Definitions of Miss Anne:
- A coded term for any white woman.
- A derisive name for a white woman.
- An emancipated blue blood.
“Miss Anne in Harlem”, by Carla Kaplan is a 503-page book about the noteworthy role played by a certain group of white women during the era referred to as the “Harlem Renaissance”. This historical period, a subdivision of the "jazz age", spanned the decade between the late 1920s and middle 1930s. It was so named because it called attention to a black colony of writers, poets, artists, journalists, academics, and political activists all ensconced in Harlem, the quintessential mecca of black life located in the upper section of Manhattan. Upon being discovered by New York’s white literati, this elite black clique referred to as "New Negroes" was suddenly in vogue, and the phrase “Harlem Renaissance" was coined.
As a compilation of mini–biographies, Kaplan’s book examines the lives of Lillian Wood, Josephine Cogdale, Annie Nathan Meyer, Charlotte Osgood Mason, Fannie Hurst, and Nancy Cunard, 6 white women who were the most representative of the avant garde females the author categoized as the Miss Annes of Harlem.
Dispersed between the personal histories of these women is a running commentary detailing the circumstances that drew them to Harlem, a locale also famous for the Cotton Club, a popular black night spot that during Prohibition was frequented by uppercrust white partygoers and mob bootleggers. The tendency back then and maybe even now, is to suspect that the surge of white females inserting themselves into the Harlem scene had something to do with sexual fantasies involving the forbidden fruit of black studs. Whether or not this was a factor, it is more important to be reminded of how white women-of-means were once treated in American society.
Although cherished and put on a pedestal, they were basically second-class citizens, discouraged from working outside the home, not allowed to own property, and not even granted the right to vote until 1920. It’s conceivable, then, that certain ones of these repressed damsels identified with the plight of Blacks, and regarded them as kindred spirits. Consequently, what initially motivated the women in this book, most of whom were aspiring writers and poets, was their budding Feminism. Like the “New Negroes”, they were the “New Women” and what several of them really desired was to be liberated from the stifling environment that enslaved them. They held little interest in being shackled to boring husbands, raising perfect children and leading the staid, sheltered existences of society matrons. They yearned to be free, to experience life, to express their creativity, and to participate in crusades like the Scottsboro Boys cause célèbre, a movement organized to free a group of black youths falsely accused of raping 2 southern white women. To these restless Miss Annes, infiltrating Harlem’s inner circle could provide opportunities for them to flex their Feminist muscles and make meaningful changes in the world. Harlem's numerous publications also offered exposure for the poems and essays and articles submitted by these white wanna-be writers.
Others among this Miss Anne focus group saw Harlem as fertile ground for cultivating their theories about race. One, a wealthy domineering, dowager, lavished money and gifts on Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston with the intent of molding their lives and making their literary output conform to her ideas about the importance of the black race retaining its humble primitive uniqueness. Another was an equally-rich transplanted southern belle who eventually married journalist George Schuyler. Deciding that they could produce a perfect child by virtue of it being biracial, after much trepidation, she defied the taboo of mixed marriages and wed this black man. (Their daughter Philippa Duke Schuyler did, indeed, turn out to be a famous child prodigy.)
Driven by different motives, what this sisterhood of aggressive woman had in common was a yen to oppose what they did not like about Whites by glorifying what they did like about Blacks. Considering this, it’s no wonder these Miss Annes shared a fascination with Africa - the vast, beautiful, wild, dark continent they had dreamed of as children. And to some extent, they each harbored a burning sentiment that Africans and their American Diaspora were, like the Red Man, a race of noble savages who were preferable to the stiff sterility of whiteness. To them, Blacks were exotic and unflappable, - sensual, down to earth people who loved to have a good time. They were spontaneous and humorous and creative, especially when it came to singing and dancing and colorful dress. Blackness, therefore, was to be celebrated, not stifled by the pall of austere white arrogance. Moreoever, black literature and art and culture should reflect the spirit of this. The idea of Blacks trying to pass for white, or emulating white people by taking on their cynical snobbish ways was despicable to some of these Miss Annes. Seeking to reinforce this idea, the zealots among them, along with their “ofay” sidekicks, proceeded to demonstrate how the pristine jungle essence of black ancestry was to never march to any drumbeat but an African one. Producing the books, plays, musicals and films that reeked with triteness and depicted black life in ways that were an affront to black dignity, these works were sharply criticized by such members of the Harlem intelligentsia as W.E. B. DuBois.
These literary hacks were also scorned by the majority of Whites who branded them “nigger lovers”. But completely immersed in their affinity for blackness, the diehards among the Miss Annes persisted, earning for themselves the alternate title of “Voluntary Negroes”.
As an aside, and what was the case in one of the Miss Anne’s profiled in this book, leading up to and running concurrently with the Miss Anne infatuation with Harlem, was a different breed of Feminists, the spinster school teachers known as “Yankee School Marms”. Serving as an early inspiration to their urban upperclass counterparts, these independent small town white women bypassed New York and headed down south, seeking escape from their dissatisfaction with the mundane lives that domesticity offered. Shunning the kitchen, they opted for the classroom where they could be completely in charge while shaping the minds of ignorant young blacks, instilling in them their white notions of what blackness should be all about. Later, some of these Miss Annes were absorbed into the faculties of historically black colleges.
Yet, although miffed by the white interlopers, many of the struggling black artists of Harlem were not above being opportunistic. Opting to humor these Miss Annes, they allowed themselves to be trotted out and fawned over at the elegant soirees and salons hosted by these white devotees. They also took advantage of these occasions to hobnob with prestigious white book publishers on the lookout for talented black authors, and last but not least, they capitalized on the financial generosity of their patrons. Exercising their native guile, these African Americans didn’t disappoint the presumptuous Miss Annes so quick to imply that black people were in danger of becoming too civilized. Once their usefulness had been exhausted, these “simple” black folk parted ways with their “sophisticated” white enablers.
From the eclectic mix of white women and black people, many dynamics evolved as the Harlem Renaissance played itself out, and the well-meaning crusaders featured in this book ended up frustrated, 2 of them coming to tragic ends. Ironically, the Miss Annes who garnered the most success were those on the fringes, the unobtrusive ones who chose a philanthropic route, establishing the scholarship and grants and fellowships that assisted upwardly mobile Negroes in pursuit of the American dream.
As for the diligent Miss Annes, in spite of their good intentions, they could not retard the “New Negro”. These condescending “control freaks” who worshipped the soulful mystique of black folks and believed they knew what was best for the black race, were unable to transcend the superior sense of entitlement that they found so unacceptable in other whites. As the Great Depression began to take its toll, the iconic Harlem Renaissance faded away, abandoned by the movers and shakers among the rich and famous.
Yet, in the final analysis, the Miss Anne impressions of black people have endured, and their paragon of the African American is still around, manifested in the media and books and film. Grinning, entertaining, cool, carefree, stylish, sassy, swaggering are still the non-threatening ways which Whites think Blacks should present themselves. What also remains is that, although the "Miss Annes" have been replaced by the “Beckys", white women are still a force to reckoned with in black America. Some things never change.
Because this book is a collection of separate character studies, it was easy to pick up and put down, something I did, taking my time getting through the small print of each chapter, a process which, although lengthy, was not tedious. Written with clarity and great insight, the readability of “Miss Anne in Harlem” can be attributed to its interesting subject matter and concise style.
Carla Kaplan is a prodigious researcher and has produced a book rich in detail, replete with photographs and magazine excerpts. She has painted her portraits with the skill of a keen observer, and managed to take an objective approach to a subject which is obviously near and dear to her heart.
My rating: ***