BRIAN LAMB, HOST:Emily Bernard, your book "Remember Me to Harlem" is about what?
Professor EMILY BERNARD, AUTHOR, "REMEMBER ME TO HARLEM" Well, the book is about the Harlem Renaissance, which was a cultural movement that took place in urban centers like New York and Philadelphia and Boston and Chicago during the 1920s. And that's what it is, sort of the--in the most general sense. But it's also really about a friendship between two men who were as different as they could be, but forged a bond that saw them through really their entire lives.
LAMB: Where is Harlem?
Prof. BERNARD: Harlem is in Manhattan. It's kind of Upper Manhattan. And Harlem has had a lot of different incarnations over the course of its lifetime. Before it became kind of the black Mecca, as it was called, during that period, it had claimed members of Dutch residence, German residence, Irish residence. So it's had a lot of different kinds of manifestations.
LAMB: What's it like today?
Prof. BERNARD: It still has a lot of the same kind of flavor as it did in the '20s. I mean, you can still go to the street called Striver's Row, which was the home to Harlem's elite. You can still see the magnificent architecture there, and it still claims a lot of sort of black luminaries. But of course, it's seen a lot of economic devastation since the sort of booming economy that made it flourish during the early '20s.
LAMB: If you buy your book, what do you get?
Prof. BERNARD: If you buy the book, you get not only a story, I think--an interesting story about the Harlem Renaissance that incorporates not only stories about the black figures who were so important to this period, but also a story about the interrelationships between not only black artists and writers, intellectuals, but white patrons as well. I think that's one of the stories about the Harlem Renaissance that's difficult to tell. You also get, I think, an interesting story in the footnotes of a lot of important but now forgotten figures who were incredibly exciting and vibrant during their times who've really just been written out of history.
LAMB: So we can get a kind of a feel for the people, we want to go through some of these photos.
Prof. BERNARD: All right.
LAMB: The first one is a twofer. Who is in this photo right there?
Prof. BERNARD: It's Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, taken by Richard Avedon in 1963. Avedon took a series of photographs of Hughes and Van Vechten that really inspired me a lot while I was working on the project. I knew that he had become interested in their friendship and their relationship in the late '50s and scheduled this session. So it was actually hard to pick one of them. There are many of them that are wonderful and funny and interesting that he took during that photo session.
LAMB: Who's this?
Prof. BERNARD: This is Alfred Knopf, who started his publishing house in 1915 and in 1916, I think, convinced Van Vechten to publish his first collection of essays with the house. And his house became crucial to the development of black literature during the '20s.
LAMB: Publishing your book today?
Prof. BERNARD: Absolutely, yes.
Prof. BERNARD: Yes.
LAMB: And this?
Prof. BERNARD: These are advertisements for "Nigger Heaven." And the first one on the left contains a caricature by Miguel Covarrubias, who is a caricaturist and an artist who Van Vechten actually helped to spearhead his career. Carl Van Vechten--"Nigger Heaven" had just been published by Carl Van Vechten. The second one is also an advertisement for the book. The illustration in the second advertisement is done by Aaron Douglas.
LAMB: We'll come back to that book...
Prof. BERNARD: OK.
LAMB: ...and ask you more about it.
Prof. BERNARD: Yes.
LAMB: The next photo on this list is the entrance to Van Vechten's home.
Prof. BERNARD: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: Where is the home?
Prof. BERNARD: One-fifty West 55th Street. This was the home that was referred to by Walter White as the Midtown branch of the NAACP, and that's the foyer in the home.
LAMB: For somebody who's not been in New York, 55th Street is what relationship to Harlem? How far away is Harlem?
Prof. BERNARD: I mean, it's several blocks away, and Van Vechten actually, you know--that was what, I think, was important about his placement during this period because he literally brought, you know, uptown downtown and vice versa. I mean, he really--these were two different worlds. And he lived in, you know, at that point, a very elite white world, and then he would move to Central Park West later in his life. And so he always lived in these sort of elite, mostly white neighborhoods, but he really, you know, physically created a kind of integration by bringing black people to his home and by, you know, sort of shepherding whites to Harlem.
LAMB: Carl Van Vechten, you said he was married. Here's a photograph from 1923. Who's the woman?
Prof. BERNARD: Fania Marinoff. She was a Russian actress. And they were married for 50 years. Very interesting and kind of tumultuous, passionate relationship.
LAMB: You say he was also gay?
Prof. BERNARD: He was--Van Vechten certainly had relationships with men, and many relationships with men. The terms were different then than they are now, but he was a man--if he's considered gay now by the language we use at this point, at that point, there were different kinds of terminology. But he was somebody who openly and, you know, kind of actively loved men.
LAMB: Where did he meet his wife, Fania Marinoff?
Prof. BERNARD: I believe he met his wife in New York in ninet....
LAMB: Where was she from originally?
Prof. BERNARD: She was from Odessa originally.
LAMB: In Russia?
Prof. BERNARD: Yes.
LAMB: This next photograph includes Zora Neale Hurston, who we hear a lot about. Who was she?
Prof. BERNARD: Zora Neale Hurston is another amazing figure from this period who was born in Alabama and came to Harlem in the '20s and was different than the kind of elite group of the Harlem Renaissance writers in that she was less interested in kind of affecting sort of prim and proper airs. You know, she was a folklorist and she wrote folk plays and poetry and collectives of materials. And so she was really impatient with a lot of the prissiness that characterized a lot of the other writing and kind of attitudes about the Harlem Renaissance.
LAMB: She had a falling out at one point with Langston Hughes, over what?
Prof. BERNARD: Right. They had a falling out in 1931 over a play called "Mule Bone." Hurston had collected a lot of materials during her travels in the South: folklore, mythology. And it's a kind of complicated story; I think we've yet to kind of understand what really happened. But some kind of romantic jealousy was happening and they had a very tense relationship with a woman called Godmother, who I hope we can talk about later, too, Charlotte Mason, who was her patron. And so it became a difficult triangle; actually something of a square. There's another person involved as well. And they fell out but actually, in later years, were in contact again.
LAMB: Who was Charlotte Mason?
