Drawing primarily on identity theory, cultural studies, and contemporary feminism, Kaplan’s chapters allow two generations of women, known collectively as "Miss Anne," to speak to their “reasons for being in Harlem and [their] ideas about race.” The introduction explains why Kaplan explores the motive, contributions, and foibles of this heretofore forgotten group whose individual interests ranged from primitivism to antiracism. Their biographies, which begin in their childhood homes, provide often shocking insights with respect to “codes of whiteness” and conflicting views of racial essentialism at a particularly “volatile” period of U.S. history. The front matter also contains a note to the reader, a list of illustrations, and a page of Miss Anne’s poems from The Crisis. Eight chapters and an epilogue follow. The after matter contains acknowledgments, credits, sixty-five pages of notes, a forty-five-page bibliography, and an index.
Part One, Chapter 1, “Miss Anne’s World” has two chapters. “Black and White Identity Politics” reveals European-Americans’ “ugly anxieties about racial difference” and describes Harlem’s philosophic paradox: intellectuals and artists simultaneously rejected essentialist notions of race even as they embraced cultural pride. With evidence from literature and drama, Kaplan situates the paradox within the “national folklore craze . . . to preserve the roots of American culture” and female writers’ continuing need for artistic respectability. She then considers how Harlem artists negotiated responses to primitivism and cultural appropriation, pointing out that, while Miss Anne is largely absent from “histories” and “black writings including correspondence,” in literature she emerges as an interloping “fool or monster.” Chapter 2, “An Erotics of Race,” continues Kaplan’s exploration of Harlem’s dilemma contrasting racist quotes from guidebooks with the support high society provided for Harlem’s artists and intellectuals. Here the reader briefly encounters a range of Miss Annes: Blanche Knopf, Nella Larsen’s publisher, who explored Harlem “in drag”; Libby Holman who, in black face at an NAACP fund raiser, portrayed a prostitute “begging her pimp not to leave her”; Mary White Ovington, a socialist founder of the NAACP; and Helen L. Worthing, an actress whose interracial marriage incurred such wrath that she committed suicide. The chapter ends with the Scottsboro case, which “reinforced ... how frightened white women might be of being perceived as choosing blacks over whites” and demonstrated the “blind injustice” that African Americans risked when interacting with mainstream America.
Part Two, “Choosing Blackness, Sex, Love, and Passing,” has three chapters. The first is deceptively entitled “Let My People Go: Lillian E. Wood Passes for Black” and documents the life of a sympathetic Ohio woman who lived the last half of her life at an African-American Liberal Arts College. Ignorance on the part of readers and critics, not Woods’s duplicity, lead to her misidentification as an “‘emerging Black woman’ . . . writing about her people” (referencing Shockley ). The chapter begins with European-American southerners’ hostile reception to ”Yankee schoolmarms in the freedmen schools” and moves to Wood’s substantial academic and social contributions to her students. Let My People Go, which Kaplan describes as “sentimental/didactic,” treats “lynching, disenfranchisement, early black education . . . race riots, . . . World War I, the Great Migration, and the development of the NAACP.” The novel also contains “the most condemnatory portrait of white women that [Kaplan has] encountered.”
“Josephine Cogdell Schuyler: The fall of a Fair Confederate,” the second chapter in Part Two, traces the life a Texas heiress who hid her marriage to an influential African-American journalist from family and friends. Kaplan begins by elaborating themes introduced in Chapter 1, moving through Schuyler’s journey from a racist to a woman determined to live free of sex stereotypes and racial hypocrisy. After establishing herself as writer and painter in California, Schuyler traveled to Greenwich Village, quickly transitioning from a Harlem “slummer” to the mistress of a “very dark, very sexual, and highly intelligent” member of the Harlem elite. Ironically, once married, she became a traditional wife, homemaker, and mother. “[U]nnoticed by critics and uncredited by her husband,” she helped to build his career, “writing and editing to meet his deadlines” even as she published under several of pseudonyms. The most interesting of these is that of Julia Jerome, “the leading black female advice columnist” and “ardent feminist.” Though she seems not to have had close African American friendships, we are told Schuyler created a home for her husband and their daughter that “‘helped define African[-]American public life’” (quoting Ella Baker). Schuyler and her husband were much in the national eye as “Harlem’s most vocal proponents of interracial marriage.” Sadly, after their only daughter was born, her husband became “emotionally withholding, constantly absent” and, because of his increasingly conservative views, “a laughing stock in Harlem’s intellectual circles.” Schuyler committed suicide, two years after their daughter, who had matured into a concert pianist, composer, and journalist, was killed in Vietnam in 1967.
Part Three, “Repudiating Whiteness: Politics, Patronage, and Primitivism” examines the lives of the founder of Barnard College, Annie Nathan Meyer, (Chapter 5) and the philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason (Chapter 6). A member of the wealthy Jewish New York community, Mayer had authored “eight plays, numerous novels, many essays, and hundreds of editorials” when she produced her play Black Souls, which Zora Neale Hurston described as “accurate” and “brave.” Schuyler hailed the play as superior to those that “‘patronize the Negro’”; her husband praised it for “helping ‘our nation . . . emerge from its present savage state.’” Kaplan herself sees Black Souls as important for “depicting female desire, . . . eschewing dialect,” and embracing the African-American anti-lynching dramatic tradition. Main stream media’s response to the play created “one of the most heated controversies in the history of the modern theater” and forced Meyer, who believed lynching was a “moral dilemma every white woman needed to face,” to market the script herself. Like other Miss Annes whose contributions are largely forgotten, Meyer’s engagement with Harlem provided her with “recognition . . . a sense of community, and the special freedom that comes from being an outsider.”
