inside the dialect and values of 1920s Harlem, a part of Manhattan described as both "Nigger Heaven" by its residents and "Mecca of the New Negro" by rising black intellectuals. Not at all a bad read.   -OOO-

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