Sunday, December 8, 2013

Working together to fight The Man

Book: Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance
Author: Carla Kaplan
Published: 2013 (Harper)
Pages: 343

So you want to fight for social justice, but right along with your family and own social circle thinking you're insane and probably sexually perverted in some way you haven't admitted yet, the people you want to help consider you a condescending outsider and accuse you of using them as a way to boost your own celebrity. What the hell are you supposed to do?

The white women activists who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century went in wildly different directions all the boost the same cause: racial equality and respect for the blossoming African-American contributions to the arts. Some mostly stayed out of scandal by supporting artists while staying the hell out of the spotlight as much as they could; some dove headfirst into interracial marriages, love affairs, and tabloid headlines. Probably the most transparent but also most reviled openly expressed their longings to appropriate this "exotic" culture for themselves, i.e., wrote poems about how they wished they were black and wrote plays they claimed to be all about the black experience and wanted everybody to go back to the "childlike wonder" of black people. So still racism, only weirder. 

Not everybody hated these ladies, of course, because that's yet another aspect of grouping "us" against "them" and generalizing for a whole bigass swatch of people who may or may not have anything in common beyond their skin color, and it certainly helped boost notice to black artists when they already had the backing (and money) of at least a little corner of the Establishment. But at the same time, this was when women were also getting patted on the head with an "Oh, she wants to help people! Isn't that cute!" so this book also doubles as an account of how two groups of minority voices joined together sometimes loud enough to actually get heard. 

It's pretty great. The first part is the best because it outlines the movement and white ladies' general roles in it. The second half of the book biographies (yeah, I totally just made that a verb) four or five ladies specifically, which I liked but also wanted to hear more about. There was this one lady who wore African bangles from her wrists to her elbows because she wanted to be a...look, guys, I can't say either the proper or the slang version of the n-word. I have no rights whatsoever to that - and I don't think anybody ever settled the debate of "Is this racist?" (Although with 2013 mindset, the answer is usually, "Um. Yes.") 

Very solid research on a very obscure topic. Bookshelf!

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