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.