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.