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Books

Book Review

‘Miss Anne in Harlem’ by Carla Kaplan

As history and origin story, the Harlem Renaissance lives in the American imagination as a time and place of artistic and intellectual ferment, of jazz and poetry, of black pride and community identity. But 1920s America was also a time and place of deep racial hatred, whether expressed violently through an epidemic of lynching or pseudo-scientifically via what historian Carla Kaplan calls that period’s “taxonomic fever, a nearly obsessive mania for putting people into categories.”

Eugenics and the one-drop rule reflected society’s preoccupation with passing and race-mixing, all of which overlay pervasive white anxiety about equality in general. Black America, too, debated the meaning of race — was it only a biological fiction? Or was it also an essential part of black identity, allowing or even obliging African-American artists to invoke Africa as a source of solidarity and strength? Whether one bought into the faddish science of phenotypes — did bluish fingernails hint at African ancestry? — most Harlemites agreed that, as Kaplan says, “race was an ethics, that they owed something to other blacks.”

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