Nigger Heaven is a racy 1926 novel by Carl Van Vechten. The title is a slang phrase in common use at the time, which referred to the cheap balcony seats at the theater blacks were forced to use by either poverty or segregation. It is an examination of black life in Harlem, centering around a young writer named Byron Kasson struggling against racism. Kasson is in love with a librarian named Mary Love. Kasson also is attracted to the glamorous Lasca Sartoris and competes for her affection with Randolph Pettijohn, a gambler who wooed and was rejected by Love. Sartoris strings both men along until Pettijohn shows up in her dressing room and shoots her. Kasson also planned on killing her, but his reason was to win back Mary. But when Kasson arrives, Sartoris is already dead, and the police arrest him for her murder.

Nigger Heaven was immediately controversial and provoked an outcry among many who did not bother to read past the title. Much of it was due to the fact that Van Vechten was white. Though he was the most prominent white member of the Harlem Renaissance and well regarded in that capacity, he was seen as an unwelcome interloper with the publication of this novel. W.E.B. Du Bois called it a “blow in the face.” Even his own father thought the title was a poor choice, writing “I think every word you write should be a respectful one towards the blacks.” Van Vechten recieved threats and was hung in effigy on Lenox Avenue. His book was burned in New York and banned in Boston.

Van Vechten was not alone, however. Prominent blacks defended and praised the novel, including Paul Robeson, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston. Among the most vocal was his dear friend, poet Langston Hughes. Van Vechten, however, lost another friend in poet Countee Cullen. He had hoped to use some verse of Cullen’s for the novel’s epigram, but Cullen ended their friendship when he learned of the title.

Van Vechten was stunned by the vociferous reaction to his work, especially considering he had, as always, the best of intentions. Van Vechten’s novel remains controversial, as that word remains a hot button issue, and he has gradually slipped from the literary canon, along with his novel, regarded as overly sensational by literary critics.

Sources:
Gale Biography Resource Center databases
http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/04/22/reviews/010422.22lewist.html
Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

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