Carl Van Vechten was a white man with a passion for blackness who played a crucial role in helping the Harlem Renaissance, a black movement, come to understand itself. Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance is grounded in the dramas occasioned by the Harlem Renaissance, as it is called today, or New Negro Renaissance, as it was called in the 1920s, when it first came into being. Emily Bernard focuses on writing–the black and white of things–the articles, fiction, essays, and letters that Carl Van Vechten wrote to black people and about black culture, and the writing of the black people who wrote to and about him. Above all, she is interested in the interpersonal exchanges that inspired the writing, which are ultimately far more significant than the public records would suggest.
This book is a partial biography of a once controversial figure. It is not a comprehensive history of an entire life, but rather a chronicle of one of his lives, his black life, which began in his boyhood and thrived until his death. The narrative at the core of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance is not an attempt to answer the question of whether Van Vechten was good or bad for black people, or whether or not he hurt or helped black creative expression during the Harlem Renaissance. As Bernard writes, the book instead “enlarges that question into something much richer and more nuanced: a tale about the messy realities of race, and the complicated tangle of black and white.”