Nancy Cunard “Negro – An Anthology”
In 1928, Nancy Cunard, the beautiful, intelligent, British upper class heiress to the Cunard shipping line fortune fell in love. She had tried to play her alloted part in British post-war society and failed. Instead, she moved to Paris, fell in with some of the great writers and poets of her time, many of whom she inspired. She set up The Hours Press, a small independent publishing company specialising in promoting work of young experimental writers. It was then she met Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician.
Her love affair Crowder coincided with the vogue of African culture that swept through 1920s Paris. Black music, collecting African art (note Cunard wearing bangles in the photographs), a craze for African artists such as Josephine Baker was all the rage.
Against verbal and physical threats, strong criticism and hatemail (upon hearing of her daughter’s relationship with Crowder, Cunard’s mother is quoted as saying: “Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?”), Nancy Cunard set about compiling an extensive collection of articles and essays on African art and culture.
The resulting 850 page tome called “Negro – An Anthology” encompasses the history of black people throughout the world and covers anything from sheet music, prose, poetry, essays and photographs. The list of black and white contributors is impressive: Louis Armstrong, Samuel Beckett, Norman Douglas, Nancy Cunard, Theodore Dreiser, W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, William Carlos Williams, and many others. Additional material came from Africa or was submitted in German, French and Spanish.
Published in London by Wishart in 1934 with a print run of only 1,000 copies, the book naturally became a collector’s item; in recent years original copies of Cunard’s book have sold for as much as £5000 in auction.
The initial reaction to its publication was mixed both from white and black readers. Nancy’s unwavering conviction and energy to complete this project insured that she “lived to see black become less black and white turn less white with shame.” An abridged version is now available from Continuum.