Feature

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan

Carla Kaplan tells the stories of six white women who bankrolled or otherwise thrust themselves into the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.

(Harper, $29)

“Time hasn’t been kind to the white women who participated in the Harlem Renaissance,” said Martha A. Sandweiss in The New York Times. The enduring literature of the era has etched an image of them as patronizing dilettantes, which is just a small step up from the worst that was said about them by contemporaries. Scholar Carla Kaplan neither canonizes them nor echoes critics’ accusations that they were loonies or sex maniacs. Instead, while recounting the stories of six women who bankrolled or otherwise thrust themselves into the heart of a black cultural awakening, she uses their experiences to explore how people on both sides of the color line thought about race. The book is “a remarkable work of historical recovery.”

These women “came to the Renaissance with decidedly mixed motives,” said Kevin Boyle in The Washington Post. British heiress Nancy Cunard and Texan Josephine Cogdell were defying wealthy parents, for instance; writers Annie Nathan Meyer and Fannie Hurst were seeking inspiration. And while “it would have been easy for Kaplan to turn her subjects’ stories into celebrations of transgression and liberation,” her narratives make room for more complicated truths. When Cogdell’s mother learned of her daughter’s marriage to a black journalist, she tried to get the couple arrested. Hurst became a friend of the great black writer Zora Neale Hurston, but took an idea Hurston gave her and turned it into the stereotype-riddled 1933 best-seller Imitation of Life.

Whatever these women’s individual motivations, Kaplan “makes a vivid case” for their collective importance, said Kate Tuttle in The Boston Globe. At a time when lynchings were rampant and much of America was obsessed with racial taxonomy, these women embraced a new idea of group identity—that one’s feeling of kinship with a group was more significant than biology. As imperfect as they were, each of them “deserves at least credit for courage.”

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