miss-anne-in-harlemBiographile, September 26 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Carla Kaplan
Harper, 544pp. $28.99

Carla Kaplan’s group biography, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, tells the extraordinary story of a diverse collection of white women who found their way to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Bringing with them money, passion, and controversy, they were fleeing restrictive Victorian upbringings and striving to reinvent themselves and forge interracial alliances — often at terrible personal cost. For the first time, Kaplan brings six of them out of the shadows.

BIOGRAPHILE: What first led you to this project?

CARLA KAPLAN: It grew out of my last book, which wasZora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Hurston was a black writer who prided herself on her interracial friendships, and in the course of trying to do research on some of the white women she was friends with, I became more and more aware that there were a number of them who were really very centrally involved in the Harlem Renaissance, but there was almost nothing out there about them. Not only had other historians and critics either written nothing, or simply repeated the same three erroneous paragraphs over and over again, but the archives weren’t there. This was a story I wanted to read, and it became one of those things where if you want to read it, you have to write it.

I sat on the idea for some years, because group biography is so daunting: You have to do the amount of work for each person that you would do for an individual biography, because otherwise you can’t bring them back to life. I also had to decide whether it would be an academic or a trade book. It seemed to me it was an opportunity to share with a wider audience some of what has been central to the academic study of identity for so long.

BIOG: Your book shows how central these women were in so many ways — so why do you think there was this gap in the story?

CK: I think it was a combination of factors. In part it was something that these women bear some responsibility for themselves. Either out of a kind of obsession with control, in the case of Charlotte Osgood Mason, or out of respect for the difficulty of their own position in the case of Mary White Ovington, the founder of the NAACP, they really erased their own footsteps. These were women who traveled with a broom behind them, erasing every step they took. But they don’t bear all of the responsibility, because as I was able to show, they were hiding in plain sight all this time. So then the question is, how have we contributed to erasing them? One answer is that there was a story available about them: they were minor characters in black literature, and in white and black histories of the period, and as minor figures their story is an easy one to tell. It’s coherent and it has some amusement factor to it.

BIOG: It’s a caricature.

CK: Right, it serves our own purposes. The story of them as either bumbling fools, or dangerous, problematic creatures, is a useful narrative, and it tells easily. The third reason there has been this hole in the history is that these women were a mess! They were all over the place, and trying to tell their story means trying to wrap our minds around a rather complicated set of contradictions. These are women who are, to put it bluntly, enormously politically incorrect.

BIOG: And perhaps their stories couldn’t be told until we reached a point in the academic study of the Harlem Renaissance that could encompass these politically incorrect ideas, and people who were trying to figure out what race means in ways that are often uncomfortable to us.

CK: I also think this story couldn’t be told until we had filled in more of the pieces of the black Harlem Renaissance narrative itself — quite rightly, that work had to come first, and I feel I’ve been a part of that. I think we recognize today that we still don’t really know how to talk to one another about race, and we’re failing to create the interracial networks of affiliation and advocacy that we need.

BIOG: And of course the book is about the intersection of race and gender — these women were trying to run away from a world that was particularly constraining to them as women.

CK: It’s not just that gender and race come together — and I would add class as well, because so many of them came from moneyed backgrounds — but that these women were really quite canny about playing these vectors off against one another, to achieve their own modalities of freedom. Now, you can look at that canniness and dislike them for it, or you can admit that we all do the same thing — we gain our freedom however we can, by playing off whatever advantages may come our way against the disadvantages we were born into.

BIOG: Many of these women realized that they could be influential through money, by providing financial support to individual artists. How does the economic history of the Harlem Renaissance play in here?

CK: These women don’t emerge as truly central economic and cultural players until fairly late, after the stock market crash and the great Depression. As the men begin to pull out — the white male philanthropists, the publishers, the cabaret owners — it creates a vacuum, allowing these women to step in. And because we’ve tended to cut our studies of the Harlem Renaissance off after the stock market crash, it’s another way in which these women’s story was almost lost to us.

BIOG: Just by where we place the boundaries on what we call the Harlem Renaissance.

CK: Precisely — as long as we were placing that boundary essentially after Black Wednesday, we were failing to notice the way in which the Depression created a gendered opportunity. It reminds us, I think — or I hope — that where we set the boundaries of the questions we ask determines the answer we get. We’re always constructing the history we’re seeking.

BIOG: What did you find most surprising or unexpected about these women’s life stories?

CK: I’d have to say the thing that kept surprising me over and over again, that I failed to get used to, was the way in which a number of these women didn’t just claim a central place for themselves in the Harlem Renaissance, but they claimed that they were black — and they meant it. They were not kidding. I don’t just mean Josephine Cogdell Schuyler “passing” as a black woman by writing as Julia Jerome, the black Ann Landers of her day, and feeling nothing wrong in claiming that voice and that identity. But beyond her, you have Nancy Cunard and Charlotte Osgood Mason, both saying, “I am partly black.” Nancy Cunard says, “I was African at one time,” and Mason says, “I am a black god.” And we cringe — how can we not cringe at what they’re saying? But there’s something in it. It’s fascinating to me that they so believed in an idea that we think we invented, that identity is malleable, that it’s flexible, and that who we are is a matter of who we identify with. They genuinely believed that their commitments not only lessened their own whiteness, which they did, but made them partly black. And their black friends accept and indeed embrace that idea. I never stopped being surprised by that.

The other thing that surprised me over and over again was how much room there was in the Harlem Renaissance for this range of extremes, and how much room black intellectuals made — not to be nice, not to be polite, but for their own sakes — for this full range of articulations of race, some of which look to us completely nutty.

BIOG: And that flexibility existed in a larger world that was interested in drawing a single racial dividing line that absolutely could not be crossed.

CK: And the more inflexible the wider culture was, the more flexible they could be in Harlem. That flexibility itself was a way of resisting.

BIOG: It must have been hard to decide how to balance the stories and what to include or leave out.

CK: It is tricky with a group biography to figure out how to do that, even the question of which women I would focus on, because I did find about five dozen women who seemed to really represent this group that I was looking at. Then I had to find those who left enough in their own voices that I would have enough material. I initially thought I’d have a big chapter on Mary White Ovington, who was such an important political figure as the white founder of the NAACP, but she was so careful to erase her own footsteps, and never to allow the story to be about her, but always about the NAACP. She had erased herself so completely, the chapter just didn’t work, it wasn’t interesting enough. But although I do feel I let her down a bit by making her a minor character in the book, there have been several biographies of her, and she wrote a terrific autobiography of her time in the NAACP, so I was able to justify that by the sense that her story has been told. The larger goal was to tell stories that are not well known and show them in a new context.