Carla Kaplan

Carla Kaplan

Carla Kaplan, professor of American Literature at Northeastern University, introduces us to “Miss Anne,” the collective term used to describe a group of white rebellious, romantic, risk-taking women who were part of the Harlem Renaissance but, until now, mostly relegated to the sidelines. A seven-year-long undertaking, Carla’s book Miss Anne in Harlem brings their fascinating stories to light. This is a conversation you won’t want to miss.

Transcript

Sandi: Welcome to another edition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. Let’s travel back in time. New York in the twenties. The jazz age.  Everything was changing. Harlem was exploding with black music, dance, theater, art and literature. When it came to the female participants of the time, just about every type of woman had been chronicled. The flapper. The Gibson girl. The suffragist. The bachelor girl. The lesbian. But missing from this tapestry was the role played by white women, who decided to make the Harlem renaissance their own.

These rebellious romantic risk takers were collectively referred to as Miss Anne and were largely relegated to the sidelines, that is, until now. Carla Kaplan, the Danish distinguished professor of American Literature at Boston’s North Eastern University is the author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. Hers is the first book to tell the story of some of those women who became patrons of and romantic participants in the Harlem Renaissance.

Carla says she didn’t start out to write about the so called Mrs. Anne, but during research for her book on Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters; she said, I needed, but could not find, information on the many white women Hurtson, considered one pre-eminent writers of the 20th Century African American Literature and one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, knew and befriended in Harlem. Some of whom were her closest friends. Hostesses, editors, activists, philanthropists, patrons, writers, and on and on. Carla called it one of the last untold stories on the 1920s.

Her search to find Miss Anne produced dozens of stories. But in her book, she chose to focus on six women who she says exemplified the range of ideas white women brought to Harlem. A review in the New York Times calls Miss Anne in Harlem a remarkable work of historical recovery.

Well, Carla. I’m exhausted. Welcome and thank you for joining me today.

Carla: Thank you so much for having me.

Sandi: What a journey you embarked on. First of all, before we really get started, I need you to explain the significance of the name Miss Anne.

Carla: Oh, I’m happy to and that’s such a good place to start. I have to tell you the truth. I didn’t think Harper Collins was going to let me keep it as the title of the book. Because it’s a phrase, it is a derisive term for white women. As far as we know, it’s a derisive term for white women coined in the South, well before the Harlem Renaissance, probably by black female domestic workers who were stuck in the kitchens of white women for ten, fourteen, sometimes nineteen hours a day. Couldn’t afford to disrespect or disregard their employers to their faces, but behind their backs could dismiss them, categorically as Miss Anne. It’s the counterpart to Mr. Eddie or Mr. Charlie. But unlike those phrases, which are fairly well-known in white communities, the phrase Miss Anne, until my book came out, had almost no recognition at all within white communities. I thought, surely Harper Collins isn’t going to let me use it because white people have no idea what it means.

Sandi: Umm

Carla: All the black people all know the phrase. To my delight, they thought no, let’s use that, that’s actually part of the story and part of the story of these white women who decided, really in the most unlikely way and against all the odds that they were going to become part of the Black Harlem Renaissance. These were women who were in essence were saying, I’m volunteering for blackness. Sign me up.

Sandi: [Laughing]

Carla: I want to be black too. Just so unlikely as to be unthinkable in the 1920s. Part of what they were up against was that what they were doing was unthinkable to white communities. They became unrecognizable, illegible. They were considered crazy or a lunatic or just sort of beyond the pale. In black communities, the black community into which they sought entry, what they were doing was also considered really so unlikely. White women were seen, by and large, as Miss Anne. Women to be distrusted, women to be very wary of, not women who could be assumed to contribute in a meaningful or useful way to a black cultural and political movement.

Sandi: So, there was a clear stereotype.

Carla: A clear stereotype. So, on the one hand they were up against the racism of white communities and the other hand, they were up against the skepticism of black communities built in part, as you say, on stereotypes but built in part on a really unfortunate history. The truth is, that in the long, long awful American history of race relations, white women had not historically played a very noble role. Black communities were rightly skeptical. Throughout the South, where white women were used as the excuse for black lynching

Sandi: Hmm

Carla: It was not until the 1930s that white women in any significant numbers began to stand up and say that the myth of the black racist was a lie. Began to stand up and say don’t you dare do this in our names. Of course the black community was skeptical.  So here these white women come. They want to do this unlikely, this almost impossible thing. The white community says to them, if you do this, you can’t come home again. That’s it. We’re done with you. The black community says, are you Miss Anne? We don’t need Miss Anne. [Laughing]

Sandi: So they were pariahs all around.

