Carla Kaplan

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Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance

Little could be more unusual in the 1920s than for white, upper-class women to seek to become, in effect, honorary blacks.

Miss Anne in Harlem is the first book to tell the story of a number of spirited white women who did just that, crossing race lines viewed as impenetrable to play seminal roles in the great black cultural movement of the early twentieth century that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. Often viewed with suspicion by people on both sides of the color line, these women were patrons and participants, friends and sometimes lovers—and frequently lightning rods for controversy as their motives for embracing blackness were misinterpreted, misrepresented, and derided. Kaplan's engrossing group biography gives these women their due, exploring the intentions, contributions, and lasting significance of six iconoclasts who left their mark on an emerging black cultural shift.

Kaplan's search for the story of Miss Anne—a collective term applied to white women who invaded Harlem in the Jazz Age—produced dozens of stories, and she focuses on six who exemplify the range of ideas white women brought to Harlem. Now largely relegated to the dustbin of history, "many of the women in this book were once famous," Kaplan writes. "One was America's highest-grossing writer (now largely unread). Two were the subject of lengthy New Yorker profiles. Another was the target of endless society stories and Movietone newsreels. Others appeared frequently in newspaper accounts. One was so infamous in Harlem that her name was hardly uttered, because she strictly forbade it. But trying to capture these women can be like looking at an image drawn in invisible ink."

Interweaving their stories into the larger tapestry of black political, cultural, and social issues, Kaplan paints detailed portraits of these very different women. Lillian E. Wood never ventured north to Harlem, but immersed herself in African American culture at a rural Tennessee college for blacks. As the writer of a classic novel of the black experience, Let My People Go, she has been wrongly categorized as an African American in countless sources. Texas heiress Josephine Cogdell Schulyer defied her upbringing and contemporary conventions, moving to Harlem and marrying one of the eminent black journalists of the age. Adopting a nom de plume, she reconstructed herself based on both the New Woman and the radical race ideas of her husband. Jewish playwright, doctor's wife, and founder of Barnard College, Annie Nathan Meyer befriended Zora Neale Hurston and other eminent black artists and writers, and attempted to give an honest depiction of the disgrace of lynching in her divisive play, Black Souls.

Dubbed the "Mother of the Primitives," Charlotte Osgood Mason was a wealthy Park Avenue matron who became patron to Hurston, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and others, but some found her controlling influence oppressive and even detrimental. As the author of Imitation of Life, which depicts the perils and moral complications of a black girl's trying to pass as white, bestselling writer Fannie Hurst tried to raise her reputation among critics, instead producing one of the most hotly contested, if widely read, visions of the black experiences. British shipping heiress and socialite Nancy Cunard rejected her past, fully immersing herself in the black experience, taking a black lover, and becoming a vocal advocate of the wrongly-convicted Scottsboro Boys. Her flamboyant, if earnest efforts resulted in both one of the finest anthologies of black culture then published and the scorn of many people—white and black—on both sides of the Atlantic. By making themselves socially unintelligible and courting ostracism, these confounded available categories and introduced many of our own critical ideas about the flexibility or "play" of social identity. They are as relevant today as they were in the 1920s.

Do you have a "Miss Anne" story of your own?

If you or your family have a "Miss Anne" story, we invite you to share it with us. Just complete this online form to send your story to Carla. Selected stories may be published on this website (with your permission).

Reviews and praise for Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance

"An empathetic and skillful writer, Kaplan ... shares the previously untold story of a group of notable white women who embraced black culture—and life—in Harlem in the 1920s and '30s. ... Captivating."

Publishers Weekly (starred review) [Read the full review]

"Kaplan always writes from inside her characters, and with a novelist's sense of scope—and compassion."

Hilton Als for The New Yorker

"[A] remarkable work of historical recovery...full of fresh discoveries."

Martha Sandweiss for The New York Times Book Review

"Kaplan's meticulously documented and intrepid history of Miss Anne encompasses a unique vantage on the complexities of race and gender and a dramatic study in paradox."

— Donna Seaman for BookList (starred review) [Read the full review]

"...Carla Kaplan has given us and history a great gift."

Rodrigo Rey Rosa for The New York Journal of Books

"[A] clear-sighted, empathetic assessment....[Kaplan] delivers a wonderfully complex series of portraits."

Wendy Smith for The Daily Beast

"[R]ichly researched...thoughtful."

Kate Tuttle for The Boston Globe

"[A]n intriguing slice of long-overlooked American history."

The Christian Science Monitor

"The fact that white women played a pivotal role in creating the Harlem Renaissance was a secret hiding in plain sight, but it took Carla Kaplan's keen eye, rigorous research, and crystal clear prose to reveal it. Miss Anne in Harlem is a surprising, delightful book, that will soon be essential reading for anyone interested in the Harlem Renaissance and the brave, bold women of the Jazz Age."

Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America

"With superb, exhaustive research and finely dramatic writing, Carla Kaplan's brilliant Miss Anne in Harlem fills an aching void in our knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance. It also significantly deepens our understanding of American culture in the 1920s and American feminism in general."

Arnold Rampersad, author of The Life of Langston Hughes

"A work of meticulous and far-ranging scholarship, Carla Kaplan's Miss Anne in Harlem [assembles] an unforgettable cast of race-rebels, 'traitors to whiteness,' who gave their full resources—talent, compassion, money, ingenuity—to the cause of black cultural liberation a half-century before America discovered that 'black is beautiful.' A story of Harlem Renaissance insiders who would always be outsiders, Kaplan's haunting narrative forces a rethinking of race and gender."

Megan Marshall, author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism

"Carla Kaplan has taken on a dauntingly liminal topic and by force of scholarly rigor and narrative compassion rendered it central to our understanding of an era. Lush, original, and vigorously argued, Miss Anne in Harlem does justice to the difficult richness not only of these exceptional women's lives but of life itself."

Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home

"Endlessly fascinating, Miss Anne in Harlem reveals a whole new perspective on the Harlem Renaissance, and Carla Kaplan delivers an essential and absorbing portrait of race and sex in 20th century America."

Gilbert King, author of Devil in the Grove

"In this utterly fascinating and deeply insightful account, Carla Kaplan reveals the disparate women who together became "Miss Anne" in the Harlem Renaissance. From the reticent Annie Nathan Meyer through the manipulative Charlotte Osgood Mason to the flamboyant Nancy Cunard, they could see themselves as better Negroes than actual black people and despise other whites in black milieu. Yet they challenged the meanings of race and gender in ways that still deserve attention. This fine book takes the Misses Anne seriously and goes further, to reveal the workings of interracial networks in one of the most important cultural phenomena in American history."

Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People