Category Archives: Education

The Last Book I Loved: Miss Anne in Harlem

Do you guys remember back in college when you’d pick up your books for a new class and the first thing you’d do is skip to the back and be thrilled to find out that 100 of the 500 pages you were expected to read were citations and bibliography? No? Just me?

miss-anne-in-harlem-jacket300wSo last night, on the train home, I found myself in the exact opposite position, eagerly anticipating the last 150  pages of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan, about the highly problematic, complex, fascinating lives of prominent white women in Harlem in the 20s. I was downright devastated to find instead 150 pages of index and acknowledgments. Noooooo000000000.

It is a rare piece of historical analysis, without traditional plot or suspense, that can grip a reader like that. Slow clap to Kaplan for pulling it off and making it look easy.

I was wary of Miss Anne from the title alone. Do we really need to go looking for ways that white people’s contributions to history, particularly black history, have been overlooked? Really? Those are the buried contributions we want to spend time and energy uncovering? Look! More stuff that you thought black people did but actually it was white people! And a white historian writing about and profiting off of a book about white people writing about and profiting off of black identity politics in the 20s? Are we really not going to address the irony? This book had the potential to go seriously, seriously awry.

And yet.

Oh my god, you guys, it was so good. As you might imagine, I’m a sucker for the behind-the-scenes, never-before-revealed, forgotten-by-the-sands-of-time/ignored-by-the-patriarchal-powers-that-be stories of women shaping, influencing, wielding power. This also applies to people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other members of marginalized groups whose contributions are often painted over by a whiter, straighter, male brush. The story of Bayard Rustin is one example; a gay black activist who organized the March on Washington and is literally standing behind MLK Jr during the “I Have a Dream” speech, but whose name is often left out of the textbooks. Or all these women I read about when I was traveling Peru.

The assumption that history was built by (white, straight, rich) men, is undermined when you get into the nitty gritty of who was actually working, writing, creating. With each such story that ultimately gets told, it feels like a slow expansion of the canon, and goddamn does the canon need expanding.

That very tension between untold stories of fascinating women and appropriation of black culture is literally and intentionally the central struggle of Miss Anne and all of the women it chronicles. Kaplan selected six white women, “Miss Annes,” to illustrate the variety of roles that white women inhabited (mostly uncomfortably) during the 1920s in Harlem.

The women she picks range from writers and journalists to “philanthropists”–like Charlotte Osgood Mason, who financed significant work by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke while maintaining a dictatorial grip on their social calendars–to playwrights and poets who attempted to “capture the black experience”. Many of them thought of themselves as boundary-breakers and reached into Harlem for certain freedoms they weren’t allowed in upper middle class white society. Some of them craved the spotlight, others were content to work in obscurity (until now) on behalf of the betterment of blacks. There is no unifying thread in their experience, except for their whiteness and femaleness in a period of history mostly discussed from a black male point of view.

It was an era when primitivism ruled and white Americans took tours of “exotic” Harlem to experience the “carefree” music and dance of black dance halls. Some of the women in Miss Anne subscribed to the worst of those primitivist theories. Some of them didn’t. Race novels like Imitation of Life, Passing, and Let My People Go, grappled with the meaning of racial identity, especially when identity was not visibly obvious. The notion of “volunteering for blackness” existed in opposition to passing for white. The dueling concepts of “race pride” and “race is a useless social construction” were constantly being debated in the press, on stage, and in salons. Can you choose how you identify? What happens if it’s in conflict with how others identify you? Why is choosing blackness different than passing for white? What obligations do you owe the members of your group?

In short, it was messy as hell, and to her credit Kaplan ignores none of the mess. Thank God.

There’s only one thing I would add to Miss Anne. If you recall from writing history papers in college, the trick at the end was always to pull the past into the present with some trite sentence like, “And that is why these issues are still ones we are discussing today.” Only better than that, obviously. While Kaplan successfully draws strong lines from 1920s race and identity politics to the present day, there is one piece missing from the puzzle; Kaplan’s story herself. By opening the door to discussing her role as a white historian telling black stories and describing black experience [Note: She is considered an expert on Zora Neale Hurston], she could have added that last complicating layer to an already super complicated, delicious, multi-layered history cake.

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S(Monday) Scraps 108

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1. AUTHORS: 50 places every literary fan should visit, according to Flavorwire. I’ve been to one…

2. OITNB: If you are not watching Orange is the New Black I don’t even really know what to say to you anymore. Anyway, Autostraddle has an in-depth look at the differences between the memoir and the show.

3. RACE: After Don Lemon’s awful advice to black people (pull up your pants!) Jay Smooth takes him to task on the Ill Doctrine and explains how pulling up one’s pants does diddly squat to solve institutionalized inequality.

4. PRIVILEGE: Doug Muder’s The Weekly Sift very articulately picks apart the “distress of the privilege” with examples from Pleasantville to Chick-fil-A.

5. BRAZIL: Suketu Meta (author of Maximum City) writes for the New York Review of Books about his experience traveling in the favelas of Brazil.

6. ADVICE: George Saunders, who I love, gave a stellar commencement address to Syracuse about kindness.

Related Post: Sunday 107: Millennial worry, mermaids, Amanda Palmer, etc.

Related Post: Sunday 106: Dustin Hoffman, sex education, Rob Delaney and more

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S(Monday) Scraps 106

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1. WEIGHT: How not to be a dick to your fat friends. Spot on advice from Marianne at XOJane.