Carla: They really were. And part of what makes the story so interesting is that it’s a story of people making an unlikely choice against impossible odds. For me, that was just fascinating. That they were in a sense pariahs all around and in trying to contribute meaningfully, in trying to win acceptance, that was part of what they were up against. I found that a really fascinating journey to watch.

Sandi: Were their initial intentions honorable? Or where they dramatic or insincere for a lack of better terms?

Carla: Their initial intentions covered the gamut. They were frankly all over the place. The reason the book had to be a group biography is that I wanted readers to get a sense of the range of motives. The range of intentions that white women brought into their attempt to volunteer for blackness in the 1920s.

Sandi: Ohh. What an interesting way to describe that. Wow.

Carla: In choosing the six that I chose, I wanted to choose women who represented the different ways white women became part of the Black Harlem Renaissance and you’ve covered some of those. As you said, they were hostesses. They were patrons. They were editors. They were activists. Some were philanthropists, writers, lovers, artists, wives and mothers. I wanted to cover that range, but I also wanted to cover the range of motives and intentions. From some white women whose motives were really quite suspect and not intentions we would emulate or necessarily admire; to white women who in fact had very sophisticated anti-racist cultural politics and who are worth resurrecting in part as models and people we might what to emulate. So what you see in this range of white women is that, as I say, that entire gamut from women like Charlotte Osgood Mason, who truly believed, and I quote for her now, that she was a “better negro than all of the black people she funded in Harlem” to white women like Nancy Cunard who said something that sounds similar. Nancy said, and now I quote from Nancy; “I speak as if I were Negro myself.” No white person would do that today. We know that that would be the worst kind of appropriation. “I speak as if I were Negro myself.”

Sandi: Of course, that presumptuousness is choking.

Carla: Exactly. I call it cringe worthy in the book.

Sandi: [Laughing] Right. That’s right.

Carla: Nancy meant it, in fact, as a political mode of allegiance, through which she was attempting to both recognize all of the white privilege she was born into as an extremely wealthy woman and which she was attempting to renounce. She was cringe worthy, but she actually had a very, very sophisticated notion of the goals of interracial cultural politics. I want readers to see that range. All of these women were very different. Some of them were young flappers and they came to Harlem looking for hot jazz and hotter sex and there’s just no denying that. Some of these women, like Charlotte Osgood Mason were very matronly and they were looking to put their stamp on culture through their money. Charlotte Osgood Mason was a woman of extraordinary wealth. She wanted to influence culture with her money. But all of these women, not just the six I profile in the book, but the five dozen or so that I discovered. Every one of them shared something that I was very interested in. Which is, they were all women who looked at what the cultural possibilities for women were in the 1920s. For white women. They said, Hmm. They looked at what was possible on the left bank of Paris. They looked at what was possible in Greenwich Village. They looked at what was possible in white philanthropy, in white cultural politics or social work and they said this isn’t nearly large enough. Every one of these women wanted a big social world stage. It was a very canny thing to come into black Harlem to do that. By entering black Harlem they entered a sphere in which there was nobody to tell them what to do. It’s a very interesting, very strategic move. Some of them bumbled into it. Some of them were very strategic about carving out a space where there were not white men to tell them what to do.

Sandi: Mm Hmm

Carla: And that’s something they all shared. I was interested in the fact that this group shared certain things and then differed really widely.

Sandi: If you’re just joining me, my guest today is Professor Carla Kaplan, who is the author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. Before we get into some more of the six women that you focus, can you tell us about the process that began from writing Hurston’s biography to covering and exposing the lives of these women who became enmeshed in the Harlem Renaissance? And also, how long did it take you to write the encyclopedic work?

Carla: You’re exactly right. That this book came out of the Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters project. As you said in your wonderful introduction, I was trying to trace Hurston’s interracial contacts which were very important to her and were a part of her cultural story. She was somebody with very ambivalent feelings about interracial relations. She had a lot of hope, she had a lot of skepticism and a lot of doubt. Her failures at some of her interracial goals caused her a great deal of agony and I was particularly interested in her friendships with white women,  because it was particularly difficult for white and black women to form meaningful friendships during this period. Hurston tried very hard to form friendships with white women. It turned out, when I was researching the Hurston book, that those white women were very hard to research. Increasingly, I noticed that I could find a lot of work on the white men of the Black Harlem

Sandi: What else is new?

