Customer Reviews for

Nigger Heaven

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Posted November 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Why did Carl Van Vechten choose such an offensive, provocative title?

    In 1926 white American author Carl Van Vechten issued a novel about Harlem. Its heroine was young light-brown Mary Love. Its hero was young light-brown Byron Kasson. Mary was a librarian, Byron an aspiring writer from Philadelphia, freshly arrived in Harlem with a University of Pennsylvania degree. They loved each other, she him, alas, vastly more than he her. Each was also loved by others. She turned down a marriage proposal from a rich, uneducated self-made rich Negro man. He became, briefly, the kept man of an exotic, wealthy, bohemian, light-brown Negro woman. The doomed romance of Miss Love and Mr Kasson played out against a backdrop of Negro slang, cabarets, numbers games, job searches by Byron and interactions among Harlem Negroes who were conscious of various skin tones and held related attitudes. 1920s Harlem was a world where white people still called the shots from farther south in Manhattan but were increasingly fascinated by what made the neighboring Negroes different. *** Van Vechten's love story of Mary and Byron was widely read from the beginning, with opinions hotly divided as to the novel's literary and social merits. It seems safe to say, however, that everyone wished that author Carl Van Vechten had chosen a different title. For he named his Harlem novel N*GGER HEAVEN. And he had his reasons. *** That Harlem was both "mecca of the New Negro" artists and intellectuals and "n*gger heaven" for ordinary black people is a recurring image and thesis of Van Vechten's novel. He seems to have taken its title from a 1926 book, FOLK BELIEFS OF THE SOUTHERN NEGRO. There Van Vechten learned that "n*gger heaven" was a sneering phrase used in some Southern States to designate those highest and most undesirable seats in a public movie theater, those "reserved for colored." Van Vechten said that Harlem, sitting as it did, just north of the favored white part of Manhattan, was Manhattan's "n*gger heaven." And in the novel, black characters do indeed use that phrase for Harlem. *** That awful phrase appears in one of the novel's most bitter passages. Byron and Mary have just walked one evening north from a Manhattan park (where they had been insulted by a white woman on horseback) up Seventh Avenue. After 125th Street they were suddenly in Harlem, meeting only Negroes. Byron moaned: "N*gger Heaven! ... N*gger Heaven! That's what Harlem is. We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theatre and watch the white world sitting down below in the good seats in the orchestra. ... they turn their faces up towards us, their hard, cruel faces, to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon. ... It doesn't seem to occur to them either, he went on fiercely, that we sit above them, than we can drop things down on them and crush them, that we can swoop down from this N*gger Heaven and take their seats. No, they have no fear of that! Harlem! The Mecca of the New Negro! My God! (Book One, Ch. 8) *** This book grows on you with re-reading. It may also conceivably help today's readers understand lingering tensions in race relationships in America long after end of legal segregation, prejudice and discrimination. -OOO-

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2010

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