2. HOLLYWOOD: This clip is old, but man is it good. Watch Dustin Hoffman have a few on-camera epiphanies while talking about dressing like a woman in Tootsie.

3. RACE: Kiese Laymon on multicultural writing, what it means to be a “real black writer,” and the state of modern publishing. For Guernica.

4. ABORTION: My second favorite dude comedian, Rob Delaney, writes for the Guardian about why he’s pro-choice.

5. SEX ED: The always excellent Marianne Cassidy on the sex education she wish she’d had (but never got, because she grew up in uber-Catholic Ireland).

6. WRITERS: Roxane Gay at The Rumpus applies the Vida test to race and publishing. Guess what percentage of NYT book reviews were of non-white writers?

Related Post: Sunday 105: Bodies that matter, old cities, tiny islands, literacy tests

Related Post: Sunday 104: Bookish pie charts, bro Venn diagrams, the Girlfriend Zone, etc.

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Sunday Scraps 96

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1. ART: This Colossal photo series of art by Takahiro Iwasaki is called called Topographical Maps Carved from Electrical Tape. I think that about covers it.

2. DATING: Jory John’s take on Nate Silver’s take on the statistical realities of your relationship (from McSweeney’s). 

3. FAMILY: If you don’t cry, you have a heart of stone. Twelve years ago, a young gay couple found a baby on a subway platform.

4. GENDER: The always excellent Amanda Marcotte for Slate writes about Philip Roth’s relationship with women. Wanting to fuck them is not the same thing as respecting them.

5. PLAYBOY: Fun little personal essay from Lynn Levin on meeting her father at the original Chicago Playboy mansion in the early 70s.

6. EDUCATION: Part 2 of This American Life’s series on Chicago’s Harper High School.

Related Post: Sunday 95: Seth McFarlane, missed connections, Leslie Knope’s wedding dress

Related Post: Sunday 94: Connie Britton, Queen Bey, Jane Austen

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Monday Scraps 95

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1. DATING: Where do “missed connections” happen? In Illinois, on the train (duh), in Indiana, at home. Wait, what?

2. AUTHORS: Ugh. Ender’s Game was kind of my favorite thing for so so long. It still is, but I hate when the authors you love turn out to be raging homophobes. Dammit.

3. EDUCATION: This amazing investigative piece by WBEZ on the South Side’s Harper High School is incredible in basically every way journalism can be incredible.

4. KNOPE: NYMag has the inside scoop behind Amy Poehler/Leslie Knope’s amazing wedding dress.

5. SPORTS: For the very first time, a woman is participating in the NFL regional tryouts. Kicker Lauren Silberman will probably not play in the NFL, but that’s still pretty f’ing cool.

6. OSCARS: I would write about Seth McFarlane’s horribly sexist jokes, but Margaret Lyons at NYMag  nailed it so hard I’d just be paraphrasing. 

Related Post: Sunday Scraps 94: Bey, Connie Britton, Jane Austen and more.

Related Post: Sunday Scraps: 93: Guns, visiting Chicago, Margaret Atwood

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Monday Scraps 89

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1. SNOW: This epic John Branch story is a freaking commitment (took me about an hour to read, I think), but one that’s well worth it. With amazing graphics and video, he recounts the avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

2. THIEVERY: Super fun profile of “supernatural” pickpocket Apollo Robbins by Adam Green for the New Yorker.

3. FASHION: Girls is coming back! Yippee! Get excited by reading about how Jessa, Marnie, Shoshanna and Hannah are dressed and styled.

4. MONSTERS: As part of a promotional campaign for the new Monsters Inc. prequel, check out the parody website “Monsters University.”

5. MATT + BEN: Who doesn’t love a good oral history of a much beloved cultural landmark? (Side note: The Friends oral history in Vanity Fair was excellent.) For Boston magazine, Ben, Matt, Stellan, Robin and more recount how Good Will Hunting got made.

6. EDUCATION: I dare you to not get weepy at this NYT video of a very special physics teacher.

Related Post: Sunday 88: Boobs, doubt, the Rockaways, Moloch

Related Post: Sunday 87: Deb Perelman, Amy Hempel, Pinterest for cops

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Monday Scraps 83

1. GIFTS: After Romney’s post-election definition-of-a-sore-loser quotes about the “gifts” the President gave young people and minorities (Did you know you can buy a 24-year-old’s vote for a couple of months of contraception. TRUE FACT), Jon Stewart shared a few other “gifts.”

2. MORMON: Super excellent piece by McKay Coppins for BuzzFeed on being the sole Mormon reporter on the Romney press bus.

3. MEXICO: What happens to journalism when bribery, threats, and frequent spates of violence directed specifically at the press plague your country? Just ask reporters covering Mexico’s drug wars (NYT Book Review).

4. LANGUAGE: Which words does the NYT use too often? A new internal tool lets the paper (and curious spectators) explore the patterns of language perpetuated and created.

5. HILLARY: Gail Collins + Hillary Clinton = excellent reading. What will Hillary do next? Sleep, aparently, and exercise.

6. DENVER: This is from 2007, but I’m kind of obsessed with Katherine Boo this week, so I’m sharing it anyway. For the New Yorker, she covers the story of Denver’s superintendent and the journey of one turnaround school that couldn’t quite turnaround.

Related Post: Sunday 82: Kevin Durant and the OKC, Rachel Maddow nails it, cute MD photos

Related Post: Sunday 81: Callie Khouri, Anita Sarkeesian, sex surrogacy

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