Monday, December 2, 2013

Miss Anne in Harlem by Carla Kaplan


Miss Anne in Harlem:  The White Women of the BlackRenaissance by Carla Kaplan looks at the implications and influence of white women who, after World War I, were eager to have new experiences.  At a time when such ideas as primitivism and the social movement in America, striving for welfare reform and equal rights, it seems inevitable that some women would find their way into Harlem.

Kaplan lays a foundation of the difficulties she had in researching the subject because the appellation “Miss Anne” was used ubiquitously, applied to any and all white women who were inserting themselves within the African-American community.  There is an insult implied in the name, similar to calling someone an “Uncle Tom.”  Further, she lays a foundation for the deeper implications of what these women were doing.  Far from being welcome within the community, these well-meaning women were seen as a threat, with good reason.  A white woman’s reputation would be compromised if she were perceived as having sex outside of marriage; it would be completely destroyed were she to be exposed as having sex outside her race.  Families would disown these daughters, the public would vilify them, and, in the end, regardless of their hopes and expectations, the community into which they tried to inculcate themselves would never fully embrace them.

Most of the book is taken up with the stories of four specific women, each with her own agenda.  Sometimes well-meaning, their naiveté led to mixed results.   Josephine Cogdell gave up everything to marry George Schuyler, seeing her daughter’s musical talent and intelligence as proof the white race needed an infusion of other genetic material to thrive.  There was no awareness of self-contradicting philosophy in denying there’s a difference in race and lauding the benefits of interracial interaction.  Nancy Cunard’s interest in engaging with other races was more seemingly altruistic but blatantly manipulative as she endowed a select group of African-American artists with financial support.  Her generosity did not come without strings and, when anyone did not conform themselves to her expectations or dared to produce something that did not align itself with her philosophy of race, she cut the person off completely.  Fannie Hurst, the author of the novel that inspired Imitation of Life, and Annie Nathan Meyer were both authors whose works explored the “reality” of the African-American experience.  Many Caucasian authors were writing about Harlem and slavery, with more or less success while often failing to be emotionally or psychologically accurate, allowing clichés and stereotypes to inform the stories, offering little insight.

Kaplan’s thoroughly well-researched book offers insight on every page while still reading like a novel.  She does not attempt to use creative non-fiction, imagining dialogue about which she could know nothing.  Nonetheless, it’s difficult to put the book down, and I found myself devouring it, only pausing long enough to explore the numerous endnotes and to seek out extra material online.  I was even able to find audio recordings of songs mentioned in the novel and images of paintings by artists online and added the 1959 film Imitation of Life to my Netflix queue.  This is a fascinating book, one I highly recommend.

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