Prof. BERNARD: Charlotte Mason was another kind of notorious patron of the Harlem Renaissance. And she, I think, stands in important contrast to a figure like Carl Van Vechten. She was one of the—from one of the most wealthy, elite families in New York. I mean, she...
Prof. BERNARD: White woman who considered, you know, the Vanderbilts old and--sorry, new money. You know, she was from that kind of station in life. And she became interested--her first passion was Native American culture. And she became interested in things black, in the 1920s and developed relationships with Alain Locke, who was one of the kind of gatekeepers of the Harlem Renaissance. And Alain brought her to Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and she had her charges call her Godmother, you know, and they actually kneeled before her. She sat on a throne, you know, in her lavish apartment in New York and had them kind of, you know, sort of kiss the ring and really pay that kind of respect to her. So she was really someone who enjoyed having that kind of almost master-servant relationship with her black proteges. And she and Hughes had a very wrenching relationship and they fell out around the same time the "Mule Bone" episode took place in the early '30s. And he was very emotionally dependent on her, really attached to her. If you read his letters to her, which are also at Yale's library, you see how he really needed a lot of--he did some kind of parental guidance that he looked for in Mason, and she at some point just rebuffed him entirely.
LAMB: Did she give him money?
Prof. BERNARD: She did give him money.
LAMB: How much? Do you have any sense from reading?
Prof. BERNARD: You know, I'm not actually sure about--I think these things are laid out in some detail in Arnold Rampersad's biography of Langston Hughes--of the life of Langston Hughes. They had a contractual relation--she actually had a contract with him. And I believe that Hurston received a little more money than Hughes did. But their --the contract was, I mean, it's sort of amazing in its detail, you know, where he could publish, where he couldn't publish. With Hurston, she had to come up with receipts for everything she spent money on down to her stockings, down to her shoes. Some heartbreaking letters that both Hughes and Hurston would write to Mason asking for just enough money, you know, just so I can get a new pair of shoes. She was relentless, you know, the control she exercised over her--her black proteges.
LAMB: We have a photograph from your book of Blanche Knopf, 1932. Who was she?
Prof. BERNARD: Blanche Knopf, married to Alfred Knopf. She was really the one who worked with black writers during the '20s. She was the one who worked most often with Langston Hughes. And was often a triangle between Langston and Van Vechten and Hughes, with Van Vechten really pulling the strings. He was the one who really knew about black literature, and brought that knowledge to Blanche and said, you know, `Here's a new avenue for you to pursue.' And she would often incorporate Van Vechten's very words into her letters with Hughes, you know, when she disliked something he did or when she wanted to encourage, you know, a different kind of impulse in his writing. So she was the kind of middle person between Van Vechten and Hughes for quite a bit of time.
LAMB: Bessie Smith.
Prof. BERNARD: Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues. Van Vechten was a huge fan of Bessie Smith's and took several portraits of her, and these are, I think, two of the most well-known. He liked to pose, you know, African heads next to Grecian. He loved these kind of--you know, these kind of almost--these kind of literal distinctions, you know.
LAMB: How did you get into this in the first place?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, I was an undergraduate at Yale and I had a class on African-American literature with a professor called Linda Watts who was really great. And she gave students suggested titles--I'm sorry, suggested topics for a paper. And one of them was to write about "Nigger Heaven" and its author, Carl Van Vechten. And I'd never heard of this person and I was, you know, appalled to hear about this book called "Nigger Heaven" written by a white author in 1926, but I was equally intrigued. And so I just began to do research about it. And the more I learned about it, the more I just became really consumed by it, because I had already been interested in the Harlem Renaissance. My parents are alums of Fisk University. My mother actually, you know, studied with Robert Hayden and, you know, was just part of the whole kind of collection of black genius there at Fisk and really watched a lot of things happen.
So I already knew about the black artists who had become well-known during that period, but I had never heard about this white person. And the more I read about him, I learned about his relationships with black writers. And so I became interested in the kind of interrelations between whites and blacks during this period and how difficult it was for black people to kind of rest with this question, you know. What is white influence and what relationship does it have to our art? Does it take something away from the integrity of black art or is it, in fact, you know, just sort of a necessary evil? Is it possible for these kinds of relationships to exist without a certain kind of power imbalances naturally taking place? And so that's the kind of question that really I wanted to pursue and Van Vechten really brings it all to the front.
LAMB: Fisk, historically black college located where?
Prof. BERNARD: Nashville, Tennessee.
LAMB: And your parents, what was their relationship to Fisk?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, they both had attended Fisk and they both actually live in Nashville now. Yeah.
LAMB: What do they do?
Prof. BERNARD: My father is an OB-GYN and my mother is his office manager.
LAMB: And you found your way to Yale--what year did you go to Yale?
Prof. BERNARD: I went to Yale--I started in 1985. I should also say my mother is also a poet as well, and she studied with Robert Hayden. So I started in '85 and I finished in '89, and then I went back for graduate school in '90.
LAMB: But Yale has the Beinecke Library...
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: It sounds like there were some treasures in there for you.
Prof. BERNARD: Oh, absolutely. And that was, you know, a huge part of what made--what brought me to the--the project, I mean, that I could walk just few paces and really have this whole world open up and to see the--you know, the kind of original letters, the original effects of these people was just unbelievable, and just an incredible amount of richness there.
LAMB: Had anybody ever done anything like this with the letters?
Prof. BERNARD: There's a great collection of letters actually published between Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein, two volumes of letters; they're really wonderful, wonderfully annotated. There's also a collection of letters between Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps.
LAMB: Who is Arna Bontemps?
Prof. BERNARD: Arna Bontemps was a very close friend of Hughes. He was a librarian and also an author. He wrote children's books and a novel. Never gained the kind of popularity of someone like Langston Hughes, but a central kind of figure of his period.
LAMB: Here's a photograph that we'll get up of Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps and...
Prof. BERNARD: Harold Jackman.
LAMB: ...Harold Jackman.