The chapter on Mason, “Mother of the Primitives,” considers her mentoring of “ethnomusicologicst Natalie Curtis” and two “musically inclined sisters” before turning to her patronage of “almost every major figure of the Harlem Renaissance.”. Kaplan describes Mason as driven by her belief in the “‘subliminal self’” (quoting Mason’s husband, a respected Park Avenue physician known for his exploration of the paranormal) and her conviction that non-Western peoples could provide “cultural salvation.” In 1927, after Curtis’s death, Mason’s “obsessive” interest in “collecting African art” lead her to Alain Locke who introduced Mason to her two best known protégées, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Mason’s “nurturing” and financial support were initially appreciated. As she realized she was unable to fully bend her protégées to her will, she withdrew support. Mason communicated with Locke until her death, but by 1929 her enthusiasm for Hughes was waning. On the advice of spirit writing, she abandoned him in 1930. Despite Mason’s disappointment over Hurston’s failed biography of Cudjo Lewis and her annoyance over Hurston’s use of folk material in The Great Day, Mason supported her until 1932. After breaking her hip in 1933, the “‘Park Avenue dragon’” (quoting Hurston), deaf, and nearly blind, moved to a hospital where she continued “to effect planetary change”. In the end, Mason determined Harlem did not, after all, hold the answers she wanted. Her will provided no support for the Harlem community or her former protégées.
Part Four, “Rewards, and Costs: Publishing, Performance, and Modern Rebellion” explores the lives of Fannie Hurst and Nancy Cunard. Hurst, Kaplan writes, was “probably the most influential and widely known white person to interest herself in black New York.” We also learn of her relationship with Hurston, which she exploited while writing Imitation of Life, a novel that develops a feminist, rags-to-riches story of a cross-dressing European-American woman even as it linguistically and socially exploits the mammy stereotype: an African-American woman who “presid[ed] ‘like a vast black sun over the troubled waters of the domestic scene’” (quoting Hurst) urges her mistress “to get herself some man lovin’” and “dies on the floor kissing her mistress’s ankles.” Adding insult to injury, Hurst, blames the domestic’s death on her light-skinned daughter’s successful passing as white. Although Harlem repudiated the novel, “there were few, if any, other direct consequences for Hurst”; “insulated by her own status,” Hurst continued to lend support in Harlem causes.
Chapter 8, the last biographical chapter, considers the life of Nancy Cunard, British shipping heiress, member of the Associated Negro Press, publisher, editor of the 855-page Negro: An Anthology, and “one of the most important and influential white women in Harlem.” Unlike other Miss Anne’s who recoiled from the hate mail generated by their liaisons with African-American men, Cunard published some of hers in “an essay entitled ‘The American Moron and the American of Sense–Letters on the Negro.”” Soon after her society marriage, Cunard divorced and moved to Paris, where she was quickly absorbed into a “circle of modernists and surrealists” that included Ernest Hemingway; John Dos Passos; Marcel Du Champ; Peggy Guggenheim; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. After amassing a “remarkable” collection of African art and artifacts that included the bracelets that became her hallmark, she began a long-term albeit tumultuous liaison with a married African-American musician whom she met in Italy. Together they established and operated a small press– The Hours– whose authors included Laura Riding, Robert Graves, Samuel Becket, and Ezra Pound. In line with Cunard’s “voluntary identity” as a person of African descent and her rejection of “‘race loyalty” (citing Cunard), she outraged British society, becoming estranged from her “right-wing,” American-born mother, and “squared off with the NAACP over the appropriate path to justice for the Scottsboro Eight. Despite her many successes as a writer, editor, publisher, and fund raiser, Cunard died prematurely of alcohol abuse in a public New York hospital without “erasing the taint of sexual lunacy from her embrace of black politics and culture.”
Kaplan’s Epilogue reiterates that passionate, “committed,” fair-minded, nonconformist, self-interested, empathetic, appropriating, and–for many–“crazy” Miss Anne “push[ed] along the systematic and structural changes necessary” for moving towards a more perfect democracy.
A Virgin Islands proverb warns ‘the love of white people is like leprosy,’ a point repeatedly driven home by Kaplan’s biographies. Her fascinating, distressing, and detailed examination of a period many of us know primarily from literature explores racist thinking during the 1920s and 30s from the perspectives of women–mostly wealthy–who dared to cross the race line. The volume’s beautifully reproduced images are a bonus, as are the dismaying factoids that salt the chapters. For example, Kaplan tells us that Hurston’s “Barnard professors were assigning ‘C’ grades to her examinations before she’s even sat for them” and that sun tanning– still alarmingly popular in the American Southeast– is an artifact of “Negrophila.”
The volume is well-produced and worthy of inclusion in library research collections. Its highly readable style and remarkably inexpensive price make it suitable for personal libraries and for use as a textbook in both graduate and advanced undergraduate classes.
Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. By Carla Kaplan. Harper, 2013.