Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

By Victor A. Kramer; Robert A. Russ | Go to book overview

CRAB ANTICS AND JACOB'S LADDER:
AARON DOUGLAS'S TWO VIEWS OF NIGGER HEAVEN

CHARLES SCRUGGS

As those of us interested in the Harlem Renaissance know, Carl Van Vechten best-selling Nigger Heaven ( 1926) caused a furor of controversy in its own time. 1 Today the furor has died down but not the controversy, the charges against Nigger Heaven are still alive. The novel is sensational; it extols "primitivism"; 2 and its influence was pernicious, turning an authentic literary movement into a sideshow for rich, irresponsible white folk. 3 Van Vechten has his modern defenders, 4 but no one has answered Nathan Huggins's indictment of the novel: "What is missing . . . is a clear moral or intellectual perspective that might engage the reader in the dramatic issues of Negro life." 5 In my opinion, "primitivism" has been the red herring that has prevented Huggins and others 6 from seeing that at the center of Nigger Heaven is "a clear moral [and] intellectual perspective" that engages "the reader in the dramatic issues of Negro life."

I want to argue that the best critic of Van Vechten's novel is not a literary critic but a black artist who was commissioned by Alfred Knopf ( Van Vechten's publisher) to illustrate the advertisements for Nigger Heaven. Aaron Douglas did two drawings (now housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University); one was to appear in journals read mainly by whites, the other in journals read almost exclusively by blacks. Although each illustration makes its appeal to a different audience, neither one deals with "primitivism" as a theme in the novel, 7 and yet each presents a distinct view of Nigger Heaven. As Douglas himself would write to Van Vechten immediately after the novel's publication, "you have . . . pointed the way very clearly and definitely to young writers of color." 8 I would also add that Douglas's drawings point "very clearly and definitely" to the craftsmanship and thematic complexity of Nigger Heaven, and that the "young

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