By MARTHA A. SANDWEISS
Published: September 20, 2013
Time hasn’t been kind to the white women who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. As philanthropists and activists, authors and patrons, they sought a place for themselves in that remarkable outpouring of African-American art during the 1920s and ’30s. Some, constrained by social expectations, effaced the records of their work. Others made it difficult for historians to treat them with much seriousness. What, after all, can we do with someone like Nancy Cunard, a British steamship heiress raised on a remote English estate, who felt no shame in proclaiming “I speak as if I were a Negro myself”?
“Miss Anne” — the dismissive collective name given to white women — makes bit appearances in the literature of the era as a dilettante or imperious patron; later, she’s depicted as a thrill-seeking “slummer.” Always, she lurks in the shadows of her male counterparts in scholarly studies of the movement. But she was there, encouraging writers, underwriting cultural institutions, supporting progressive political causes. And many leading Harlem Renaissance figures — including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and Nella Larsen — had reason to be grateful to her. At least for a while. Like everything else about Miss Anne, those relationships got complicated.
In this remarkable work of historical recovery, Carla Kaplan, author of “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,” does well by a group of women who got so much wrong. She resurrects Miss Anne as a cultural figure and explores the messy contradictions of her life, moving her from the periphery of a story about white patronage and boundary-testing interracial liaisons to the center. With a focus on six of the roughly 60 white women active in the Harlem Renaissance, Kaplan delineates Miss Anne as a counterpart to the better known flapper or “new woman” of the Roaring Twenties. But this is really a collection of individual stories, a group biography that lets the idiosyncrasies of the individual women shine through. “Negrotarians,” as the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston called Harlem’s white patrons, were a diverse crew, full of good intentions, startling blind spots and astonishing self-confidence.
“Miss Anne in Harlem” gives just passing attention to the era’s quieter patrons, like Mary White Ovington, a founder of the N.A.A.C.P., or the philanthropist Amy Spingarn. Kaplan’s eye is on the women who raised more complicated questions about racial self-identity. So we meet Cunard, a self-appointed expert on African-American life, who organized and self-published a massive 855-page anthology, “Negro,” an “entirely documentary” record of the race, even though she’d made only brief trips to America and had never been to Africa. And we encounter Charlotte Osgood Mason, an imperious anti-Semite and collector of African art, who demanded that her Harlem protégés call her “Godmother.” It would be easy to dismiss such women as high-handed interlopers. But Kaplan urges us to take them seriously and to use their sometimes overwrought, even outrageous, expressions of cross-racial solidarity as a way to understand a broader set of questions about racial identity.
The book is full of fresh discoveries. Kaplan learns that Lillian Wood, author of the radical 1920s anti-lynching novel “Let My People Go,” was actually white, not black, as other scholars have imagined. She reveals that Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, the white daughter of a Klan member and the wife of the African-American journalist George Schuyler, collaborated anonymously on much of her husband’s work and used several pseudonyms to write for his journal, conveying the false impression of a community of white women who shared her anti-racist views.
But the focus of the book remains squarely on the larger issues of racial identity raised by Miss Anne’s deep personal identification with African-American life. Miss Anne wanted to suggest that race was a constructed ideal, yet she stumbled over the internal contradictions of her impulses. She fought against racial essentialism and the perverse logic of America’s one-drop rule, which proclaimed that even a trace of African heritage made one black, but she also celebrated the seeming vitality and distinctiveness of black culture. Josephine Cogdell Schuyler wrote in her diary the night before her wedding: “To my mind, the white race, the Anglo-Saxon especially, is spiritually depleted. America must mate with the Negro to save herself.” In a similar expression of romantic racialism, the philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason lauded “the creative impulse throbbing in the African race.” As Kaplan suggests, white men could sometimes get away with ideas like this; a dose of black culture offered a useful inoculation against the debilitating sterility of the industrial world. But white women who sought an intimate connection with African-American life were seen as traitors to the race, even sexual deviants.
What was race anyway? That’s the big question Miss Anne’s actions raised. If race was simply a myth or fiction, could one reimagine racial identity as something based on affiliation rather than blood? Some of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance asked much the same thing. In Nella Larsen’s “Passing” and James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” for example, light-skinned protagonists of African-American heritage successfully pass as white, demonstrating that racial identity could hinge on voluntary association and careful self-presentation. Their radical acts blur the color line and expose the absurdity of the one-drop rule. Approaching the color line from the other side, Miss Anne reframed the issues. If race wasn’t determined by biology, why couldn’t a white woman feel black? Why couldn’t she repudiate her own culture to embrace another?
Many Harlem intellectuals decried racial essentialism, just as Miss Anne did. But a conflicting set of values celebrated “race pride.” Many excoriated the biracial Jean Toomer for not wishing to be included in anthologies of Negro literature, and conversely praised the anti-lynching activist and N.A.A.C.P. executive secretary Walter White for identifying as black when his appearance gave no suggestion of his African ancestry. Even the protagonists of Larsen’s and Johnson’s novels about passing, came to regret their decisions. They could pass across the color line, but it was not worth the cost of losing their families, their people, their race. Race might be a fiction. But somehow, it still mattered.
Miss Anne didn’t have it easy. White critics viewed her as sex-crazed or degenerate, and her desire to speak for others made her a problematic figure in the black community as well. When Fannie Hurst included a stereotyped mammy figure in her best-selling novel “Imitation of Life,” Zora Neale Hurston, once close to Hurst, wrote an essay titled “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” criticizing books by white writers that “made out they were holding a looking glass to the Negro” but “had everything in them but Negroness.” I am a “better Negro” than most of the Negroes I know, Charlotte Osgood Mason told the Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay. Small wonder that her protégés Langston Hughes and Hurston broke from her iron grip.
Miss Anne makes for a messy heroine. But in Kaplan’s deeply researched book, she becomes a useful cultural type, for all her inconsistencies and inability to effect broad social change. As Americans debate whether this might truly be a “post-racial” age, Miss Anne’s ambitions and failures remind us what happened when an earlier generation of earnest and committed (if sometimes misguided) women questioned the meaning of the color line, and pushed for the right to define their own racial identities. They discovered that even if race is a fiction, the power of race is real.
Martha A. Sandweiss is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of “Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line.”