Negrophilia: On Nancy Cunard and Hurricane Katrina

I had been in America only two weeks when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Having lived in the Caribbean long enough to know the devastation that hurricanes can cause as they sweep through the region, I had been tracking it as it approached the coast line. When it hit, I sighed with relief. That sigh was perhaps a day too soon because nothing prepared me for the events that would follow in the next days and weeks. And, I am not talking about the hurricane, rather I am talking about the callous and dehumanising way that black people were treated as they struggled to survive in the face of institutional racism.

In that week, I determined that my first campus talk would be called Why Not America, Nancy?: Ideas about identity and black culture in the 1920s, exploring Nancy Cunard’s life, her travels, her work on Negro, and questioning why this cosmopolitan shipping heiress should have chosen Paris, over London or New York as the city in which to carry out her love affair with black culture. CunardCunardBy looking at Cunard, her involvement with avant garde artists, her relationship with the black musician Henry Crowder, and her later work on the anthology Negro, it is possible to show how attitudes to both race, gender and sexuality were strong determinants in Cunard’s life. Using biographical accounts of her travels, and an examination of her editorial work for Negro, it may become clearer, why America in the 1920s proved antipathetic to Cunard’s project and to the concerns of black people. Negrophilia describes the craze for black culture that was popular in 20s Paris, when to collect African art, to listen to black music and to dance with black people was a sign of being modern and fashionable.

In that era of colonial wealth, luxury goods, and glamourous lifestyles, primitivism whether via Africa or America was vogue. Negro; An Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard came about because of her ‘shameless’ affair with Henry Crowder, her black lover who would also become her closest assistant on the Negro project and a companion for much of her travels. The bulky 850 page collection of articles, gathered while Cunard and Crowder lived together, was inspired by the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance, the negrophilia craze that swept Europe in the 1920s, and Cunard’s desire to create a book that would help Crowder and other blacks understand their African ancestry.

Today, the significance of Negro has been overlooked. It has never been seen as the definitive text Cunard intended. It may be that her zeal overshadowed the Negro she meant to uplift. Perhaps it was that private collections held the only copies until 1970, the printers stock having been destroyed in London’s blitz. Negro> remains an uncommon resource, however, a document that bares the conditions and sentiments of blacks in that era. It was the first publication to voice freely perspectives and ideologies from diaspora blacks and Africans. There were contributions from whites of course, and Cunard promoted the publication as a collaboration between ‘the two races’. But Cunard’s bold intentions combined with her flouting of strict Victorian social codes regarding black people was both the initial set back and death knell of Negro’s success.

Cunard began research for her anthology in London. after returning from Paris in 1929. Establishing herself in Bloomsbury, convenient for the British Museum, Cunard assumed somewhat naively, that she could carry out her project while living openly with Crowder. But neither London, nor her mother, the aristocratic Lady Cunard, were ready for such an inter-racial relationship. The scandal that Negro’s announcement and Cunard’s relationship caused in London’s society and the press was sufficient to alienate Nancy from her family, and to send her packing to Paris for an extended period of exile.

Why France should have proved more welcoming than America or Britain to Cunard, Negro and its black associates, is a complex question that necessitates an understanding of its cultural and moral attitudes towards them in history. Since the French Revolution, the motto of “Liberte, egalite fraternite” had helped to fashion a response to Africa, slavery and colonial rule that stressed assimilation and accommodation (albeit a stifling one) within France’s own sense of imperial destiny. This contrasted with British imperialism a benevolent but nevertheless identity and economically crushing rule of its subjects, or America’s segregation of its blacks in a system not dissimilar from South Africa’s apartheid. French interest in their colonised went beyond financial considerations. In addition to mainstream patronage and a colonial mission to ‘improve’ black people, the avant-garde’s admiration and borrowing of black forms satisfied their need for the ‘exotic’ and the real (something that was lacking in its own culture). Black culture stood for a spiritual wholeness that had been lost in their increasingly materialistic and mechanised society. The assimilation of black forms into Parisian subculture was remedial and therapeutic.

Cunard epitomised the negrophile of the 1920s and was in the artistic vanguard who shared an enthusiasm for Africa.(12) From 1923-26 her friendship with artists such as the poet Tristan Tzara, sculptor Brancusi, the photographer Man Ray and her surrealist lover Louis Aragon assured her familiarity with authentic African artifacts and a position in a bohemian underworld that was fast becoming fashionable. But Cunard’s passion for Africa was growing, even as her interest in Aragon seemed to be waning. In 1926, she wrote her journalist colleague Janet Flanner that she was leaving for Southampton, the shipping port “to look for African and Oceanic things - because that is the most recent and very large interest in my life, ivory gods, masks, fetishes”.6

As an attractive shipping heiress, Cunard had a lifestyle and fashion sensibility that ensured her the attention of the world’s press, and certainly her affection for things african was considered de riguer. London’s Vogue magazine reported in an article entitled ivory shackles: "One thing Nancy did while in London was create a fashion in ivory bracelets, each of them extremely thick and two or three inches wide”. For a negrophile like Cunard, her black lover’s racial purity was important to reinforce her own identity as a radical. As biographer Ann Chisolm says about her attitude to Henry Crowder: “He was patient in a mildly embarrassed way, with Nancy’s often express wish that he had a blacker skin, or that he behave in a more primitive, exotic manner. “Be more African, be more African’ Harold Acton remembers Nancy saying to Crowder one evening ...” but, I ain’t African, I’m American’ Crowder replied mildly”.7

Why Crowder and other black men like him courted these relationships is a damning but perhaps justifiable feature of black history. Wealthy white women were their vehicles for social mobility, so they turned a blind eye to their flippancy and like gigilos played up their Africanicity to mask the true dignity of their ‘blackness’. That Crowder could have tolerated Cunard’s permissiveness with other lovers, both black and white, is an indication of his tolerance and the influence of her bohemian values.

From so many accounts, it is clear that Cunard’s flouting of social mores offended not only white attitudes, but also black attitudes to race. Most blacks like Crowder were happy to toe the line and enjoy the freedoms that Paris provided. He said ‘In Europe the Negro will learn that color prejudice, though it exists in some places such as in England, in never as in America, a religion or a creed ’. When Cunard proposed a research trip to New York, Crowder cautioned her that the “an offay and spate can’t go together here without there being an incident”. Predictably their stay in Harlem met with hostility, and it was largely at his insistence that they returned to Paris after only a month. But Cunard’s vision was blinkered and she seems to have had a genuine difficulty seeing her own whiteness, and the way in which her desire to ‘cross over’ created discomfort for others. Her dedication to the black race drove her to be bold with race issues, and she called attention to herself courting the press in a way that was self promoting, but also tactless. In turn, the press maliciously reported casual relationships with other black men such as Paul Robeson, and deflamed her character in a way that negatively impacted her work for Negro. Her belief in the the rightness of her project and her naive handling of race issues, effectively did more harm than good for the black man’s cause.

From the outset the Negro project was plagued with difficulties. Lack of funds, racial conflicts and suspicion from both black intelligentsia and white conservatives dogged its progress. Despite this, Negro gained support from a wide black community. Prominent diaspora blacks such as W E DuBois. Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, among others, all made significant contributions. Similarly, members of Cunard’s intellectual and artistic circle such as Rene Crevel, Raymond Michelet, Samuel Beckett, and another ex-lover Ezra Pound, wrote about black culture. Articles about the conditions of blacks in Africa, North and South America, Europe and the Caribbean jostled with reviews of music, poetry, the arts and black history.

