Do you guys remember back in college when you’d pick up your books for a new class and the first thing you’d do is skip to the back and be thrilled to find out that 100 of the 500 pages you were expected to read were citations and bibliography? No? Just me?
So last night, on the train home, I found myself in the exact opposite position, eagerly anticipating the last 150 pages of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan, about the highly problematic, complex, fascinating lives of prominent white women in Harlem in the 20s. I was downright devastated to find instead 150 pages of index and acknowledgments. Noooooo000000000.
It is a rare piece of historical analysis, without traditional plot or suspense, that can grip a reader like that. Slow clap to Kaplan for pulling it off and making it look easy.
I was wary of Miss Anne from the title alone. Do we really need to go looking for ways that white people’s contributions to history, particularly black history, have been overlooked? Really? Those are the buried contributions we want to spend time and energy uncovering? Look! More stuff that you thought black people did but actually it was white people! And a white historian writing about and profiting off of a book about white people writing about and profiting off of black identity politics in the 20s? Are we really not going to address the irony? This book had the potential to go seriously, seriously awry.
Oh my god, you guys, it was so good. As you might imagine, I’m a sucker for the behind-the-scenes, never-before-revealed, forgotten-by-the-sands-of-time/ignored-by-the-patriarchal-powers-that-be stories of women shaping, influencing, wielding power. This also applies to people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other members of marginalized groups whose contributions are often painted over by a whiter, straighter, male brush. The story of Bayard Rustin is one example; a gay black activist who organized the March on Washington and is literally standing behind MLK Jr during the “I Have a Dream” speech, but whose name is often left out of the textbooks. Or all these women I read about when I was traveling Peru.
The assumption that history was built by (white, straight, rich) men, is undermined when you get into the nitty gritty of who was actually working, writing, creating. With each such story that ultimately gets told, it feels like a slow expansion of the canon, and goddamn does the canon need expanding.
That very tension between untold stories of fascinating women and appropriation of black culture is literally and intentionally the central struggle of Miss Anne and all of the women it chronicles. Kaplan selected six white women, “Miss Annes,” to illustrate the variety of roles that white women inhabited (mostly uncomfortably) during the 1920s in Harlem.
The women she picks range from writers and journalists to “philanthropists”–like Charlotte Osgood Mason, who financed significant work by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke while maintaining a dictatorial grip on their social calendars–to playwrights and poets who attempted to “capture the black experience”. Many of them thought of themselves as boundary-breakers and reached into Harlem for certain freedoms they weren’t allowed in upper middle class white society. Some of them craved the spotlight, others were content to work in obscurity (until now) on behalf of the betterment of blacks. There is no unifying thread in their experience, except for their whiteness and femaleness in a period of history mostly discussed from a black male point of view.
It was an era when primitivism ruled and white Americans took tours of “exotic” Harlem to experience the “carefree” music and dance of black dance halls. Some of the women in Miss Anne subscribed to the worst of those primitivist theories. Some of them didn’t. Race novels like Imitation of Life, Passing, and Let My People Go, grappled with the meaning of racial identity, especially when identity was not visibly obvious. The notion of “volunteering for blackness” existed in opposition to passing for white. The dueling concepts of “race pride” and “race is a useless social construction” were constantly being debated in the press, on stage, and in salons. Can you choose how you identify? What happens if it’s in conflict with how others identify you? Why is choosing blackness different than passing for white? What obligations do you owe the members of your group?
In short, it was messy as hell, and to her credit Kaplan ignores none of the mess. Thank God.
There’s only one thing I would add to Miss Anne. If you recall from writing history papers in college, the trick at the end was always to pull the past into the present with some trite sentence like, “And that is why these issues are still ones we are discussing today.” Only better than that, obviously. While Kaplan successfully draws strong lines from 1920s race and identity politics to the present day, there is one piece missing from the puzzle; Kaplan’s story herself. By opening the door to discussing her role as a white historian telling black stories and describing black experience [Note: She is considered an expert on Zora Neale Hurston], she could have added that last complicating layer to an already super complicated, delicious, multi-layered history cake.
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