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: Who are they? I mean, not who are they, but where was this picture taken?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, the picture--I actually don't know where it was taken. Arna Bontemps, as I said, was very close to Hughes and Harold Jackman was another sort of really central figure of the period. He was also a librarian. I think he--I believe he had some kind of artistic ambitions. I don't know if he ever realized them. But he was a very close friend of Carl Van Vechten's and they corresponded. He was active in the '40s with Van Vechten's Stage Door Canteen.
LAMB: Now where did Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes meet for the first time?
Prof. BERNARD: They met in 1924 for the first time. They met at a benefit party at Arthur “Happy” Rhone's nightclub on Lenox Avenue, I think, and 143rd Street in Harlem. And the first time they met, Van Vechten was just then sort of discovering, you know, this kind of cultural flowering called the Harlem Renaissance. You know, it was sort of just being initiated actually at that time.
And so he was brought to the party, I think by Walter White, who was another gatekeeper of the period, a journalist, someone who was very politically active who actually looked white and did a lot of research on lynching, using sort of white skin to kind of help him infiltrate, you know, various kinds of goings-on in the South. And so they became friends first, and White introduced him to everyone.
And at that night in 1924, he met Langston Hughes. And the first night, he recorded his name as Kingston Hughes, and it wasn't until several months later in '25, when they met again--it was at another benefit party--that they really developed their real friendship.
LAMB: In the '20s, what was it like for black people in the United States?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, in the '20s was also--the Harlem Renaissance coincides with the period known as the Great Migration, and in the late teens and early '20s, scores of black people were coming from the South, you know, sort of ravaged, politically repressive situations, coming to urban centers like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, looking for work, and there's a kind of push-pull situation with, as I said, black people really needing to find alternatives beyond the South, and urban industries needing labor. And so that's the kind of situation that creates the bulk of black people in cities like Harlem that then gives way to something like the Harlem Renaissance.
But the situation in the North was, of course, not the promised land, not--not the kind of situation of equality and liberty, but often black people came to the North and found that jobs that were promised them were not to be had. They found an equal amount of repression politically, also violence. So the situation was not, you know, what had been promised to be, but it still was a time when black people, like every other American, was benefiting from that post-war economy, and so there's a lot of, you know, kind of conspicuous consumption and a lot of good hopes and sense of possibility for black people as well.
LAMB: Where was Langston Hughes born?
Prof. BERNARD: He was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902.
LAMB: To what parents? What were they like?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, his mother was Carrie Clarke, who is someone who had a lot of ambitions. She wanted to be an actress and she—of course, she would have, you know, roles in various performances. I think it's in the letters actually, it comes up that she has a—ends up having an important role in a Harlem production. And she really wanted, you know, sort of a lot for her son, but wasn't able to really provide him with any kind of real stability, because she divorced her husband, I think in the teens. And so Hughes ended up having kind of a--Langston Hughes ended up having kind of a nomadic upbringing with Carrie trying to find work in various, you know, situations and living with family members, things like that. James Nathaniel Hughes was Hughes' father, who was very a difficult man. Hughes writes about him in his 1940 autobiography as being someone who just really didn't want to identify with black Americans at all and had a real disdain for African-Americans. And this caused Hughes a lot inner turmoil that he writes about in "The Big Sea." There was--it was a sort of--it wasn't an easy upbringing for Langston Hughes.
LAMB: "Big Sea" is the autobiography of Langston Hughes?
Prof. BERNARD: Right. Yes.
LAMB: What was the difference of age between Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, and where did Van Vechten come from?
Prof. BERNARD: Van Vechten was about 20 years older, about 22 years older than Langston Hughes. He was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to very sort of prominent parents, who were prominent members of the community. His father was an insurance broker and quite well-to-do. He was also someone who was sympathetic to black rights and used some of his money to help found a school for free black children at the turn of the century. His mother was a separatist who was interested in, you know, women's rights to vote. And so it was that kind of situation that really led to a lot of early curiosity on the part of Carl Van Vechten, a lot of his interest in looking outside of the mainstream for a different--evidence of culture.
LAMB: And "Nigger Heaven," the book--where did the title come from? When did Van Vechten write it and what impact did it have on his life?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, the title comes from--it was a kind of—an ironic term that was used actually among black people around the time period of segregation. It refers to segregated situations in public theaters. Black people were forced to sit in the balconies, sitting, you know, sort of--at a kind of interesting vantage point, over the heads of white people, but yet forced to sit in segregated and, quote, unquote, "inferior" seating. So it's meant to be sort of an—Van Vechten meant it to be kind of an ironic comment on the situation of blacks in America, on segregation and the kind of cruelties and absurdities of segregation and racism.
He also really understood the title might have some commercial advantages. He had been the one to convince Ronald Firbank to use the title "Prancing Nigger" for I believe, a novel he wrote in 19--I forget the date. I think it was 1924. And Firbank had originally titled his book "Sorrow in Sunlight," but Van Vechten--there's a phrase in the book--thought, `You know, this book actually has some commercial potential. This title has commercial potential.' So Van Vechten knew that, you know, it would--might really have some nice reverberations to have a title that was volatile, that was provocative, although he claimed, you know, of course, until the end of his life, that the title was meant to be ironic and it was just a shame that, you know, people were so unsophisticated they couldn't appreciate the--you know, the layered meanings of the title. He published in it 1926.
He published it months after he had written a couple of essays--one of them was not really an essay. He had authored a symposium titled `How Shall the Negro be Portrayed in Art?' that he had published in The Crisis magazine, which was the cultural organ of the NAACP; it was the magazine for the organization. And the symposium sort of canvassed writers all over the United States and asks questions about the representation of black people in art, what kinds of images of blacks were damaging to the social progress of African-Americans or should art just exist on its own? Did it have to take political accountability? And the responses were kind of really varied, but Van Vechten's own response--he said something like, `You know, it's really important for the black artist to understand that this a moment, you know, when things black are popular, and you should take advantage of it. You should exploit white interest, you know, for your own benefit, and really the commercial issues are the ones that are most salient.'
