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'Voluntary Negroes'

Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature Carla Kaplan
In the early 1900s, the black community used the term “voluntary Negroes” to refer to African-Americans who remained in the community, even though they had coloring fair enough to pass as white.

It’s astonishing to learn that they weren’t the only “volunteers”—that dozens of white women during the Harlem Renaissance aligned themselves with African-American culture for reasons ranging from a sense of social justice to a passion for the arts.

Nicknamed “Miss Anne” in the black community, these largely upper-class women played important roles in the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinary period from the 1920s to the early 1930s when African-American culture flourished. More than mere flappers seeking thrills at the Cotton Club, Miss Annes were patrons of the arts, activists, writers, friends, and even lovers.

In Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, Carla Kaplan, Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature, unearths the secret history of the white women who contributed to this cultural movement.

Kaplan became interested in the subject while working on her last book, the critically acclaimed Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Although she kept encountering reference to these “Miss Annes,” she could find little information about them.

“I wanted to read a book [about them] and it didn’t exist—so I had to write it,” Kaplan says.

Kaplan conducted extensive research over a two-year period, amassing “a mountain of material” culled from primary and secondary sources. After compiling a list of 60 Miss Annes, Kaplan chose to focus on six iconoclasts as representatives of the broader categories of Miss Annes.

For example, we meet Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy patron to Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who provided a financial lifeline to the authors while also becoming a controlling and overbearing benefactor. Another heiress, Josephine Cogdell, raised eyebrows when she married George Schuyler, the era’s most prominent African-American journalist.

Flouting convention is rarely without penalty and, as Kaplan notes, “Each woman paid a price for her experiment,” often being alienated from, or formally disinherited by, their families.

Mining the hidden caverns of history is bound to turn up some gems, such as Kaplan’s discovery that renowned author Lillian E. Wood, who wrote the anti-lynching novel Let My People Go, wasn’t black, even though she has been classified as an African-American novelist since the book was published in 1932. In a similar vein, Kaplan discovered that, not only did Cogdell assist her husband with his stories, she also used a pen name to write an advice column for an African-American newspaper, leaving readers to assume that she, too, was black.

In Miss Anne, Kaplan has given us a new angle on a fascinating period of American history. The book, which reads like popular history rather than a scholarly tome, also serves as a thought-provoking meditation on identity and whether it can be adopted.

Carla Kaplan is the author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (HarperCollins; 2013; 540 pages).

– By Magdalena Hernandez

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