Carla: Exactly. It was that same story all over again, right. There was lots of work on the Spingarns and on Sherwood Anderson’s time in Black Harlem and on H.L. Mencken’s contribution to Harlem and on and on it goes. I started looking for these white women and they literally weren’t identified in some of the existing photographs. Many of them did not have archives in their own name, although I did find their papers buried in named archives that might have come from their husbands or perhaps from their sons. They were mentioned in the histories of the period but often only mentioned in a few paragraphs and then dismissed. As if the contribution they made wasn’t meaningful. It was a frustration for me, in writing the Hurston book.

Sandi: So, you had your work cut out for you.

Carla: I did, but nothing that I intended to do. I actually didn’t plan to write Miss Anne in Harlem. I just wanted to read it.

Sandi: [Laughing]

Carla: What I wanted, and I really wanted it fairly desperately. I was just going everywhere looking for a good history of the white women of the Harlem Renaissance.

Sandi: And then you realized you had to write it.

Carla: Exactly. It was one of those books that I had to write if I wanted to read.

Sandi: How long did it take you to do this? From start to finish.

Carla: About seven years.

Sandi: Oh my God!

Carla: One of the reasons it did take that long, which was longer than I thought it was going to take, was that a couple of things happened along the way that changed the process for me. One of them was, when I set out to tell this story, I had no idea how many of these white women I would find.

Sandi: Um Hmm

Carla: I found about five dozen. Once I identified that there were roughly five dozen of the white women, which is to say women who were making a meaningful, a significant contribution to the Harlem Renaissance. Then, I had to see which of those left archives or papers. Because, I didn’t want to just tell the standard cultural history. I wanted to tell a true group biography where I could bring these women back in their own voices, really reconstruct their motives and also the outcomes of their journey. I wanted readers to get a sense of, so how did this pan out?

Sandi: Sure.

Carla: Sad to say, it didn’t pan out that well for most of them and that’s actually an important piece of the story. This was an experiment so unlikely that it often, even when it succeeded it failed. If you know what I mean.

Sandi: Mm Hmm.

Carla: It often ended up with some pretty unhappy and in many cases some tragic results for the participants. But I did want to tell the story of women who left some kind of a record. Unpublished materials or letters or journals or diaries. Something I could work with.

Sandi: Well, you know what’s really interesting? As we name this gang of six is Josephine Cogdell who married her black lover George Schuyler. One magazine called them America’s strangest family and here is this woman who’s white and the daughter of a Klan member who has a black lover and marries him, and it’s the 20s! Isn’t that crazy?

Carla: Her life was just crazy at every turn. Her life in Texas as a young woman was really crazy. She was born, not into a family where all of her male relatives her brothers and her father, were charter members of the Klan, but they also had black mistresses.

Sandi: Oh.

Carla: So, they were all charter of the Klan with black mistresses. She was born into a culture that was of avowedly and deeply racist; but in which there was extraordinary interracial intimacy all of her intimates were black people.

Sandi: Wow.

Carla: She was a very interesting figure. She ran away at the age of sixteen and married a traveling salesman to get away from her family. It was a marriage that only lasted a few months. Her husband was also her rapist. She was raped by her husband and then married him because she didn’t feel she had other choices once she was ruined.

Sandi: Wow.

Carla: The marriage did not last long. She ran away from him to become a new woman. She did a standard flapper new woman thing, she ran away to San Francisco. The two places women ran were San Francisco and New York City. In San Francisco she became an artist. She was the nude model of an artist who was very well known at the time named John Garth. She was John Garth’s mistress and his muse and his model, refused to marry him. During a period of great difficulty between the two of them, she ran away again to Greenwich Village. She decided she’d become a Greenwich Village Bohemian. It’s a great classic story, right. It’s almost out of a novel.

Sandi: You could write just about her.

Carla: I, there was a period in which I really for a while felt that I was. Particularly when I kept following her back to Granbury Texas. I lived inside of Josephine’s world to the point where people in my life had to say aren’t there other women in your book?

