Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Best Book of the Year

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan is the most thoroughly researched, best written, and most intensely interesting book I've read all year (and I've read a lot of books).

"Miss Anne" was a dismissive slang term used to refer to white women by many urban black people in the early decades of the 20th century. The "Miss Anne" of this wonderful non-fiction study was often a rich white woman who wanted to be a part of the great flowering of African-American art during the 1920s and '30s -- the period often called "the Harlem Renaissance." Langston Hughes came out of it. So did Zora Neale Hurston and a bunch of others.

"Miss Anne" wanted much more than to be merely "a part" of the cultural ferment producing great writers and artists in those decades. Some of them wanted blackness itself as a part of their own identities. A wealthy dowager like Charlotte Osgood Mason, with a Park Avenue address and many servants, actually claimed, "I am a better Negro than most of the Negroes I know." That claim was accompanied by patronage -- cash money -- offered to black writers she liked but whom she also wanted to control. Her patronage came with iron strings attached.

Other Miss Annes married black men, or had public affairs with them, thus cutting themselves off from respectable white society of the day not to mention from their own families. Josephine Cogdell, the daughter of wealthy, racist Texans (her father was a Klan member) married African-American journalist George Schuyler at a time when inter-racial marriage was unheard of and even unthinkable. Josephine wrote in her diary the night before her wedding: “To my mind, the white race, the Anglo-Saxon especially, is spiritually depleted. America must mate with the Negro to save herself.” Her marriage was ultimately not a happy one.

The desire of Miss Anne to experience what was culturally and even legally forbidden is but one of the ironies in this totally fascinating book. While Charlotte Osgood Mason celebrated "Africanness" and "the primitive," she was also a thorough-going anti-Semite and a control freak who wanted "her" black artists to do as she said. She was in fact a more modern version of a slave-owner, and Zora Neale Hurston was justified in resisting her control.

No other book I've read more successfully unpacks the paradoxes, the inconsistencies, the raging hormonal cross currents, and the ego-inflating self-deceptions that infected the whole topic of race in the early 20th century, and which still infect it. I can't help thinking of President Obama as a latter-day recipient of the projected fears and desires of his white "patrons" (not to mention his white haters). Such paradoxes and cross-currents might destabilize the strongest personality.

No comments: