August 13, 2013

The surprising insiders of the Harlem Renaissance

By Carla Kaplan
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The Harlem Renaissance produced art, literature and music that tried to reflect the diversity of black experience. A persistent influence, though one mostly ignored by history, was that of white women. Acting as patrons of the arts, creating work under racially ambiguous pseudonyms or promoting interracial marriage, white women were very much a part of the scene. With Miss Anne in Harlem, author Carla Kaplan has given them their due.

“Miss Anne” was a dismissive generalization meant to encompass all white women, who were often caricatured as matrons seeking an illicit thrill by mingling with black men. But many of the women Kaplan profiles had much larger goals in mind, from personal fame to planetary change.

Charlotte Osgood Mason used her wealth and influence to promote the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but placed demands on both that ultimately proved destructive to the partnerships. Mason sent Hurston out to gather folklore but enjoined her against using the research in her own work; she also required expense accounting for every sanitary napkin Hurston used. Some of Hurston’s letters to Mason are self-deprecating to the point of parody, but Mason never took the hint.

Fannie Hurst wrote a bestseller, Imitation of Life, that told parallel stories of women “passing,” for white in one case and male in the other. The book was reviled in the black press, to Hurst’s consternation; the character who passes for white does so without regret, which understandably left black readers cold, but it may have been Hurst’s way of exploring her own life as a Jew, and the fact that she was only considered white when in the company of black people.

Kaplan’s research is extensive, and the sheer volume of information here can be overwhelming. It’s worth exploring, though, not just for the fascinating stories of the women themselves, but also for the far more vivid picture we now have of 1920s Harlem. “Miss Anne” was heroic and confounding and anything but dull. Kudos to Kaplan for rescuing her from obscurity.

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Miss Anne in Harlem

Miss Anne in Harlem

By Carla Kaplan
ISBN 9780060882389

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