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Introducing 'Miss Anne,' The White Women Of A Black Renaissance

Sep 16, 2013 (Fresh Air)

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Carla Kaplan is a professor of American literature at Northeastern University.

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Ten years ago, literary scholar Carla Kaplan released an acclaimed edition of the letters of Zora Neale Hurston. In the course of researching Hurston's life, Kaplan became curious about the white women who were in Harlem in the same period as Hurston, women who risked family exile and social ostracism to be part of the artistic and political movements of the Harlem Renaissance. Now, Kaplan has published a cultural history of those women called Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance.

Kaplan opens her revelatory book with a poem that was printed in the NAACP's journal, The Crisis, around 1930. "A White Girl's Prayer" was written by "a white girl" named Edna Margaret Johnson. Here are some scattered lines that'll give you the gist of her "prayer":

"I writhe in self-contempt, O God —
My Nordic flesh is but a curse:
... Tonight on bended knees I pray:
Free me from my despised flesh
And make me yellow ... bronze ...
or black"

You can imagine how Johnson's poem would have been received by almost any white reader of the time: As Kaplan makes clear, the Jazz Age, despite its reputation for radicalism, was a time when "the color line" was brutally enforced. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan was soaring, black homes in white neighborhoods were firebombed, and the lynchings of black men were captured on picture postcards. Countering that racist status quo, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s celebrated black music, literature, scholarship, dance and art. Happily, there's been so much written on the Harlem Renaissance that the subject seems a bit mined-out; until, that is, a book like Kaplan's comes along and leaves a reader reeling.

In compelling detail, Kaplan describes the lives and motivations of white women who, much like poet Edna Margaret Johnson, yearned to become what was then called a "voluntary Negro." Such women ran the gamut from philanthropists to thrill seekers, educators and artists, hostesses and lovers. Collectively, they were known to Harlem-ites by the nickname of "Miss Anne." Blacks suspected them of sentimentality, as well as appropriating what was thought of as a more "primitive" culture. The white world, in turn, diagnosed "Miss Anne" as either a lunatic or a sexual vampire. Thus, the British heiress Nancy Cunard, who put out the era's most sweeping anthology of black writing, was categorized by the State Department as a "white woman who had Gone Negro." Kaplan says that part of what complicated her research into these so-called female "race traitors" was that many of them, wisely, preferred to live their unconventional lives under the radar.

Kaplan readily admits that her subjects' motives in crossing the color line were not always "politically correct": Park Avenue patron Charlotte Osgood Mason, for instance, demanded intense emotional intimacy from the artists she bankrolled, writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. But Kaplan says Miss Anne's story is worth telling because, collectively, just by being where she was — a white woman in a black world — "she pushed the idea that identity is affiliation, allegiance, and desire — rather than biology or blood — further than almost anyone else in her day."

Aside from its significance as cultural history, Miss Anne in Harlem is packed with amazing life stories. The one that really stays with me is that of Josephine Cogdell Schuyler. Born in Texas in 1897 to a wealthy family, Schuyler lit out for bohemian Greenwich Village as soon as she was of age. In New York, she met George Schuyler, then on his way to becoming the best-known black journalist in the country. They married in 1928 and had a daughter, Philippa, who became a piano prodigy. Together, they were profiled in national magazines as "America's Strangest Family"; nevertheless, Josephine successfully kept her marriage and mixed-race daughter secret from her Texas family. Shunned by blacks and whites alike, Josephine found herself isolated in the family's Harlem apartment, transformed by her radical interracial marriage into a conventional housewife. She reclaimed some voice for herself by writing an advice column — as a black woman — for The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation's largest black newspaper. When daughter Philippa died in 1967 on tour entertaining the troops in Vietnam, her funeral was one of the grandest Harlem ever saw: Her silver casket was borne through crowded streets all the way to St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Throughout her fascinating book, Kaplan makes the point that women like Schuyler, while not "heroic," often paid a heavy personal price for defying racial norms. In the dispiriting judgment of one of her other subjects, Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of Barnard College: "It is of no more use to be ahead of your time, than [to be] behind it."

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