And he also published another essay called `Moaning With a Sword in my Hand,' which is--uses the same kind of argument, you know. Now is not the time to be sensitive about things like racial epithets or characterizations of black people. I mean, people want this exotic material. Why don't you just use it, why don't you just exploit it? So it's on the heels of those kinds of sentiments that he publishes "Nigger Heaven," which you can imagine black response, those intellectuals who had read his writings on the subject were furious. You know, they felt it was a real slap in the face that he had actually been kind of going behind people's backs and collecting material about friends, you know, and then using it to kind of better his own kind of situation or popularize his own--his own reputation.
LAMB: What was Langston Hughes' reaction to "Nigger Heaven"?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, Langston Hughes, I think, was one of many of his--of Van Vechten's black friends who tried to convince him to maybe think about another title. James Weldon Johnson was really--tried to urge him to think about a different title.
LAMB: Who was James Weldon Johnson?
Prof. BERNARD: James Weldon Johnson was a central kind of figure during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. He was an educator, a lyricist, the author--the co-author with his brother Rosamond of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is now called the Negro national anthem--black national anthem. He wrote the book--collected the book of American Negro spirituals in 1922, which was a really signal kind of collection, you know, sort of putting together black spirituals and gospels and work songs and talking about this, is like, this is our contribution, you know, really, to American culture. He was also the author of "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," which was the first modern novel authored by an African-American. It was first published as an autobiography in 1912, and then reissued actually at the behest of Carl Van Vechten as a novel in 1927.
LAMB: Let's connect some of the dots.
Prof. BERNARD: OK.
LAMB: You mentioned Fisk University...
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: ...and Yale, where you went, and the James Weldon Johnson collection...
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: ...at the Beinecke Library at Yale...
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: ...and Van Vechten, who was responsible for a lot of this. What was the relationship between Van Vechten and Fisk?
Prof. BERNARD: Van Vechten was friends with the president of Fisk at the time, Charles Johnson, who was another kind of--you know, kind of luminary of this period, and later, you know, sort of black politics at this time. And Van Vechten was also familiar with Fisk's history, you know, as a real home for black intellectuals, and it's called the Harvard of the--sort of the black Harvard, you know, because it was a place where you would go for that kind of--you know, if you were really intellectually ambitious as a black person, you know, during the years of segregation. So he was familiar with the reputation of the university and had friends--you know, various friends on the faculty. Arna Bontemps had started his job as a librarian there, so he became familiar with the kind of—the seriousness of the institution from the inside out. And so it was because of his relationship with, I think, various individuals there that he decided to establish that collection there. I mean, he had an interest in putting black collections at white institutions and vice-versa. He really felt that that would be something that would contribute to the end of ignorance.
LAMB: Why did he think black people wanted to know about George Gershwin?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, I think he felt more than anything that George Gershwin kind of belonged at Fisk because of his facility with black music, you know, and his appreciation of black culture through the music and I think he also believed that it would be important for white scholars to come down to Fisk University and do the work there on this black campus.
LAMB: Has it worked?
Prof. BERNARD: I think it really has worked. I mean, it worked for me. It worked for me at Yale. I think if it hadn't been for the James Weldon Johnson collection, I really would never have made my way, you know, to the dusty old rooms at the Beinecke Library to do that work there.
LAMB: Now who or which of these folks are in the James Weldon Johnson collection at Yale? Who's in there?
Prof. BERNARD: Who's in there? Well, actually, all of them are in there, really. I mean, it really is an amazing collection. I would say with the exception of Zora Neale Hurston papers are kind of scattered; now they've been--her letters are actually coming together in a great volume edited by Carla Kaplan--but Hurston's letters are kind of scattered all over the country. So with the exception of Hurston, who--some of her papers are in DC at Howard; there's also a great collection there--most everyone else, really--it's a primary kind of receptacle, you know, for...
LAMB: Name some of them. Van Vechten's papers are there?
Prof. BERNARD: Van Vechten's papers are there.
LAMB: He's white.
Prof. BERNARD: Right, exactly. He also has a collection at the New York Public Library. James Weldon Johnson's papers are there, Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke--actually, a lot of those papers are here at Howard. See...
LAMB: How many letters does Langston Hughes have on file?
Prof. BERNARD: Oh, thousands, thousands of letters on file.
LAMB: Written longhand?
Prof. BERNARD: A lot of them written longhand. He really, I think, preferred that, to write longhand.
LAMB: And how long did you personally spend in there going through these letters?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, over the course of, you know, four years, I spent, you know, sort of months at a time, as long as I could, you know, kind of with the letters. When I first became aware of them, I was still--I was both the--first an undergraduate and then a graduate student. So I had more--and I was there at Yale, so I had time to kind of go on a daily basis and see what was available. But as time went by, it was sort of whenever I could make the trips.
LAMB: So all these are letters between Van Vechten and Hughes?
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: How many total letters in your book?
Prof. BERNARD: In my book, about 350 letters.
LAMB: I'm just going to read--I just opened a page that's--77. `With 156 yellow warblers bearing pink and blue candy hearts in their beaks, Carlo.' What am I reading?
Prof. BERNARD: That's one of Carlo's many fanciful sign-offs, that he would send to Hughes and to actually many of his correspondents.
LAMB: `With 17 royal purple dachshunds, housebroken, with polished silver legs.'
Prof. BERNARD: Right. Exactly. They're little--little poems, all of them. You know, he really loved language and he loved to create pictures with language.
LAMB: But, in the book you read that he got upset with Langston Hughes because he kept signing his letters `Sincerely.'
Prof. BERNARD: Right. He said, `What is sincere with the butcher?' He really--that really bothered him when Hughes would write him these flat sign-offs. But Hughes didn't have the same kind of interest in that kind of banter.
LAMB: But he did it, though.
Prof. BERNARD: He would do it. And I think Hughes was actually--when Hughes writes those--and Hughes writes more elaborate sign-offs. They often point more to social conditions that are going on at the time. I remember at one point he wrote, you know, `cool dreams to you in this Sputnik world.' And this was in, you know, sort of the early '50s. So he's really interested in making a different commentary than Van Vechten, whose sign-offs seem to be really kind of insular and self-reverential.
LAMB: The poem about the Waldorf-Astoria...
