Renata MorresiSet Apart: Nancy Cunard

by Renata Morresi


Nous n'existons qu'en fonction de ce conflit, dans la zone où se heurtent le blanc et le noir. Et que m'importe le blanc ou le noir? Ils sont du domaine de la mort.

                                                                                             —Louis Aragon (Le paysan du Paris)

These pages are part of a work-in-progress on Nancy Cunard. If by “progress” is meant gradual approach to the complete knowledge of the object of study, my work has not “progressed” much. But I’ve been lucky: Cunard is not an object, she is not a fixed, clear-cut entity I have to discover removing a mass of useless data. She’s more an underground stream, crossing numerous fields, growing wider or rarrower, trying to seep wherever possible, slowly, but constantly, eroding the rock.

At the very beginning of my research on Cunard, I found innumerable descriptions, reports, images, memoirs, photographs. I believed that by collecting all pieces and putting them together in a single frame I could reach a full vision.  And yet I soon realized that, though I could always create new images, I could never find THE image. As with a tangram.Where was the mistake? In the splitting? Or was it in that search after the stable, univocal truth that could make sense of all differences?

When considering Cunard transformations, even contradictions must be taken into account. In the shifting interstitial space of negotiation among different cultural formations she becomes a crucible of meanings, the site where some visions of the world meet and others originate. There she gains her authoritative voice.Cunard’s dispute with western hegemonies, her fight against racism and colonialism, her struggles on behalf of the working-classes, her active anti-fascism, her work for the acknowledgement of black identity, for the circulation of black cultures and histories, somehow even her silences, build up the possibility of troubling whiteness, altering traditional representations and gender roles, opening new perspectives.

Her intentions have long remained misunderstood, her name unmarked, her work unintelligible. As Mae G. Henderson says, it’s necessary “to rescue and find a historical home for this fascinating figure, suppressed in one tradition and falsified in another.” Rescuing Cunard has become part of a plan to trouble disciplines (and identities) considered as absolute monolithic entities. Cunard always tried to cut out for herself a location where she could represent blacks and persuade whites, where she could do away with white imperialist culture and yet be heard by it, be approved as a political partner by blacks, criticize black moderatism, put together radical intellectuals, political leaders, black and white artists, and be a poet herself.

In these acrobatic negotiations she ran some risks.

Let’s consider her call for contributions for the Negro Anthology:


   I want outspoken criticism, comment and comparison from the Negro on the present-day civilizations of Europe, America, South America, the West Indies, African Colonies, etc.—where the conditions are best for Colored people—individual documents, letters, photographs from those that have travelled and can judge of the attitude of diverse countries and races.

           This is the first time such a book has been compiled in this manner. It is primarily for the Colored people and it is dedicated to one of them.

She explicitly addresses people of African descent: the book is primarily for them. In the foreword of the anthology, the last words are directly addressed to someone else, manifestly a white reader:

    It is now fashion to say that the white man is in Africa for the black man’s good. Reader, had you never heard of or seen any African sculpture? I think the reproductions in this part would suggest to you that the Negro has a superb and individual sense of form and equal genius in his execution. [...] the African has an adequate enough soul (somewhat different from yours) and had also (though that too was different from yours) a social organisation perfectly adapted to the conditions of his own continent.

Cunard acknowledges racial difference, but has trouble reconciling it with the claim for complete equality. She’s aware of the distinctiveness of race, but in recording black cultures -in trying to have them acknowledged by whites as cultures—she often feels impelled to construct them in terms of white western cultural norms (stressing the formal artistry, the social organization, etc.)

In her work she often tends to erase her whiteness, to construct for herself an insider quality that can make her pass for black. In so doing she risks the reproduction of those hegemonic practises she wants to oppose: her appropriation of black struggles may conceal the traditional western will-to-domination. Moreover, stepping outside whiteness often means for her stepping outside her gender. “When on SELF writing RE the three main things: equality of races, of sexes, of classes.” In her discourse of equality Cunard tries to erase differences, with the result of subsuming them in ‘the norm’. As Maureen Moynagh argues: “The gender lacuna in effect comes as an aporia in Cunard’s writing on race, persistently undermining her efforts to speak from a place outside imperialist discourse.” On the other hand Cunard’s refusal of whiteness is only partial: as a white protester against white racism she had the chance to articulate a far more radical voice then any black representative was allowed to do in those troubled times:


Last advise? to the crackers:

Bake your own white meat -

Last advice to the lynchers:

Hang your brother by the feet.

                             (“Equatorial Way”)

She had no interest in discarding completely her privileged place in white culture: it’s there that she needed to be heard. Those privileges would turn more than once against her.