Sandi: [Laughing]

Carla: She really did, at a certain moment, threaten to take over the book. She touches on every piece of this interracial history. She’s also one of the women who slowed the book down, because there was a period in writing this book when I realized I had left out the category of mother. I went looking for mothers and Josephine, who is many readers’ favorite character, was actually a later addition to the book and then research on her took me almost a year of just straight research. So she ran way to Greenwich Village, was bored to death, found the stuff going on in Greenwich Village to be dull as dirt.

Sandi: Hmm

Carla: Found the modernists and the Avant-guard completely pretentious and as she considered them, absolutely stupid about race. She was already in touch with George Schuyler because she was anonymously publishing poems in his journal The Messenger. She decided to go up to Harlem to meet him. They fell madly in love. She married Schuyler. Gave birth to a daughter named Philippa. George and Josephine decided they would use Philippa to contest America’s racial attitudes and they essentially put their daughter on display. Luckily for them, Philippa was a genius and a piano prodigy, so she was easy to display and the newspapers and magazines when crazy for Philippa. Through Philippa Schuyler, George and Josephine became even more famous than they would have been otherwise.

Sandi: And revered as opposed to reviled? Because of Philippa.

Carla: That’s a great way to put it. I don’t think there was ever a moment in George and Josephine’s life in the public eye when they were ever only revered or only reviled. What was interesting about their life was that they were almost always both revered and reviled. As you say, they were referred to as America’s strangest family, not just because of the interracial family and not just because they became the nation’s spokespersons for interracial marriage. They actually called it the perfect solution to America’s racial problem. But because they were really very interesting and deeply weird people. Among many other traits, Josephine was one of the nation’s first people to advocate a raw food diet.

Sandi: [Laughing]

Carla: Most raw foodists, as we know for pretty obvious reasons, are also vegetarians.

Sandi: You think?

Carla: You’d think, right. Not Josephine. She was a Texas girl. Josephine was all about meat. She served all of these meats, particularly organ meats, raw to her family. One of her favorite tricks was to go into New York’s fanciest restaurants with her black husband, insist on being seated at one of the most visible tables and then order organ meats raw, proceed to cut them up into the delicate little pieces and eat them at her table as she told strangers dining next to her that it was terrible for their health for them to be eating dead foods.

Sandi: Oh my God. Oh my God.

Carla: She could hardly have been more colorful.

Sandi: That sounds like a huge understatement quite frankly. Oh my God.

Carla: She was also a profoundly lonely woman. Once she married George she was ostracized in white social circles. Interracial marriage was not unheard of in late 1920s, but it was illegal in approximately half the states in the country. Where it wasn’t illegal it was profoundly frowned upon. She was ostracized in white communities. She was resented and distrusted in black communities. She made this marriage to a man who was the most well-known black journalist in America. Also, someone who like Josephine when she married him, was a socialist. A committed socialist. She expected that marrying George would give her this large social and political sphere. But she was ostracized for the most part by both communities and then her husband, to her, it has to have been to her horror, preceded to move further and further and further to the far right wing.

Sandi: Wow.

Carla: Until by the end of their marriage, he became a member of the John Burk Society.

Sandi: Oh my God. You can’t make this stuff up.

Carla: Poor Josephine, who as far as I can tell, never changed her political views, also never said a word against her husbands in public. She remained loyal to him enough that she never denounced his political rightward turn. How isolated must that have been for her? To be married to this man who begins to move to the far right, and who by the way, is an absolutely encourageable philanderer and cheats on her her entire life.

Sandi: Wow.

Once again, if you’re just joining me, my guest today is Carla Kaplan. She’s a professor of American Literature at Boston’s North Eastern University and the author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. Again, you mentioned her briefly, but one of the other women in this gang of six as I call them is the British steamship heiress Nancy Cunard.

I was reading in the review of your book in the New York Times. “So we meet Cunard, as self-appointed expert on African American life who organized and self-published a massive 855 page anthology, Negro. An entire documentary record of the race, even though she’d made only brief trips to America and had never been to Africa.” So, Nancy Cunard is raised on a remote English estate, she comes to the United States a couple of times and all of a sudden, Carla, becomes this expert on Negros. On an entire race. What the hell was that about?