Prof. BERNARD: Yeah.
LAMB: ...in the back. What were the circumstances around it and why did you put it in the appendix?
Prof. BERNARD: I put it in the appendix because it had caused such a stir in not only Hughes' personal life but also had kind of professional reverberations I think throughout the course of his career. I mean, it really--it was a beginning of Hughes' interest in his professional kind of career to incorporate some more political sentiments. It wasn't the first political poem he wrote by any means but I think it was--it's one that had many reverberations for him. He calls it the poem that ends his relationship with his patron, but it actually wasn't. He actually wrote the poem after they'd already broken off I think.
LAMB: His patron Charlotte Mason.
Prof. BERNARD: Charlotte Mason. But in his autobiography he uses it as a kind of signal poem that really created a lot of chaos in his life. It's a poem that, you know, Van Vechten had a lot of problems with and it's representative of Van Vechten's, you know--just his distaste for Hughes' political poetry. So their correspondence about this poem I think, you know, gives you a sense of how Van Vechten's--how they differed. They were really--couldn't have been more different politically.
LAMB: Let me read you a little bit of it and then get you to interpret some of it. It says at the top `Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria.' What's that mean, the title?
Prof. BERNARD: Well--the title. I think he was actually using—what he was doing, and he wrote about this later and maybe it's in the letters that I've used here. He took an actual ad for the Waldorf and really did his own to the inspiration for the poem was an actual ad for the Waldorf so that's what the reference is to. An ad that would have been popular during the time period.
LAMB: Yeah. Right after that it says, ‘Fine living a la carte,’ question mark. Come to the Waldorf-Astoria.' And then it says, `Listen hungry ones. Look, see what Vanity Fair says about the new Waldorf-Astoria. All the luxury of private home. Now won't that be charming when the last flophouse has turned you down this winter? Furthermore, it is far beyond anything hitherto attempted in the hotel world.' This is part of the ad. `It cost $28 million. The famous Oscar Tschirky is in charge of banqueting. Alexander Gusteau is chef. It will be distinguished background for society. So when you've got no place to go, homeless and hungry ones, choose the Waldorf as a background for your rags. Or do they still consider the subway after midnight good enough?' What's he getting at here?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, Hughes was really--he writes about this actually beautifully and eloquently in "The Big Sea." He wrote about how, at this point in his life, he's really at a crossroads. You know, he's being supported by this patron who lives in another world all to her own. And yet he's in--as he goes to the Park Avenue home and he sees outside of the window, you know, people huddled in the corners just--you know, it's the Depression, you know, and there were just numbers of people on the streets who are absolutely destitute. And the contradiction is something he just can no longer bear. And it's no longer impossible for him, kind of poetically, to leave those observations out of his work. And in terms of the contradictions that the Waldorf kind of presents, I think, in the poem--you know, how's it possible to have this kind of opulence, you know, when so many people in the country have lost everything?
LAMB: And like he says here, `Have lunch in there this afternoon, all you jobless. Why not? Dine with some of the men and women who got rich off your labor, who clipped coupons with clean, white fingers because your hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed garments, poured steel and let others draw dividends and live easy.' Did this have any impact at the time it was published?
Prof. BERNARD: It did have some impact. I mean, there were letters, of course, in support of the poem. Hughes was certainly not alone, you know, in his kind of searing indictment, you know, of the Waldorf-Astoria. But in terms of his--you see in the correspondence Van Vechten was really bothered by the poem. He takes--goes to great lengths, I think even years later, to say to you Hughes, you know, `You know, the Waldorf has these kinds of good qualities and it gives these kind of jobs to people and it's actually one of the greatest employers here in New York.' So he's very defensive and it certainly becomes a little burr in the relationship between Van Vechten and Hughes.
LAMB: So you have--Carl Van Vechten lives in midtown Manhattan...
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: ...and Langston Hughes who lives way up at 135th or...
Prof. BERNARD: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...26th or 27th St. Nicholas Avenue, far away. He's black, Van Vechten's white. He wants to shift all these documents to the James Weldon Johnson project at Yale. When did that start back there?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, James Weldon Johnson died tragically in a car accident in 1938. And after that, I think the Library of Congress approached his widow, Grace Nail, to contribute her papers to the Library of Congress--her husband's papers. And that gave Van Vechten the idea, because he, of course, was close to Grace Nail as he had been close to James Weldon Johnson, to think about creating an archive. You know, a place where you could really have--you know, you could really build on, you know, this collection and create, you know--perhaps maybe even create a chair of African-American literature. Actually, he talks about that in the letters. Years before it actually would ever happen at Yale, he says--he predicts that it might happen.
LAMB: You have a photo in there from 1950, opening of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of American Negro Arts & Letters at Yale University. What's that photo? Do you recognize anybody in there?
Prof. BERNARD: Absolutely. Well, Van Vechten is taking a photograph. Actually the person who's taking the photograph of Van Vechten taking the photograph is Saul Mauriber I believe, who was a close friend of Van Vechten's and kind of lighting assistant toward the end of his life and at one point a lover of Van Vechten's. He's looking almost directly at Donald Gallup, who has since passed away, who was a friend and someone who was a partner in crime in his kind of establishment of the Yale collection. Really they worked together kind of conspiring to put this together. And that's Langston Hughes with his hand to the side of his face. It's one of the few photographs where they're actually in the same room or in the same area.
LAMB: In your letters that you've got here, you see Van Vechten nudging Hughes all the time. `Where's the stuff? Where's the stuff? Where's the stuff?' How long did that go on?
Prof. BERNARD: Years. It went on for years and it was really aggravating. You know, but Van Vechten was determined to get Hughes to, you know, sort of collect--put his materials--send them to Yale, collect them together. And on one hand, I mean, it's really aggravating, even for the person there putting this collection together. You read letter after letter of this kind of nudging, nudging. But on the other hand--you know, if Van Vechten hadn't done that, we wouldn't have this collection.
LAMB: Well, I keep thinking--when I was reading it--the letters—that you were the great benefactor here. And they kept saying, `If you don't get these letters in, then the future generations won't be able to study this' and there you were reading this.
