Correction: A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to a suicide described in the book. A passage recounting the deaths of Charlotte Osgood Mason, Nancy Cunard and Josephine Cogdell Schuyler said that Mason died alone in a hospital bed and “Osgood” hanged herself in an apartment on Edgecombe Place, on Harlem’s famed Strivers’ Row. It was Schuyler who hanged herself, and the apartment was on Convent Avenue. Also, Edgecombe is an avenue, not a place, and neither it nor Convent Avenue is part of Strivers’ Row. This version has been corrected.
In the tortuous history of American race relations, the decade after World War I stands out as particularly cruel. There were the anti-black pogroms that raged through Washington, Chicago and a dozen other cities in the summer of 1919; the white rampages that burned black Tulsa in 1921 and tiny Rosewood, Fla., in 1923; the imposition of segregation in neighborhoods across the urban north; the shocking rise of the Ku Klux Klan on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line; and the appalling persistence of lynching, which took 400 lives in 10 years, the bitter fruit of a racial regime steeped in violence.
Against those horrors, the nation’s leading civil rights activists set the power of art. The campaign started at New York’s Civic Club on March 21, 1924, when the National Urban League’s Charles Johnson hosted a legendary dinner that brought together a handpicked group of African American writers and the white publishers, editors and critics who could give their work the attention it deserved. Shortly thereafter, the first key books of the Harlem Renaissance appeared in print, the opening salvo in a literary crusade Johnson and his colleagues hoped would demonstrate the vitality of African American culture — and, by so doing, shatter white America’s illusion of racial supremacy. It was the pursuit of “civil rights by copyright,” in David Levering Lewis’s marvelous phrase, as idealistic an undertaking as the movement ever mounted.
There may be no clearer embodiment of that idealism than the Misses Anne of Carla Kaplan’s intriguing new book: the white women who in one fashion or another decided to make the Harlem Renaissance their own. Kaplan, the Davis distinguished professor of American literature at Northeastern University, admits that it was a minuscule group, largely hidden in the shadows of Harlem’s outsize personages. She makes it smaller still by building her book around six of its members, selected not because they were particularly influential — some were, some weren’t — but because for the most part they exemplified the Renaissance’s promise, finding in it new perspectives on the nation’s racial dynamics, new understandings of what it meant to be black and white, and new allegiances and commitments, just as the activists hoped they would.
The six came to the Renaissance with decidedly mixed motives. Josephine Cogdell and Nancy Cunard were rebelling against their wealthy families. Annie Nathan Meyer and Fannie Hurst were looking for literary inspiration. Charlotte Osgood Mason wanted to tap into the “primitive” art she believed would heal a wounded world. And Lillian Wood — Kaplan’s oddest choice, since she never set foot in Harlem — wanted to celebrate the community at Tennessee’s tiny Morristown College, which had given her a home.
Their experiences within the movement were just as varied. Meyer used the material she gathered to write a startlingly frank play, “Black Souls,” on the link between sexual desire and racial violence. Mason became one of Harlem’s most generous and most manipulative patrons, at one point holding in her sway three of the Renaissance’s leading figures: Alain Locke, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Cunard threw her herself headlong into racial politics in hope of finding a way across the color line, while Cogdell and Wood literally crossed the line, Codgell by marrying Harlem journalist George Schuyler, Wood by so thoroughly embracing life at the black college where she taught that it has long been assumed she was African American.
It would have been easy for Kaplan to turn her subjects’ stories into celebrations of transgression and liberation. At times she leans in that direction, most obviously in her treatment of Cunard, whose reputation she’s intent on rescuing from academic condescension. But she is also careful to point out the awkwardness, the arrogance and the condescension that earned the six the “Miss Anne” label, a less-than-flattering term for white women of an imperious bent. And she doesn’t hesitate to show the enormous cost of defying the racial standards of the day.
Only Hurst made a success of her connections, largely because she exploited rather than embraced them. Having wormed her way into Harlem’s confidence, she took a story line Hurston gave her, stocked it with stereotypical black characters and turned it into a deeply offensive novel, “Imitation of Life,” that put her on the bestseller list. The others were battered for their devotion to the cause, their work ignored or dismissed, their political commitments ridiculed, their private lives wracked by rejection. Cogdell was so scared of her family’s reaction that she never told them about her marriage to Schuyler, not even when her baby was born. That was probably the right decision: When Cunard’s mother learned that her daughter had married a black man, she tried to have the two of them arrested.
In the end three of the six suffered tragic deaths, Mason lying alone in her hospital bed, abandoned by her many proteges; Cunard shattered by mental illness and alcoholism; Schuyler dangling from a noose she had fashioned out of the drapes of her apartment on Convent Avenue.
No doubt there was more than racism at work in those tragedies. But racism played its part, shaping the public reaction to Miss Anne’s insubordination, turning her rebellions into offenses, making her pay. In exposing that harder truth, Kaplan draws out of her tightly focused book a wider meaning. It took enormous courage for anyone — white or black, female or male — to embrace the Harlem Renaissance’s vision of a society that accepted and even celebrated difference. But courage alone was no match for the savagery of the era’s racial order.
Kevin Boyle teaches history at Northwestern University. His book “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age” received the National Book Award for nonfiction.
MISS ANNE IN HARLEM
The White Women of the Black Renaissance
By Carla Kaplan
Harper. 503 pp. $28.99