Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Q&A with Professor Carla Kaplan

Carla Kaplan, photo by Robin Hultgren
Carla Kaplan is the author most recently of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. She is the Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Northeastern University, and her other books include The Erotics of Talk and Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. She lives in Massachusetts.

Q: What is your definition of "Miss Anne"?

A: “Miss Anne” is a derisive term for white women; it’s a categorical term that works like the comparable terms for white men, “Mr. Eddie” or “Mr. Charlie.”

The etymology is not completely clear. It was coined by black Southern domestic workers before the 1920s, who were stuck in the kitchen, sometimes for 18-hour days. They couldn’t afford to disrespect these women to their faces, but they could return to their community and refer to them as “Miss Anne.”

“Miss” is important because of the uneven naming that is part of American history. The black slaves were [not given their own last names]. White people were “Miss” or “Mr.” while black people were just their name, or “boy” or “girl.” “Miss” is a phrase filled with ironies, and it turns the tables on some of the racist history.

I was surprised and thrilled when my publisher let me keep it as the title of the book; it had always been my working title. One of the things I learned early on is that “Miss Anne” was a phrase with real familiarity in black communities, where it resonated in complicated ways. White people didn’t know what it was.

One of the reasons I wanted to use it is that it reminds me, even today, that we live in a world where even phrases have complicated resonance in one community but are unknown in another. Race still divides us, and racism has created different worlds.

Also, the reason I wanted to use the phrase is that it was a way [in which] black people referred to white women. When white women went into Harlem, there was a very negative response from both worlds. Here was Miss Anne showing up in Harlem, and the white women had to resist the white community’s racism and manage to diminish the black community’s skepticism. They were in a double bind. I was reconstructing the white women’s points of view, in six mini-biographies, getting into their heads, [and also looking at] how the black community saw them, hence the title.

Q: How did you select the women on whom you chose to focus?

A: I wanted to recreate their range of outcomes, so I wanted to pick six different women that represented different meanings of this pioneering experiment, from some who were accepted by the black community to women who were considered to have betrayed the black community’s trust in them, so we get a complex picture.

That was my idea, to pick from across the spectrum, but I was restricted by having to pick women for whom I could get enough archives to bring her back in her own words. About five dozen women tried this experiment, but very few left behind much in their own words. The six I selected represented a spectrum, and left enough of an archive.

Q: You write, "Often dismissed as a sexual adventurer or a lunatic, Miss Anne may be one of the most reviled but least explored figures in American culture." What accounted for this portrayal, and why hasn't there been more attention focused on these women?

A: I was so surprised that there had been no discussion of them. The more I looked into them, the more they have to teach us about the long 20th century history of racism and of sexism.

How is it that I’m the first person to do this? The racism of the day, combined with the gender ideas of the day. The two come together in a way that made it possible for white men to cross race lines in a way that was not possible for white women.

In the 1920s, it was not just about blacks being viewed by mainstream America as inferior. Blackness and whiteness were understood in completely different terms. Blackness was viewed as a pollution or pathogen. The idea was that white women were particularly vulnerable to this pollution or pathogen.

Whiteness for white men was seen as not quite as fragile. White men could expose themselves to the pollution or pathogen if they did it in limited doses. It would even reinvigorate them. But white women were warned that if they tried the same thing, they would forfeit one of the only cultural assets they had.

The white women who do this, who make a choice to embrace black culture, were not just choosing a denigrated aspect of society, but giving up their privileges of gender and race. It was a really big thing to do.

That’s a piece of why their history gets buried. Once they pass for black, their history gets buried. Also, many of them buried the record of their activities. Some of the most progressive of the white women felt sensitive to the ways in which white women had not stood up to racism, and felt very ashamed. Many, like Mary White Ovington, felt the only way to do good work in the black community was not to draw attention to themselves. We have the white culture wanting to bury the story, and many women themselves wanting to bury the story.

[Given the] long history of sexism, many women were without an archive. Then there was the long history, starting in the 1960s, where there was lots of work done [on] the lost history of black culture. Black culture had also been buried, so in that context…the white aspects of black Harlem [were not studied until scholars] rounded out the black history of Harlem.

Finally, there was the fact that their story was anything but seamless. In some ways, these women were noble and admirable, and in other ways, they were cringeworthy…Most of them found it a really unhappy experiment, and it didn’t work out. People want to know, what’s the point? Should we cross lines or not? It’s more complicated than the either-or.

The other piece is, to resurrect them would take an awful lot of work. They were hiding in plain sight, but the material about them was not readily available. Sometimes, untold stories are untold for a reason; you need someone who’s willing to give years to it.

Q: So you were that person.
A: Either fortunately or unfortunately! It’s one of those books that choose me rather than me choosing it. I didn’t want to write Miss Anne; I wanted to read Miss Anne!

Q: You’ve mentioned some things that surprised you in the course of your research—was there anything else you wanted to add that was unexpected?

A: One thing I would add is how sophisticated some of these women were about developing a notion of identity that we thought we invented. The social construction that it’s not biology: identity can be a matter of allegiance. Some of them attempted to volunteer for blackness. Some were saying, I consider myself black. And it’s not just that they did it, but that it was backed up by a complex argument that identity need not be wrapped up in biology.

We are still going around about whether identity is biological, whether it’s in the blood. Even the arguments about gay identity. Here were these women almost 100 years ago inventing an identity that we consider avant-garde.

Q: Does the "Miss Anne" phenomenon continue today, and if so, in what way?

A: Absolutely. There are lots of Miss Annes today, white women who construct their identity around allegiance to or reference to black culture. Think about Madonna. Or Eminem—somebody whose identity is drawn in a complicated, amalgamated way. There are lots of folks, particularly in pop culture and music, we can see in these terms.

The crossover phenomenon today is as much with sexual identity as with racial identity. It’s a weird confluence of attitudes—a homophobic culture, but queer is cool. It’s a similar phenomenon under similar conditions; you see the love of the other as you see the denigration of the other.

Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride would not be dead if white people still didn’t fear and abhor black people. The power of fear of the other existing at the same moment as the fascination—we still live in that cultural moment.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I am. I seem to be interested in complicated women who walk away from lives that others might envy or covet. [The women in] Miss Anne were all complicated women who made an unlikely choice. I’m writing a biography of a very complicated woman, Jessica Mitford. She is great fun to work on. She was eschewing aristocratic privilege and throws it over for becoming an American communist—talk about unlikely choices!

Her life story is amazing—running away with her cousin, Esmond Romilly, at 17, marrying Robert Treuhaft, her history in civil rights—and she becomes a world-famous writer.

She lets me think about writing in a whole new way. She may be about the most irreverent writer we have. It’s a joy. Her archive is absolutely immense, and each time I sit down before this mountain of material, I think how will I ever get through this, and each time I end up laughing out loud. She’s a radical with a sense of humor. Miss Anne’s story is often quite grim. Jessica Mitford’s story [has] great moments of triumph.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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