In Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, ethnic and gender studies scholar Carla Kaplan reveals the forgotten histories of six rule-breaking women.
What motivated you to write this book?
It started when I was doing research on Zora Neale Hurston—editing and annotating her letters and writing a biography. What made her unusual, particularly for the 1920s and ’30s, was her interracial social set. Most of her closest friends were white women, and it was incredible how little information there was on them. They didn’t associate much with each other, quite purposely. It was one of the last untold stories of the 1920s.
How did you choose these six women out of 60 possibilities?
I was looking for correspondence or diaries or ideally, both. I also wanted to reflect a range of ways in which white women got into Harlem and, as we would say now, “got over,” once they were there. So, patronage, romance, writing, marrying, and mothering.
Who was your most intriguing subject?
Charlotte Osgood Mason [Harlem’s influential patron]; she’s the most mysterious figure for anybody who works in African-American literature and culture, and has always been seen as the most villainous white woman associated with black culture. She exerted extraordinary psychological control over many brilliant and highly gifted people. Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes were devoted to her beyond explanation and had this intense psychic, spiritual experience with her. Some people who knew her, whom I interviewed, remain very nervous talking about her.
You also set the record straight on Nancy Cunard.
She made many fatal errors in her life, romantic choices, the way she handled her public life, but she was extraordinarily brave. I don’t personally know many people who have walked away completely from great wealth, privilege, and social power. She threw it away with both hands, and it’s hard not to admire that.
What makes Miss Anne relevant today?
Each one of them, whether by mistake or design, pushed back against what culture told them was possible. One of the hardest things we face today is seeing messages about what is and isn’t possible. These women give us a way, in our own historical moment, to step outside the possible and to come up with a different version. I think that’s a huge gift.