- Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan
Carla Kaplan’s Miss Anne in Harlem highlights the presence of white women in African American journalism, theater, anthology-making, and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. White women who crossed the color line had a variety of motivations, ideological stances, and temperatures of reception by their black audiences and peers. Kaplan’s book richly illustrates a range of examples and calls for new attention to be brought to these and other white women who took part in African American cultural and political movements. With chapters on Lillian Wood, Josephine Schuyler, Annie Nathan Meyer, Charlotte Osgood Mason, Fannie Hurst, and Nancy Cunard, Miss Anne in Harlem addresses a scholarly gap that Kaplan became aware of while researching Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. White women who took part in black culture were often “dismissed as sexual adventurer or lunatic” (xx), primitivist, appropriator, or exploiter. Kaplan’s book puts aside such out-of-hand dismissals and instead takes seriously these figures’ various and sometimes contradictory motivations.
The “Miss Anne” of the title comes from a twentieth-century African American slang term for a white woman. In the introductory chapters, Kaplan uses “Miss Anne” as shorthand to broadly discuss the shape of racial politics and attitudes to and of white women in the era. While its deployment sometimes seems forced, the term “Miss Anne” draws attention to the fact that white women’s participation in black culture was a cultural phenomenon rather than a singular exception. The opening chapters record a number of fascinating details, like the poem “White Woman’s Prayer” by Edna Margaret Johnson (“make me yellow . . . bronze . . . or black”) published in The Crisis, and highlights white women who played important roles in black cultural life in Harlem, like Ernestine Rose, a librarian at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Kaplan presents some of the more vexing examples of white authors, like Julia Peterkin, who used black culture as a means to access authentic, primitive feeling. On the other hand, Kaplan also considers the earnest political intention involved in what would otherwise seem to be ill-conceived acts, such as Libby Holman’s performance in blackface. Kaplan writes that Walter White’s inclusion of Holman’s performance during a 1929 fundraiser for the NAACP points to the notion that “choosing—even impersonating—blackness over whiteness could be a meaningful act of solidarity” (45). Kaplan suggests that the “sometimes awkward gestures” of Miss Anne’s approach to black culture could also be “deemed effective” (40). Throughout the book, but especially in the introductory chapters, Kaplan makes statements about the “Miss Anne” type (e.g. “Miss Anne sometimes saw her exclusion from ‘voluntary blackness’ as Harlem’s version of the ‘one-drop rule’” ). Such blanket remarks about “Miss Anne” seem much less informative than the specific portraits of women and their African American interlocutors that appear in the book.
In fact, Kaplan might have organized the argument of her book as not Miss Anne in Harlem. Not only do the women featured in her chapters defy the existence of a single “Miss Anne” type, but they were also often not situated “in Harlem.” This was perhaps a missed opportunity to highlight the multiple geographies of the so-called Harlem Renaissance. Kaplan’s extensive research takes us to the U.S. South, upstate New York, downtown New York City, and Europe. Throughout her adulthood, Lillian Wood taught in a black college in the South; Josephine Cogdell Schuyler married into the black middle class, moving from the west coast to Harlem; from her home in France, Nancy Cunard undertook a major anthology project that would be published in London; Annie Nathan Meyer wrote the play Black Souls for production in Greenwich Village; [End Page 844] Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life was conceptualized together with Zora Neale Hurston on a drive to Canada through upstate New York; and Charlotte Osgood Mason...