Prof. BERNARD: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. There's an interesting kind of self-consciousness that happens, you know, between the two of them because, you know, in the later letters after Van Vechten has come up with this idea to create the James Weldon Johnson collection and he's really beseeching Hughes, you know, `Please send your letters to me.' He writes Hughes, you know, `You have to write me back because our letters are historic.' You know, `Our letters are really going to mean something that you save for future generations.'
And it--there's a funny letter when Hughes, you know, is saying, `Well, if you hadn't told me that, I would tell you this really scandalous story that happened.' But--and he proceeds to tell it. `But too bad, I'm sending the letters to Yale because I have to be, you know, much more circumspect about this kind of material now.'
LAMB: You have a one page in here. It's full of photographs of Langston Hughes. When I show this tell us about this man. How big was he? Was he married? What was his relationship with men or women?
Prof. BERNARD: Langston Hughes was not very big. He was--I don't even believe he was six feet tall. I suppose—in contrast--another contrast yet to Van Vechten. He was quite tall and gangly and imposing as a figure. Langston Hughes was not—none of those things. He was very handsome and as kind of --as a beautiful as spirit he was, you know, sort of a person to admire.
He was never married. There's a lot of speculation about Hughes' sexuality and it's caused quite a bit of, you know, controversy among those of us interested in through the Harlem Renaissance. There's no sort of definite information about his sexuality. But he's largely believed to have been a gay man or someone who at some point, you know, enjoyed men in a romantic way. But we don't have any real evidence about it. But that's a sort of--that's how he's sort of being read now.
LAMB: But you do have evidence, according to your footnotes all through the book, that he had relationships with women.
Prof. BERNARD: Well, right. He did talk--he talks in his autobiography about several different women. And those come up in the letters as well. He tells Van Vechten about them.
LAMB: And then you even had a note, which is rather personal, about his gonorrhea that he got when he was...
Prof. BERNARD: Right. That's true.
LAMB: ...at Carmel. Where did you find that? How'd you know about that?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, a lot of this material--I'm so grateful to have the--Arnold Rampersad's biographies. He did extensive work for years, you know, finding out about Hughes. And so--some of that material was there. He also talks about it in some of his other letters to some of this other close friends. But, you know, once again we have no idea how he contracted the gonorrhea.
Prof. BERNARD: We can only speculate.
LAMB: What we he doing in Carmel for that year anyway?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, he had a close friend and patron called Noel Sullivan, who was a patron of the arts from an old San Francisco family. Someone who was beloved by many and who was very interested in--in black arts. And they met, I believe--I forget how they met, perhaps at a Hughes reading. Or they were introduced actually by mutual friends. And Noel--they corresponded while he was--Hughes was traveling. And at some point, Noel invited Hughes to come to live in his cottage--in a cottage he had. Has own--have his own quarters and--and live and write. He working on a book of short stories at that point.
LAMB: A little seaside village of about 5,000 people. But I didn't see any reference to him being black and living there. Did that--was that a problem out there in Carmel?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, actually it did become--it didn't quite become a problem. It's hard to say which was more of a problem, the race issue or the fact that Hughes was connected, at that point, with a lot of leftists who had, you know, sort of--there's an old kind of leftist tradition among the residents there. And at some point, there were some notices in the local papers about--you know, about this black poet who was living there. But it seemed to have sort of have--have as much to do with a fear of, you know, communism and the kind of leftist beliefs that Hughes was really exploring.
LAMB: Upton Sinclair lived there and there was the John Reed Clubs.
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: Now what's the politics of all that?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, Hughes was very active in the John Reed Clubs and he really, you know, flirted pretty seriously with communism at different points in his life. And I think there's a letter in there he actually writes to Van Vechten because Van Vechten was not someone who was interested in liberal politics or politics at all. And he sort of--at some point he hints that this has become part of his activity out in Carmel. But yeah, this was something that Hughes--was always a huge part of his life, a question of whether or not to affiliate formally with communism or whether or not just affiliate sort of intellectually with it.
LAMB: John Reed buried in the Kremlin wall, an American Communist. You talk about Langston Hughes spending a lot of time in Russia. Was he a Communist?
Prof. BERNARD: Hughes never formally affiliated himself with communism and it's something that--became a tender issue when he was called before HUAC to testify.
LAMB: House Un-American Activities Committee.
Prof. BERNARD: Right. In the late '50s.
LAMB: When? When was he asked?
Prof. BERNARD: 1957. I forget the day, but he was called to testify and his testimony is very careful. He very, very painstakingly avoids having a--avoids affiliating himself with communism. But also repudiating it as well. So it's difficult to say. I mean, you know, there's a lot of rewriting that's been done. He certainly believed and enjoyed affiliations with other--with Communists in the United States. And when he was in Russia, really explored, you know, those kinds of--his impulses. But he avoided sort of having formal af--and then became--as time went on and he'd really sort of suffered politically and professionally from his affiliations, he distanced himself more and more.
LAMB: How long did he spend in Russia?
Prof. BERNARD: I believe he spent several months in Russia. And he traveled the whole time.
LAMB: And there was a whole group of--I think the number was 21...
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: ...white folks that went over to Russia and what was--there's a letter in here where they talk about how they were—he thought he was being treated better over there.
Prof. BERNARD: Right. Yeah, there was a group that was going to go over and do a film. I think it was called "Black and White," the film. And the film never got off the ground, but he had a lot of experiences and writes to Van Vechten about them. And I think it's--those letters are a wonderful contrast of Van Vechten's very kind of--in some ways sedentary and kind of parochial life in New York while Hughes was traveling and trying to understand himself and have global contacts and Van Vechten was kind of living in his parlor, you know, in New York.
LAMB: When did you know you had a book here?
Prof. BERNARD: I think I knew I had a book early on. You know, when I first saw those letters and I, you know, began to tell people, you know, `This is a wonderful story,' you know, waiting for the time when there'd be a kind of real writer or real scholar to do it. And then at some point decided that it was my project. I had a friend actually who told me, `You have to do this book.'
