Author Topic: The White Ladies of the Harlem Renaissance  (Read 1597 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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The White Ladies of the Harlem Renaissance
« on: September 03, 2013, 07:35:13 pm »
September 3, 2013
Crossing the Lines Dividing the Races
Today, the mustard-yellow brick building at 321 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem doesn’t look like much. A metal security gate guards the small courtyard, while drab curtains and collapsed Pampers boxes cover the windows, blocking the summer sun.

But back in the early ’30s, at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, it was home to one of New York’s, and perhaps America’s, most unusual families: the black journalist George Schuyler; his white Texas heiress wife, Josephine Cogdell Schuyler; and their daughter, Philippa, a musical and intellectual prodigy soon to be hailed as “the Shirley Temple of American Negroes.”

George Schuyler has long been a fixture in histories of the era, and Philippa got her own full-scale biography years ago.

But to the literary scholar Carla Kaplan, Josephine — who committed suicide in 1969 — deserves to be remembered not just as the stage mother from hell she is usually depicted as, but as a bold if sometimes awkward pioneer at the frontiers of American thinking about racial identity.

“She pushed the boundaries of the possible,” Ms. Kaplan said during a recent visit to Edgecombe Avenue to talk about her new book “Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance,” to be published Tuesday by Harper. “For a woman of her social milieu and class, what she did wasn’t just breaking taboos. It was literally unthinkable.”

And Josephine wasn’t alone. In the book, Ms. Kaplan draws on a wealth of far-flung archival evidence to illuminate the lives of white women who might have arrived in Harlem as slummers and tourists but stayed as patrons, activists, hostesses and wives, courting — and sometimes deserving — suspicion and ridicule from both sides of the color line.

To many whites, they were reckless do-gooders or frivolous flappers who went too far, betraying their race and sullying their womanhood. To many blacks, they were “Miss Anne,” dismissive slang for a privileged white woman who gets away with “doin’ something no one can” (as Little Richard once put it in a song).

Arnold Rampersad, the Stanford literary scholar and biographer of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, called Ms. Kaplan’s title “cheeky,” but credited her with filling a notable historical gap.

“She has uncovered all these personal stories that are slipping out of history altogether,” Mr. Rampersad said, adding: “The book is going to become part of the essential reading on the Harlem Renaissance.”

Ms. Kaplan, who is white, said she began thinking about the Miss Anne project while editing “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,” a landmark 900-page collection published in 2002. There was plenty of information available on Hurston’s many African-American and white male friends and colleagues, but little on the white women she encountered in Harlem.

Ms. Kaplan, 55, a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, drew up a list of some five dozen white women who spent significant time in Harlem in the 1920s and early ’30s, but discovered that even some of the most prominent figures had left behind surprisingly little in the way of personal letters or diaries.

“I wanted to tell their stories from inside their own heads,” Ms. Kaplan said. “These women were so easy to mock or dismiss, I wanted to let them speak for themselves.”

The cast Ms. Kaplan has assembled would certainly make for an odd dinner party. It’s hard to imagine what the flamboyant British shipping heiress Nancy Cunard — who sparked a public frenzy in 1932 when it was reported (falsely) that she was holed up in a New York hotel with Paul Robeson — would find to say to Lillian E. Wood, a spinster Tennessee schoolteacher whose anti-lynching novel “Let My People Go” drew respectful notice in Harlem.

Actually, Wood would not have been in the book at all if not for a Kaplan discovery. While editing a scholarly edition of “Let My People Go” more than a decade ago, she found an unpublished autobiography in an obscure library showing that Wood, whose novel had long been included in bibliographies of African-American writers of the 1920s, was not black. Ms. Kaplan calls Wood, whose book (unusually for a white writer) was put out by a black publisher, a case of “passive passing.” Other women in the book, however, were more active in their efforts to shed or complicate their white identity, and Ms. Kaplan doesn’t stint on the often embarrassing details.

Cunard wondered if “maybe I was an African one time,” and posed for a series of solarized photographs that made her skin appear deep black and her pearl chokers like a noose. Charlotte Osgood Mason, a Park Avenue arts patron eager to promote “the primitive element,” exhorted protégés like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to build a “flaming pathway” to Africa while proclaiming herself “a better Negro” than most blacks she knew.

“These women are on balance pretty cringe-worthy,” Ms. Kaplan said. “But they are also bold, pioneering, courageous and ahead of their time.” Ms. Kaplan confessed to feeling almost “protective” of Josephine Schuyler, a one-time Mack Sennett pinup model and aspiring novelist who found Greenwich Village bohemia too tame and so moved uptown, marrying a man whose lifelong infidelities devastated her.

“In her mind, she invented a bargain: I will cross the race line, and you will never cheat on me,” Ms. Kaplan said. “You could say she was naïve, but her story broke my heart.”

Ms. Kaplan sees Josephine Schuyler not just as a wronged wife, but as a secret literary partner for her husband. In the Schuyler family papers at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Ms. Kaplan found evidence suggesting that Josephine heavily edited or even helped write parts of her husband’s output (including “Black No More,” a scathing satirical novel about a mad scientist who invents a process for turning blacks white). Josephine also published her own journalism under a variety of pen names and personas, both black and white. “She was a real shape shifter,” Ms. Kaplan said.

She is far less forgiving of Fannie Hurst, author of the best-selling 1933 novel “Imitation of Life,” about a young black girl’s tragic efforts to pass as white. In a scathing chapter Ms. Kaplan depicts Hurst as coolly exploiting her friendship with Hurston while researching the novel, then volunteering her name, but little else, to black causes.

“What did Fannie Hurst give back?” Ms. Kaplan said. “Almost nothing.”

White scholars in African-American studies can face their own charges of Miss Anne-like presumption. Ms. Kaplan said she probably wouldn’t have undertaken the book if she hadn’t already spent seven years of hard archival labor assembling the Hurston volume — the first major collection of letters by an African-American woman, she is quick to note.

Ms. Kaplan said she was thinking of creating a virtual “Miss Anne archive” on her Web site, where people can post historical material or family stories, from either side of the color line. The contributions are unlikely to be as awkward as “To a Pickaninny,” a white poet’s ode to adorably “dusky” children published in the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1931 (and reprinted at the beginning of “Miss Anne in Harlem”). But that’s not necessarily because society has come so far, Ms. Kaplan said.

“It’s an absurd, ridiculous, racist poem, but I don’t think it was published just to make fun of,” she said. “We still haven’t figured out racial difference. We’ve created a system where we’re supposed to love difference, but only in certain ways.”
« Last Edit: September 03, 2013, 07:36:57 pm by Reginald Hudlin »

Offline Metro

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Re: The White Ladies of the Harlem Renaissance
« Reply #1 on: September 04, 2013, 05:19:38 pm »

fascinating research. thanks for sharing.
Dean Walter Greason
The Honors School
Monmouth University
(twitter) @worldprofessor