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.”
In Kaplan’s richly researched, thoughtful new book, “Miss Anne in Harlem,’’ the author focuses not on the intellectual and artistic leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, nor the average black citizens whose daily lives informed the era, but on some of its most unusual denizens: white women. Called “Miss Anne” (with or without the “e’’) in black vernacular, the white woman has often assumed a vexed role in black society. At best, they have acted to bridge cultures (as in the Yankee schoolteachers who staffed the post-Civil War freedmen schools); at worst, they have been a lethal threat — as the 1931 Scottsboro case made abundantly clear. Set in this context, the women’s individual stories form a master narrative of miscommunication.
The white woman who entered black society was seen at the time, Kaplan writes, as “a sexual adventurer or a lunatic,” yet in crossing 125th Street she also challenged “her era’s cherished axioms of racial identity.” White tourists visited upper Manhattan and returned thrilled by what they saw as exotic, but the women whose stories Kaplan tells felt connected; expressing her attraction to black people through literature or philanthropy, Kaplan writes, “Miss Anne complicated her culture’s notions of identity, in other words, whether she set out to do so or not.”
Even women such as NAACP founding member Mary White Ovington and major donor Amy Spingarn, who eschewed publicity for their contributions, faced vilification in the white press for their association with Harlemites. As “traitors to whiteness,” they were considered “guilty of acts of symbolic treason, and they forfeited whatever class privileges they had acquired.”
Imagine, then, the judgment facing women like Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, a white Southerner whose black husband was among Harlem’s most irascible public intellectuals. She kept her interracial marriage secret from her father until his death. Equally invisible, Kaplan says, were Josephine’s editorial contributions to her husband’s work over the years. (Although she did write under pseudonyms for the black press, including a stint as advice columnist “Julia Jerome, Harlem’s black Ann Landers.’’) As Kaplan makes clear, the Schuylers’ marriage was unconventional when it came to race, but drearily familiar in following traditional gender roles. Josephine was largely socially isolated, undergoing “a kind of social death” in the white world, but not fully accepted by black women in her husband’s circle, either. “On both sides of the color line,” Kaplan writes, “Miss Anne was a nuisance.”
Among the women Kaplan profiles, the least sympathetic by far is Charlotte Osgood Mason, known in the annals of American literature as the shadowy “Godmother” who helped support writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. A wealthy widow, Mason became enamored of so-called primitive art beginning with her travels to the American Southwest but soon expanded her enthusiasms to include the work of Africans and African Americans. Inspired by paradoxical feelings of “reverence and disrespect, emulation and condescension,” it’s little wonder that the Godmother’s financial largesse came studded with criticism, manipulation, and favoritism. She died alone and largely unloved; in place of obituaries, Kaplan writes, were the caricatures of her — grasping, cruel, deluded — that live on in the era’s fiction.
“I am not interested in claiming heroic status for these women,” Kaplan writes, and readers will agree this is wise. Yet it’s equally hard not to sympathize with their struggles against a society that steamrolled female ambitions and difference. Kaplan makes a vivid case for their importance as early adopters of the “idea that identity is affiliation, allegiance, and desire — rather than biology or blood.” Miss Anne in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance is mostly, Kaplan notes, “a minor character — a befuddled dilettante or overbearing patron.” Yet, in choosing to live outside the boundaries prescribed by her birth, she deserves at least credit for courage.