Friday, October 4, 2013

Miss Anne in Harlem by Clara Kaplan *****

What an extraordinary book! A history of the Harlem Renaissance (1920s and 30s) told through the biographies of courageous white women who supported black civil rights during a time of segregation and lynchings. If you have any interest in the civil rights history of women or African Americans Miss Anne in Harlem by Carla Kaplan, is the book for you.

"Miss Anne" is Harlem slang for any white woman.

The book is wrought with the tension between two ideas ... essentialism: race is in the blood and immutable ... culturalism: race is a cultural construct and changeable. Essentialist support race pride, race power, and race unity, while culturalists support fundamental equality. In today's context, affirmative action is an essentialist or racist policy.

These white women were split between these two ideas, as was/is everyone else.

Essentialists wanted to help, especially through writing. Plays and memoirs were written by white women authors from black points of views. Within Harlem, culturalists (an idea in ascendancy during this period) lauded these excellent tellings of black cultural experience, while the essentialists (sometimes the same people) decried whites presuming to speak for blacks.

Culturalists wanted to became. The called themselves volunteer blacks, often at personal risk and forfeiting their white privileges and social positions. This approach also received mixed responses from the Harlem inhabitants. The Harlem culturalists supported these women, while essentialists resented their interference.

This tension caries forward to this present volume. How does the author justify telling a black history story through the lives of white woman ... is this the black history co-opted to telling a feminism story?

In the end, the stories of woman rights and black right benefit from documenting the intertwined history.