Cunard was a British heiress in favour of radical communism, a white aristocrat fighting against all forms of imperial oppression throughout the world: she was not content to patronize, her revolutionary spirit was all for action. On the other side, as a woman activist, she was not interested in the status of women, a fact which has discouraged feminists’s interest in studying her politics. Significantly enough Cunard has often been described in terms of an aggressive (heterosexual) sexuality: her relations have received attention only when concerning men, her connections with women being confined to competition. But it was Edith Sitwell who first published her poems in the anthology Wheels; her Parallax was published by the Hogarth Press; she wrote for the New Times of Sylvia Pankhurst. Janet Flanner, Solita Solano, Kay Boyle, Sylvia Townsend Warner seemed to be life-long friends. Cunard interviewed Una Marson, she published Laura Riding at the Hours Press, and later Zora Neale Hurston in the Negro anthology.  Her multiple, creative links with other women will repay a distinct study.

I don’t think it’s by chance that images and representations of Cunard stop at the first half of the ‘30s, when it became clear that her political and civic activity was not the whim of a spoilt child. When Cunard stopped being seen as the rebel and eccentric upper-class girl and strived to establish herself as a radical activist, serious in her political concerns, she disappeared from popular imagination. In Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, the book Hugh Ford edited and dedicated to Cunard soon after her death, Cunard’s distinguished friends and acquaintences tend to describe her in terms of a mythical, almost mystical sexuality. Other biographers give central importance to this element in their interpretations of her life and work. Douglas describes her as “a glamorous, alcoholic British heiress, poet, rebel and profligate” and examines the reasons of her thinness, her sexual preferences, the contrast with her mother. Cunard’s interest in the black cause is considered the sublimation of her own maternal instict, frustrated by her mother’s bad example.

Chisholm appeals first to glandular, then to mental disorder to justify Cunard’s choices. She also underlines how many people describe her “as if she were a martyr or an ascetic who undertook sex as a kind of ordeal or torture, finding a voluptuous pleasure in degrading herself. To those who looked to a deeper kind of purity, a kind of self-sacrifice, seemed to lie behind her wild behaviour.”

Studies on Cunard have too often been limited to her sexuality and the problematic relation with her mother. Such analyses have obscured her role as a political organizer, journalist and writer. bell hooks gives an effective description of this well-known strategy to suppress women’s writing and intellectual activity:

  In our culture, women of all races and classes who step out on the edge, courageously resisting conventional norms for female behavior, are almost always portrayed as crazy, out of control, mad. [...]Representations of “mad” women excite even as they comfort. Set apart, captured in a circus of raging representations, women’s serious cultural rebellion is mocked, belittled, trivialized. It is frustrating, maddening even, to live in a culture where female creativity and genius are almost always portrayed as inherently flawed, dangerous, problematic.

The morbid attention on Cunard’s sexuality is the more striking if we consider that Cunard herself doesn’t directly address sexual or gender issues. Finding no genderized discourse in her agenda of anti-racist struggles is, at first, discouraging. We wonder why this woman, so clever at bringing to light the intersecting dynamics of imperialism, capitalism and racism, didn’t realize that imperial hegemonies were imbued with a patriarchal attitude and sexism. If Cunard overlooked the gender question, a careful reading of her work must take it into account: the missing gender issue in Cunard’s discourse doesn’t allow neglecting gender as a fundamental category in her politics, exactly because of its absence.

It becomes clearer then why in Cunard’s poetry the first person narrator is repeatedly a (white or black) male subject, why her accusation and repudiation of British imperialism and racism are articulated through Cunard’s public rejection of her mother and her feminine ideal, why Cunard always chose male life-styles and never spent a word to explain or justify her choices in personal terms. Unlike Bryer, the other well-known British heiress with a central role in the literary scene of the age and in anti-fascism, Cunard never wrote a biography giving direct account of her motives. She didn’t mingle personal, public and political that much, after all. 

It’s often repeated that Black Man and White Ladyship, the first text Cunard wrote to claim the value of Afro-American culture and expose racism, “broke the taboo of privacy”. The pamphlet has been considered a shocking attack on her mother, an excessive retaliation, a violation of the sacred mother-daughter bond, a public declaration of her love for an Afro-American man. I don’t think this reading of the text is enough: Cunard’s operation must be read inside her politics, as a real political act, not just as a violent outburst and a personal revelation. It’s true that the personal implications are relevant, but I don’t think they were Cunard’s main concern when writing the pamphlet. First of all in Black Man and White Ladyship there’s no hint that the relation between Cunard and her “Negro friend” was more than a close friendship. When ‘The Afro-American’ published the pamphlet substituting the word “lover” for “friend,” Cunard replied with an annoyed letter where she made clear that the implications of her pamphlet didn’t necessarily depend on the nature upon her relation with Crowder. I’m sure Lady Cunard and her clan held a very different opinion.

