Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Northeastern University, Carla Kaplan dedicates Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (Harper Collins, 2014) to some of the most remarkable women of the time who immersed themselves in the racial struggles of African-American writers attempting to find a place in which their voices might be heard. White women’s presence in Harlem, let alone in the very public and political sphere of racism, was not welcomed by either white men or black men and women; thus, the derogatory pseudonym of “Miss Anne” was assigned to any white woman who went slumming in Harlem or attempted to meddle in the African-American struggle for empowerment and freedom. Still relegated to the patriarchal notions of the cult of true womanhood, white women were expected to adopt ivory tower personas; they were to be pure and wholesome and quiet, standing by their white successful husbands and acting as demure cheerleaders.
Miss Anne did nothing of the sort. She didn’t sit idly by and watch men — black or white — pursue fame and success; she was right in the mix of it, and although it did not help her reputation, she used her money, her name, her intellect, and her strength to embed her voice into relevant conversations about black artists in America despite the backlash she received. According to Kaplan,
the press sexualized and sensationalized Miss Anne, often portraying her as either monstrous of insane…Miss Anne crops up in Harlem Renaissance literature as…a befuddled dilettante or overbearing patron whose presence in cabarets or political meetings spawns outbreaks of racial violence.
Even for black people, Miss Anne was a precarious ticking bomb, and she was mocked as much as she was feared, given that black men were still being lynched simply for being perceived to look at a white woman, their lives at stake if they even dared have sexual relationships with women not of their own race or skin color. Miss Anne was a dangerous combination not only because her desire to help the causes of African-Americans endangered black men but also because she challenged the social expectations for women by white patriarchy. It’s this courage that Kaplan draws our attention to in writing her book, noting that Miss Anne’s willingness to be dismissed, ostracized, and vilified simply for embracing Harlem and its people was in fact “a pioneering gesture worthy of attention.”
While the first half of Kaplan’s book focuses on the interdisciplinary history of the Harlem Renaissance and Miss Anne’s place within it, the rest of the book is divided into beautifully crafted biographies of six out of the more than five dozen names she uncovered; the six white women she presents are some of the most prominent Miss Annes who depict this strain of courage and repudiation at the same time.
They include Lillian Wood, a teacher of black students in the south and author of Let My People Go; Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of Barnard College for women and writer of Black Souls, a play that focuses on white women’s role in black men’s lynching; Fannie Hurst, the most highly paid writer of the time — among men and women combined — who collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston to write about black and white friendships in Imitation of Life; Charlotte Osgood Mason, aka “Godmother,” a wealthy benefactress to Harlemites the likes of Hughes, Hurston, and Alain Locke, set out to create an army of black poets and writers that would heal the world through their work; Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, a writer and editor mostly known for marrying black writer and critic George Schuyler, she also believed that the only way to eradicate racism was to engage in interracial marriage and/or relationships; and finally, Nancy Cunard, a socialite from England notoriously known for her affairs with black men while her other achievements — the most noted one being that she was the only white woman to be a full-time journalist for the Associated Negro Press — were dismissed and forgotten.
These women were rare, impassioned, and intelligent, and Carla Kaplan provides us with fascinating snippets of their lives, dreams, and achievements as they endeavored to enter a social and political venue that was relegated only to men — black and white. They attempted to blur not only racial lines but also gender lines as they took it upon themselves to change the prevailing attitudes and expectations of black artists and women through their writing and activism. Kaplan not only gives them a voice but also their rightful place in history as pioneers.