Though the 1920s have a rep­u­ta­tion as a fast and loose time in Amer­ican history—an era of flap­pers and jazz music—Eng­lish pro­fessor Carla Kaplan points out that the decade was really one of the most con­ser­v­a­tive, rigid periods in Amer­ican his­tory, espe­cially in terms of race.

Deliv­ering the annual Robert D. Klein Uni­ver­sity Lec­ture on Thursday, Kaplan described “a mania for putting people into cat­e­gories” during that era. Few crossed lines defined by class or color, and now some of the most sig­nif­i­cant inter­lopers are all but forgotten.

Kaplan, the Stanton W. and Elis­a­beth K. Davis Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Amer­ican Lit­er­a­ture in Northeastern’s Eng­lish depart­ment, focused her lec­ture on the sig­nif­i­cance of the term “Miss Anne,” which refers to a white woman who tries to pass as black, espe­cially in the realms of music, the­atre and lit­er­a­ture. (Kaplan said the term comes from “a mod­er­ately deri­sive black slang term for any white woman.”)

I am not claiming they were trying to be pre­cur­sors,” Kaplan said at the start of her lec­ture, held in Raytheon Amphithe­atre. “They were just trying to get by in a place where they were told they didn’t belong.”

As an inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized scholar of lit­erary mod­ernism, African Amer­ican lit­er­a­ture, and life-writing—Kaplan researched some five-​​dozen Miss Annes for an upcoming book; she spoke about six during her talk. She said many blurred the lines between common per­cep­tions of race to the con­fu­sion of some, but the delight of others—especially black thought leaders in Harlem, the heart of a new renais­sance of African Amer­ican culture.

These women com­pli­cated their nation’s notion of iden­tity, whether they liked it or not,” Kaplan said.

Though much of her lec­ture focused on women from the late 1920s and into the early 1930s, Kaplan closed by dis­cussing the 2008 work “Love and Con­se­quences: A Memoir of Hope and Sur­vival.” The book, which received high crit­ical praise, but was exposed as a fab­ri­ca­tion just before its release, told the story of a half white, half Native Amer­ican child who became part of a brutal Los Angeles gang. Author Mar­garet Seltzer, who wrote under the pseu­donym Mar­garet B. Jones, was in reality a white woman raised by her affluent bio­log­ical par­ents; the book was never released.

Still, “Seltzer’s ques­tions are Miss Anne’s ques­tions,” said Kaplan, who assigns the hard-​​to-​​find book in some of her classes. “And they are as pressing now as they were then.”

The issue of race is in many ways as hard to broach now as it was nearly a cen­tury ago, Kaplan said. In addi­tion, the women she iden­ti­fied as Miss Anne play a key role in our under­standing of race and iden­tity in the United States as we examine both his­tory and the world today.

If we accept that the right con­di­tions almost never present them­selves, then per­haps the lesson of the 1920s is to make space for explo­rations of iden­tity, rather than bury com­plex cul­tural fig­ures like Miss Anne,” Kaplan said.

The Robert D. Klein Uni­ver­sity Lec­turer Award, estab­lished in 1964 upon the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Fac­ulty Senate, honors a member of the fac­ulty who has con­tributed with dis­tinc­tion to his or her own field of study. In 1979, it was named after the late Klein, a revered pro­fessor of math­e­matics and a leader in the Fac­ulty Senate.