LAMB: How did you get Knopf to buy your book?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, I was lucky enough to be working for a woman called Faith Childs, who's now my agent, who was an agent in New York. And, you know, between times when, you know, sort of doing—working with her--began discussing with her this project and we both thought it was important to--to try to do. And we thought, you know, we'd try Knopf at--first. I was very lucky, even on another level, because my editor at Knopf is Judith Jones and she had been Hughes' editor actually when he was, you know, an older man and she was a young woman and had just come into publishing. So she had that kind of--a really interesting perspective on him. And it was wonderful to be able to work with someone who actually had worked with him.
LAMB: Other connections in your book. The Ford Foundation Fellowship. Was that to write the book?
Prof. BERNARD: No. I got a Ford Foundation Fellowship when I was a graduate student.
LAMB: What'd you do for them?
Prof. BERNARD: I was just--they actually provide fellowships for minority students who are sort of beginning their graduate work. It enables you to travel in the summer and not have to worry about, you know, sort of working alongside--you know, doing your classwork. So...
LAMB: What'd--did you get a master's degree?
Prof. BERNARD: A PhD.
LAMB: PhD. From?
Prof. BERNARD: Yale.
LAMB: In what?
Prof. BERNARD: In American studies.
LAMB: Not African-American studies.
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: And National Education--I mean, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: Was that for the book?
Prof. BERNARD: That was for the book. Yes.
LAMB: How does that work?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, I applied for the fellowship, hoping to have--I knew I needed to have some time just to concentrate on the book. And so I applied for it and was, you know, so happy to get that letter and realize that I have a year off. At the time I was teaching at Smith and so had the opportunity to spend the year at the Du Bois Institute, actually, at Harvard, where I worked on the book every day. It was a glorious experience.
LAMB: What is that Du Bois Institute at Harvard?
Prof. BERNARD: The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American
Research is a great opportunity. And it's a kind of a--it's an
institute founded among other--by, among others, Henry Louis Gates.
He sort of spearheads the institute. And it enables fellows from
all over the world, really, to come together, have office space. And
we had weekly colloquia where we met and discussed our projects. It
was fantastic and...
LAMB: Are there any strings attached when you get a National
Endowment for the Humanities grant? What do you have to do for them?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, you have to have, you know, hopefully produced
something at the end of it. But at the very least you
produce--you give them a sense of what you--how you've spent your
time. They want kind of a report at the very least. And, you know,
hopefully some evidence that you've actually were doing what you
were supposed to be doing.
LAMB: You have another poem in the index called "Goodbye Christ"
and it starts off, `Listen, Christ, you did all right in your day
I reckon but that day's gone now. They ghosted you up a swell story,
too. Called it Bible but it's dead now. The popes and the preachers have made too much money from it. They've sold you to too many.' I can go on here, but what's the point of this?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, this is Hughes really, you know, getting disgusted with a lot of what he saw--evidence of organized religion in the United States. I think somebody he points out in the poem--or he kind of really indicates is Aimee Semple McPherson.
LAMB: She's mentioned. In that--he said, `Go ahead on now. You're getting in the way of things, Lord. And please take St. Gandhi with you when you go and St. --Pope Pious and St. Aimee McPherson.'
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: Who was she?
Prof. BERNARD: She was I think one of the best-known American evangelists, who--you know, her own biography is really pretty phenomenal. But this poem really--as you can imagine, really upset her and she subsequently staged a lot of demonstrations actually when Hughes was giving readings and talks at various, you know, locations. She would be outside picketing with her--with a group of protesters. So--and it caused huge--Hughes an enormous amount of distress. And he writes about it in this letters to Van Vechten. I think it's a time when he's in the hospital with gonorrhea he writes to Van Vechten about--he actually--he says that it's not McPherson but he has been--he ends up retracting the poem and saying, you know, kind of `I didn't mean it. You know, it was a mistake.'
LAMB: How big a deal was he when he was alive?
Prof. BERNARD: He was a very big--he was really very important. I mean, he was--one of those rare writers who really reached out and was understood and appreciated by, you know, an enormous kind of spectrum of readers. He could go to--and he writes about this in his early years. He'd go to college cam--campuses all over the country and people would recite his poetry to him. I mean, he's a hero among black people. People who didn't have means to sort of, you know, collect maybe a range of books and who were familiar with Langston Hughes. You know, he was a folk poet. He was a poet of the people, as he called himself. And he really was. He was someone who was—you know, spoke to people, where they were. And not just to the elite. But spoke to the everyday person and made it--that his business to do that. So he was unique in that respect. And he was beloved all over the world.
LAMB: There's one footnote in here about Zora Hurston when she threw a fit or a temper tantrum.
Prof. BERNARD: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: What was she like?
Prof. BERNARD: She was another kind of formidable and interesting, complex character. And it's going to be interesting when Carla Kaplan's letters come out because I think that will paint a picture. She was iconoclastic, daring, bold.
LAMB: What was she doing throwing a fit and rolling around on the floor?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, at that point they were having the dispute over "Mule Bone." And so..
LAMB: What was "Mule Bone"?
Prof. BERNARD: "Mule Bone" was a folk play based on one of the tales that Hurston had collected when she was traveling around the South looking for material. And it was a--you know, it was a comedy and it's actually--has been produced since this time. I think the '80s by George Houston Bass, who was Hughes' secretary at some point and later the executor of his estate until he died relatively recently. But Hurston was, you know, a very dramatic soul. And so when she came to Van Vechten's house and threw this temper tantrum, one imagines she did it mostly for effect than anything else.
LAMB: You were trying to complete all the picture. You got Fisk University, Yale University and you then found your way to Smith in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Prof. BERNARD: Right.
LAMB: What did you do there?
Prof. BERNARD: I taught in the Afro-American Studies department. And I taught a survey of African-American literature and also a class on Harlem Renaissance and another class on gender in the African-American literary tradition. A class on race and ethnicity in American literature. There for two years.
LAMB: When did you leave?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, I was on leave in what would have been my third year at the Du Bois Institute and then I got engaged and moved in with my fiancée.
LAMB: And where do you live now?
Prof. BERNARD: I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
LAMB: Was Ruth Simmons the president of Smith when you were there?