In the whole text the only words that state the gender of the narrator are those pronounced by Lady Cunard “Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?”. Her mother is never called “my mother”, she is always referred to as “Her Ladyship”: she’s kept at a distance and mercilessly scrutinized. The habits of a high-society woman, like the frantic consumerism or the feigned feminine candour, become the symbol of western ‘uncivilized civilization’, but there’s hardly anything about the mother as a mother at all. When Cunard tells about the widespread violence in the southern states of U.S., where lynchings are encouraged “In the name of white American womanhood!,” some light could be thrown upon white anxieties over miscegenation, black access to citizenship, white women’s independence. But she stops just there where I would like her to begin: “I think one can explain the Virginian in two words: Fear and jealousy.” Even in her reports on lynching and the Scottsboro case, Cunard doesn’t explore the implications of rape, “the American white southerners’ vocal badge of race-hatred,” for (white and black) women.  She resists talking about women and about herself as a woman.

Black Man and White Ladyship is certainly not the nasty trick of a rebellious daughter: it was written when Cunard was 35 and had been on distant terms with her mother for many years. The pamphlet exposes American lynching practises, the atrocity of slavery, the persistence of the Colour Bar, the blindness of intellectuals, the hypocrisy of an outdated aristocracy afraid of losing its empire. It states Cunard’s new set of values, the desire to construct for herself a new identity. It presents a black man who is different from the common stereotype of the “down-trodden canticle-singing Negro” and is described as “the very much up to date, well educated, keen, determined man of action”. The roles are inverted: the “supposedly well educated arts-and-letters-appreciating aristocrats and hostesses” become ignorant, superficial, vulgar and outdated; the black man becomes modern, brave, loyal, clever and creative. The pamphlet also marks the beginning of Cunard’s work in recovering, studying and circulating black histories and cultures.

For these and other reasons I  believe that Black Man and White Ladyship is primarily a political manifesto. It was the age of manifestos, after all, and Cunard followed the example of her surrealist friends, even adopting a certain surrealist style (think of the opposition old\new, the shocking element, the juxtaposition of different scenes, the parody). The pamphlet is the rejection of the traditional, snobbish, racist, closed world of British imperialist upper-classes, and of Lady Cunard, who was the perfect embodiment of its ideal of womanhood.

Lady Cunard’s descriptions correspond to various forms of imperial domination: from the censorship of what could question one’s image (“Her Ladyship has just thrown this 25/- worth of modern history into the fire and with a poker holds it down”), to the erasure of otherness turning it into familiar categories (“if the black man is Paul Robeson . . . ah then it is quite different, he becomes ‘the noble Moor’ ”), from the use of art to increase status (“the Art game or Picture racket”), to the refusal to speak about controversial subjects, like homosexuality (“ ‘You know, those dreadful people who . . . well, you know those horrid . . .’ ”).

In refusing her cultural origins Cunard also refuses the corresponding female model.

Cunard’s exile from her mother and motherland is, with Jane Marcus’s words, an “exultant exile”, different from the experiences of melanchonic homelessness and alienation that have come to characterize (and glamorize) the lives of modernist émigrés. Her interest in black cultures may not always be “pure,” free from western exoticism, yet her commitment is not just to the individual quest of inspiration and self-fulfilment, but, above all, is an the effort to make those cultures the sites of cultural production themselves.  Her idea of modern(ist) culture raises many questions and contradictions: it’s maybe there that we should start to tell the story again.

Works cited

Cunard, Nancy, Black Man and White Ladyship: An Anniversary, Toulon, 1931 (privately printed);

   --      (ed.) Negro Anthology, Whishart & Co., London, 1934.

Chisholm, Anne, Nancy Cunard: A Biography, A. Knopf  Inc., New York, 1979.

Douglas, Ann, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 20’s, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1995.

Ford, Hugh (ed.), Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, Chilton Book Co., Philadelphia, 1968;

   --     (ed.), Negro: an Anthology (abridged), F.Ungar Pub Co., New York, 1970.

Henderson, Mae G., ‘Introduction: Borders, Boundaries, and Frame(work)s’, Borders, Boundaries and Frames: Essays in Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies, Mae H. Henderson (ed.), Routledge, New York, 1995.

hooks, bell, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, Routledge, New York, 1994.

Marcus, Jane, ‘Bonding and Bondage: Nancy Cunard and the Making of the Negro Anthology’, Borders, Boundaries and Frames: Essays in Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies, Mae H. Henderson (ed.), Routledge, New York, 1995.

Moynagh, Maureen, ‘Cunard’s Lines: Political Tourismus and its Texts’, New Formations 34 (1998), pp.70-90.

BIO: Renata Morresi is pursuing her PhD work at the University of Macerata, Italy. The subject of her thesis is 'Life and Letters Today', a review of culture, cinema, literature and politics patronised by Bryher, and the networks of women engaged in these pursuits. Morresi wrote her degree thesis on Nancy Cunard.


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