Collecting material for Negro, Cunard made several research trips, including two to the USA and one to the Caribbean. Despite her professed focus on Africa, she did not visit there. Instead, she followed the fashionable cruise ship routes of the family owned Cunard White Star Line that plied the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The strain evident between Cunard and Crowder during her first trip to America seems to have affected their relationship, so much so that when Cunard proposed a second trip in 1932, Crowder refused to accompany her. Typically, Cunard bulldozed ahead taking with her another black companion A. A. Colebrook. This time her tour met with even greater furor, she was hounded by the press not only in America, but also Cuba. Even so, Cunard made the most of her experiences, using the negative publicity to her advantage and even including some of the most vitriolic letters in Negro. One such letter read, ‘Mrs Nancy Cunard, take this as a solemn warning, your number is up. You’re going for a ride shortly. You are a disgrace to the white race. You can’t carry on in this country. We will give you until May 15th. Either give up sleeping with a nigger or face the consequences. This is final...p.s. We will not only take you but we’ll take your nigger lover with you.’

Despite her adventures gathering material, Negro's content fell short of Cunard’s original expectations. She had envisaged a book as significant and popular as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, that would bring about the complete emancipation of blacks in the new world. What Cunard actually collated was an ethnographic travel guide. Negro's geographical layout, disjointed articles and anecdotal material, marries it to the genre of the travel journal. Much of Negro is stamped with Cunard's editorial hand. It is a selection gained from Cunard's own travels and networking rather than the reflection of a pan-African network. Despite Cunard's tireless appeals for fresh and definitive material, the information collated is more anecdotal than factual, more personal than global. For all its earnest documentation Negro was Nancy Cunard’s book, a manifestation of her rage against her family and the London and American societies that rejected her. For every page that talks about black history and racial injustice, another can be written about her racial arrogance and the misguided belief that black experience might be read as a compendium of events between two covers. For every fact, anecdote and observation so many more are part of another way of understanding, more oral, more experiential, more ethical, more spiritual. For every list of well wishers and contributors to Negro, another can be made of those who opposed the book either because of their own race hatred or because of race pride.

Reasons why some blacks would have steered clear of Negro rest somewhere within the sweeping nature of the anthology, and Cunard’s bold editorial style. In no way was the project, initiated, fashioned or controlled by them. Negro lacked their subtlety and a kind of tempo that dictates when it is appropriate to sing or to shuffle, to strike or to smile. It lacked an understanding of the black man’s ability to compromise as a strategy for survival. The textual gaps that Cunard filled with her hate mail and bangles are more reflective of a black collective silence and a wisdom that recognised Cunard’s heroism as a construction that met her needs, and not theirs. Negro represents Cunard’s attempt to package black history for black people, in the way that it is still being packaged for the public today.

This article about Negro, Cunard and Crowder in the context of New York is also a construct that suits our present day needs, rather than reflect the truth of what existed. Which is that, New York in the 1920s was a city that corralled its black people into the upper side of Harlem, and was intolerant of black people who tried to cross the invisible colour line, to enter its all-white clubs as anything other than entertainers, or to use the front door instead of the back. It was even more censorious of a woman of impeccable breeding who chose to ‘get down’ with blacks. A revival of mainstream interest in jazz, black history, the 1920s whether in New York, New Orleans, London or Paris, is our safe way of dealing with the past. But it still avoids issues that are as relevant now as they were in the 1920s. As Nancy Cunard's life attests, these ideas and ideals are difficult and intimate paradigms. Adjustment to white mainstream society is an accommodation that blacks have been making for centuries, conversely white people, especially a white woman’s fostering of black culture still provokes fears of degradation and racial contamination. Even today, a commitment to racial truths beyond that of minstrelsy and all that jazz, comes at the cost of social rejection and alienation.

An understanding of negrophilia sentiments and Nancy Cunard's personal and professional failures allows for an exploration of racial issues that still matter. The American society that rejected Cunard and her Negro project in the 1920s has not changed substantially from the America that we live in today. For all its perceived interest in black culture, its hierarchies that confine black people to astrodomes and places of entertainment remain the same. Cunard danced into a world that she described as elegant and swinging, and in doing so she crossed a line that put her on the other side of history. Her life and the anthology Negro are left to languish, only to be dusted off for the occasional lecture and the temporary taste of what it means to be black.