Wow. No wonder we still make a mess of things when we talk about race (and no wonder we try to avoid it at all costs). It's been messy for a long time, and the 1920s and 1930s was an early period in which we started developing the language of race in a prominent movement of artists, not just activists. This book is a description of white women's roles in the Harlem Renaissance, but really it's six mini-biographies. The six women profiled here are well-meaning, white, generally well-to-do, and interested in promoting blacks and black culture, but the are vastly different from each other. And each is a deeply flawed human being, with the possible exception of Lillian Wood, about whom we know very little. Most of them (all of them?) really screw up in their interactions with (or interference with) the Harlem Renaissance. The honest story-telling by an author who is sympathetic to them while recognizing their grave mistakes and flaws is truly enjoyable to read.
This isn't a novel, and doesn't pretend to be. It's a scholarly work, and a little dry because of that, but I expected as much from the outset. One of the things I like about it is that the author manages to convey, in genuine but professional terms, the excitement of doing research and learning about these women. Once in while I felt like someone who had just been chatting with me suddenly straightened her back, leaned in, eyes bright, and said "hey, did you know...?!" I really enjoyed her tone and found the book very readable. And, of course, very well-researched.
I've already had several conversations in various settings inspired by this book. Comparing the difficulties in race debates early on to the ones we have now... well, we've made progress, but I'm not sure how much. A lot of the questions and challenges are the same. And I appreciate the way this author examines what happens and brings up the questions but doesn't step into another role and start providing answers. She's a historian. She doesn't actually compare the debate then to now; that was left to me as a reader. So it's a history book, but truly informs the discussions we should be having today (isn't that what history is supposed to do?) in a responsible and thoughtful way. I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of race in America.