Carla: You know, it’s so funny because that moment while absolutely bizarre, was not only culturally very widespread in the day, think about all of the modernists who suddenly thought they were experts on the so called primitive Native American societies. This is the phenomenon of the fascination with the American Indian that is sweeping the American Southwest, or all of the white male modernists who suddenly decide that they are experts on blacks. Sherwood Anderson, who I mentioned earlier, was one of them. Many of the white male modernists. There’s an extraordinary poem by William Carlos Williams in Nancy Cunard’s Negro where you can see his claim to expertise based on what exposure, we can’t even imagine and how awkward it is because you can see immediately very little he knows. This phenomenon of immediate expertise, this claim to immediate expertise about the other, what was often considered the so called primitive other, was a very important feature of modernist culture and modernist cultural ascetics. So when Nancy Cunard sort of suddenly says I’m an expert on all things Negro; On the one hand, she’s acting out of the kind of privilege that came from her extraordinary wealth, this is the privilege of cultural mobility that we often saw on the part of very wealthy people in the day. She’s acting in an ascetic sense that is entirely in keeping with modernist crossovers and there have been some wonderful, wonderful books on this within American Literature. The ways in which modernist writers say I know everything about the other.

One of the things that makes Nancy Cunard though, actually fascinating, is that she attempts to earn that expertise. On the one hand she makes that ridiculous claim that she’s and instant expert, but on the other hand, she knows she’s not. She sets herself a reading agenda on black history, black cultural history, black political history, world history, African American Literature that to this day would be an incredible syllabus for anybody in the field. She starts reading and collecting everything in sight. Her interest in Africa, she was a fascinated Africanist, as were many modernists. She shares this with Charlotte Osgood Mason, who had an extraordinary collection of African art. Nancy Cunard’s interest in African Art which she often manifested by wearing African jewelry up and down her body. A rail thin woman covered in dozens and dozens of Ivory African bangles, which were part of her African Art collection. She also did become an extraordinary reader and a self-trained, she was not a didact like all the women in my book, but she did become a very serious student of African history. That is part of what she brought to that anthology Negro.

Sandi: I want to ask you about a word that Hurston used to describe these women. Negrotarians.

Carla: It’s such a great word. She was obviously playing in a very Sinclair-Lewis-esk fashion on the word rotarian, as white do-gooders who are just not really doing anything. The Negrotarians were white do-gooders who would come into Harlem, bumble their way in, bumble around in Harlem, make a mess of things, and bumble their way out.

Sandi: [Laughing]

Carla: It was a derisive term. She coined it as something that, as a way for blacks to poke fun at all the white do-gooders who were coming into Harlem with their instant expertise and their ridiculous ideas. Again, it’s one of the stereotypes that the women I write about in this book were up against. They didn’t want to be Negrotarians. They didn’t want to be Miss Anne and be dismissed as useless interlopers and they didn’t want to be negrotarians. They wanted to make a truly meaningful contribution that could win the respect of people like Zora Neale Hurston. What makes their story so interesting is that many of them achieved exactly that. Against the odds, up against the kind of skepticism that coins terms like Negrotarian, many of these women became not only respected contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, but in many cases deeply loved.

Sandi: So, Carla, tell me. What are you working on now, or are you just kicking back and catching your breath?

Carla: Well, kicking back and catching my breath would have been the smart thing to do.

Sandi: Ah ha ha!

Carla: It didn’t happen because as I was writing Miss Anne in Harlem a project stumbled into my path that was simply too good not to pursue. So, I do have a contract for the next project and it is a cultural biography of a woman who became fascinating to me because like many of the women in Miss Anne in Harlem, her path was so unlikely. I’m telling the story of a British woman who walks away from wealth and privilege to become an American Communist and to contribute in very interesting ways to the American Left and the American civil rights movement. This is the first comprehensive trade biography of Jessica Mitford.

Sandi: Fascinating! Well, believe it or not, we’ve run out of time. You could have talked and I could have listened for many, many more half hours, but I really appreciate your sharing all your knowledge about Miss Anne. Who I didn’t even know existed quite frankly and I found this absolutely fascinating. So I can’t thank you enough for joining me today Carla. I look forward to reading about Jessica Mitford.

Carla: Thank you so much for having me on your show. I hope you’ll bring me back to talk about Mitford in a few years.

Sandi: Sounds like a plan.

Carla: Thank you.

Sandi: Join us for another of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandy Klein.

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