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ESSAY Goat Cart Sam a.k.a. Porgy, an Icon of a Sanitized South by Kendra Hamilton Cab Calloway andLeontyne Price, in the 19j2 opera Porgy and Bess. Reprinted bypermission oftheAmerican Theatre Collection at George Mason University Libraries. 31 grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where city planners with an eye toward those all-important tourists from Oshkosh and Vermont have repackaged the town's fire-and-brimstone Zeitgeist into a sanitized southern fried trifle that goes down sweeter than pralines on King Street. Today, tourists from Wal-Mart America cruise the streets, stuffing themselves on the Old Slave Market, Fort Sumter, and Rainbow Row till they're too complacent to wonder where the jazz is, why the tour guides keep chattering about "servants," or how manygentrification carrion birds the new tourist and convention center is going to send wheeling over the peninsula's remaining black neighborhoods. Yes, I grew up in Charleston, and the city is much changed from the crumbling ruin known to DuBose Heyward, the white author of the novel that became the legendary Porgy and Bess, and to the man who would come to be called Porgy. I doubt either would recognize it—or even, though for different reasons, much like it. Although Heyward's story takes place in Charleston, to understand it fully we must turn first to New York City, some seventy-odd years ago, where a group of writers and intellectuals were flinging themselves like moths against the candle flame of something they were calling the "modern"—and seeking, even more assiduously , to give their experiments a name. Carl Van Vechten is the man at the center ofone ofthose boiling cauldrons ofexperimentation. A white novelist and essayist who took an early—and lonely—stand on behalf of integration in both the arts and social life, Van Vechten has been hailed as a chief architect—and reviled as a cheap huckster—of the New Negro Renaissance. It seems clear that Van Vechten's intentions were noble—and equally clear that he is doomed to remain an ambiguous figure in the annals ofthat era. His own words offer a reason. There's no escaping the savage, if unintended, irony of his most famous essay, written in 1926 for the naacp's magazine, The Crisis. The words, intended as a call to arms for the African American artist, shriek down through the decades like fingernails across a blackboard: The squalor of Negro life, the vice of Negro life, offer a wealth of novel, exotic , picturesque material to the artist. On the other hand, there is very litde difference if any between the life of a wealthy or cultured Negro and that of a white man of the same class. The question is: are Negro writers going to write about this exotic material while it is still fresh or will they continue to make a free gift ofit to white authors who will exploit it until not a drop ofvitality remains?1 With a magisterial wave of his hand and one sweeping generalization, Van Vechten pulled a linguistic rabbit out of his hat. Grim realities such as the rigid social segregation and economic oppression that affected even the wealthiest blacks, not to mention the lynchings that had inspired Claude McKay's protest 32 southern cultures, Fall1999 : Kendra Hamilton sonnet "IfWe Must Die" just one year before, are simply made to vanish, while the "vice" and "squalor" that at- A\s PoTVV'sfame tend poverty are celebrated for their "exotic, picturesque", ¡ , , , ,.grew, the authors qualities.¿> ' Van Vechten considered himselfa radical—and so has legendshrunk. a generation ofliterary critics. But, despite his friendships with African American artists, despite his charitable connections with black southern schools, Van Vechten's view of African Americans was limited—at times condescending and opportunistic. Anthropology has given us a frame for discussing this particular brand of radicalism . Ian McKay, whose personal "quest ofthe folk" has led him into a searching examination ofthe enterprise ofethnography, would have called Van Vechten an "aesthetic colonist" and pointed out the indisputable parallels with Helen Creighton—another champion of the folk, whose sincere affection for the poor of Nova Scotia never stopped her from making a buck off of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 31-53
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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