Prof. BERNARD: Yes.
LAMB: What was it like being an African-American with a president of a school in the Northeast like that who's now going to Brown?
Prof. BERNARD: It was a--I couldn't have asked for a better situation. Ruth Simmons is someone who is as strong leader as she is a person with enormous integrity. I mean, I say that quite seriously. She's really--she's irreplaceable and it's really too bad for Smith. But she's a force. I mean, she's--she's just bigger than--bigger than just a president really, of a college. So I'm not surprised that she was sort of called to move on. But she was a--she was really someone who could lead not only students but, you know, trustees. She had everyone kind of--everyone understood the mission that she was really spearheading.
LAMB: Back to the Moscow connection because he writes this and you have it in the book. `There it seemed to me that Marxism had put into practical being many of the precepts which our own Christian America had not yet been able to bring to life. For in the Soviet Union, meager as the resources of the country were, white and black, Asiatic and European, Jew and Gentile stood alike as citizens on an equal footing protected from race and inequality by law.' What do you think he would think if he came back today? Think he'd write the same thing?
Prof. BERNARD: That's interesting. I'm not sure what he would say. I know that when he left and we--actually, his experiences in Japan were really contrasted that and were really devastating. When he went to Japan, he was under suspicion the whole time when he was there and he wrote also about that experience and what it was like to be in color--I'm sorry, in a country run by people of color and be just as isolated, just as alienated, just as dehumanized as he was in the United States. So in some ways, you know, he had a lot of contradictory experiences. In some ways, his dreams were realized at some moments, you know, with his experience in the Soviet Union. But other times he was faced with the reality of kind of racism worldwide.
LAMB: You have more photos from this book.
Prof. BERNARD: OK.
LAMB: And how many photos did you put in the book and who took most of them?
Prof. BERNARD: I think there are in excess of 60 photographs in the book and Van Vechten took quite a bit of the photographs. Took a good percentage of them.
LAMB: And you say that he had something like 15,000 negatives that--back here in the back somewhere I remember reading on one these that he had taken.
Prof. BERNARD: Yes. Uh-huh.
LAMB: What happened to all of his --where are all of his negatives today?
Prof. BERNARD: Well, they're archived. A lot of them are at the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale. Some of them are in the New York Public Library. This is Ethel Waters. Van Vechten was a huge fan of Waters' and really a champion of her career. Thought she was, you know, one of the most important kind of Negro performers and personalities alongside Langston Hughes. In some of the letters he talked about that. So he really championed Ethel Waters. This is Ethel "Toy" Harper who is Langston's sort of surrogate mother. He called her Aunt Toy and lived with her and her husband, Emerson, in Harlem in the later part of his life.
Prof. BERNARD: Why would he live with them? Well, they were like family to him. I think Hughes enjoyed his solitude but he also sought out these kind of familiar situations. Like with Noel Sullivan, he had a whole community out there in Carmel and then he had something--the equivalent in Harlem with the Harpers. So he liked to have that balance. He could live alone but also in a house that was really a home.
LAMB: Carl Van Vechten was how much older than Langston Hughes?
Prof. BERNARD: He was about 22 years older than Hughes.
LAMB: And here he is again at the Stage Door Canteen. What was that?
Prof. BERNARD: Stage Door Canteen was the entertainment kind of a--outfit for enlisted personnel during World War II. And I believe Van Vechten was either on the board of directors or—Fania Marinoff actually was the person who got him involved in the Stage Door Canteen. But it was a kind of entertainment wing for enlisted men. And it was a very interracial space. It was something Van Vechten talked a lot about in the letters. And what he enjoyed about it so much was how much whites and blacks interacted as equals in that space. And he was devoted--it was actors and writers and singers would bus tables and sweep the floors for the personnel.
LAMB: Billie Holiday.
Prof. BERNARD: Billie Holiday--inimitable Billie Holiday. Van Vechten was also a huge fan of hers and writes about a photography session with her in the letters. And this is--these are photographs from the session.
LAMB: Sidney Poitier--well, this is Mary McCleod Bethune.
Prof. BERNARD: Educator and visionary of the early 20th century...
LAMB: There's a big statue of her in Lincoln Park right here not--about 14 blocks from where we're sitting.
Prof. BERNARD: Yeah.
LAMB: In the end, did you find a next book out of this?
Prof. BERNARD: Yes. I think the next book will sort of pick up on this issue. And I want to do an anthology of essays—personal essays written by present-day thinkers, writers, performers about interracial friendships because one of the most exciting things to me about the story is how m--dedicated and passionate these two men were about cultivating a relationship at a time when it was almost legally prohibited for black and white people to interact as peers, as equals.
LAMB: What do you think of the interracial relationships today in this society?
Prof. BERNARD: I think you see progress in some respects and also a lot of--of sad, anachronistic, unfortunate kind of--kinds of interactions. I have--students today talk to me all the time in their kind of--with a kind of malaise about, `Oh it's just too bad that, you know, people--white people are just kind of permanently racist.' You know--and I tell them this is not where we should be right now. But there's a kind of acceptance I think to--and cynicism often even young people today have about interracial interactions. And this is something that was--stands in dramatic contrast to the kind of passion and, you know, an excitement, a possibility that interracial connections had for thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance.
LAMB: Any other names out of the Harlem Renaissance that we haven't talked about?
Prof. BERNARD: Oh, so many.
LAMB: LeRoi Jones, was he Harlem Renaissance, James Baldwin?
Prof. BERNARD: Post.
Prof. BERNARD: Post-Harlem Renaissance and kind of a black arts movement. And that generation really found a lot to criticize about the Harlem Renaissance. They felt it was actually--the potency of the movement they felt was diluted by the white influence and white money. And so LeRoi Jones and James Baldwin really try to create a movement that can exist--the black arts movement existed in reaction to the Harlem Renaissance, wants to exist without white support.
LAMB: "Remember Me to Harlem" is the name of this book: "Letters Between Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten." Our guest has been the editor, Emily Bernard. Thank you very much.
Prof. BERNARD: Thank you for having me.
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