Author Carla Kaplan and Historian and Artist, Nell Painter, in conversation about Miss Anne in Harlem and who is white in the history of white people
A conversation being held at New York Public Library between author Carla Kaplan and historian and artist Nell Painter was one I had to listen in on, even if it meant riding on the subway after 8pm, when the talk concluded. Kaplan, a professor of English at Northeastern University, is the author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (Harper Collins, 2013). Nell Painter, Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University, is the author of The History of White People (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). I was already anticipating their talk, as I walked from the #1 stop at 42nd Street, cutting through Bryant Park so I could admire the beauty of NYPL set behind flowering paths, water fountains, and that rare sight -- New Yorkers at leisure.
What might the organizers of this NYPL conversation be inviting us to consider or, perhaps, reconsider?
Indeed, as you can hear in this audio clip, their conversation is a free-flowing, even ebullient one that these two distinguished academics are clearly enjoying as they toss out ideas and history about women, jazz, money in the arts, 1920s Harlem, glitterati, African-Americans in the arts and as arbiters of American culture, who is white in the history of white people, and the interplay of these with so many other topics.
In the midst of their exciting exchange of words and ideas, I was struck by Kaplan's saying,
"I wanted to tell stories... not just to academics. I wanted to write a book that my mother's book club would read.... I wanted that story to be dialogic. So, I wanted the women I wrote about in the book to be in dialogue with the black activists, artists, writers, intellectuals, philanthropists, who they were seeking to collaborate with. ... I was actually trying to resurrect their voices..."
I think often of Kaplan's wish that book clubs – regular folk -- not only academics, can spark conversation through the women's voices they find in her book.
Carla Kaplan, author, Miss Anne in Harlem. Photo Credit: Robin Hultgren
Two of my book clubs have indeed read Miss Anne in Harlem.
Bookmark by Burtt Brown, Riverside Book Club, Miss Anne in Harlem. Photo Credit: Luvon Roberson
And, I am pleased to note that, according to the review in The New York Times, Painter's The History of White People "... has much to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy..." (I'm not an academic. Is that why the characterization of such experts makes me cringe?).
The New York Times review also points to Painter's book, offering this lens:
"Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their 'barbaric' northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a [also known as] Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty."
I appreciate -- even when I cannot agree with -- how both Painter and Kaplan re-frame histories we all believe we know or simply believe in, without knowing. Kaplan frames Miss Anne in Harlem as her endeavor to tell the women's stories through their eyes and voices. Too often, the stories of African-Americans – and of women – are told solely through the lens of others. For quite some time, I've believed there is a dynamism and energy in speaking, listening to, and hearing my voice and that of others.
On the ride back home on the subway that evening, I wasn't able to find a seat on the jam-packed #1 train. For most of the ride I stood, trapped by strangers' bodies and smells, all my senses on full-alert. Then, as my body rocked and listed with other bodies in the subway car, I realized: If, as a woman and African-American, I were not too often denied access to that dynamism and power, would I have been so eager to listen in on the conversation between Painter and Kaplan? And, why am I just as resistant in some ways to their framing of the conversation?
Carla Kaplan observes that "Miss Anne/Ann," is a derisive reference to white women, well-known by African-Americans but little known among whites. In framing the social currency of "Miss Anne/Ann" most recently, Kaplan points to its use in "The Nation" blog by Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School; a founder of Critical Race Theory and a co-founder of the think tank, the African American Policy Forum.
Nell Irvin Painter photo by Robin Holland