‘ Miss Anne in Harlem’ demonstrates still-existing mistrust in race relations

Stephon Johnson | 2/27/2014, 9:01 p.m.
The Harlem Renaissance was a triumph of art, literature, music, activism and overall expression. But there were others who contributed ...
Miss Anne

It’s a “problem” as old as America itself.

When discussing race relations and, in particular, interracial relationships of any kind between Black people and white women, there’s always been pejorative language used to describe the situation. Motives are questioned. Labels are assigned. Fetish accusations are tossed. Warnings are issued. The message is clear: It’s nothing but trouble.

While it’s important for those who align themselves with oppressed peoples to not see said people as charity cases, the fear of that from others is exactly what happens, no matter how genuine motives may be. The Harlem Renaissance was a triumph of art, literature, music, activism and overall expression. But there were others who contributed in their own way to the movement that have been removed from history: white women.

They served as benefactors, helpers, writers, muses and even lovers who made contributions that have been ignored or dismissed. Northeastern University professor Carla Kaplan’s 2013 book “Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance” chronicles the forgotten white women who were heavily involved in Harlem’s output in the 1920s but were dismissed outright by many Blacks and whites alike.

Who were these women who were dismissed and lampooned by many? They were women who came from many different backgrounds, including Nancy Cunard (an aristocrat from England), Lillian E. Wood (a schoolteacher at a Black college), Charlotte Osgood Mason (a wealthy widow who patronized Black artists in her twilight years), Fannie Hurst (author of the bestselling novel “Imitation of Life” about a Black woman passing for white) and Annie Nathan Meyer (creator of the play “Black Souls” and one of the founders of Barnard College).

Some of these women wrote poetry and articles for the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, but that didn’t mean they were accepted by the Black community. Many felt offended by white women assuming “another identity” and throwing away their privilege, which reminded Blacks about the privilege they didn’t have. They used Black culture as an escape from their own lives, which were constricted by class, race, gender and family pedigree.

But some of the situations were problematic. George Schuyler, Josephine Cogdell’s husband and a writer and editor, took the position that differences between the races didn’t exist, but instead of demonstrating that by presenting the achievements of different people, he (along with his wife) entertained the notion that interracial marriage was the only and “permanent” solution to the race issue. To further push this point, the couple paraded their academically and artistically gifted daughter, Phillippa Schuyler, as a triumph of miscegenation any chance they got. They did all of this during the 1930s and 1940s.

Some of the women asserted themselves too much, as if they were dropping their whiteness. Kaplan writes about Cunard making statements like, “Maybe I was African one time” and “I speak as if I’m a Negro myself.” Osgood demanded more than just a thank you for her financial contributions to the lives of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. She demanded friendships and relationships where the artists gave their complete emotional commitment to her.