Nancy Cunard: A Rebel With A Cause That Harlem Embraced

June 8, 2024

By HWM

Nancy Cunard was born in 1896 into immense privilege as the heir to the vast Cunard shipping fortune. But her childhood was far from idyllic.

Her mother, the formidable Lady Maud Cunard, despised childbirth and child-rearing, having Nancy only because she felt obligated to produce an heir. This maternal disdain left deep psychological scars on the young Nancy.

Despite her gilded upbringing, Cunard rejected high society’s conventions from an early age. With her signature cropped hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, and eccentric jewelry crafted from wood, bone, and ivory, she cut a striking figure that scandalized the Parisian elite when she embraced a bohemian lifestyle among the avant-garde artists of 1920s Paris.

“Must you make such a spectacle of yourself?” her mother is said to have chided, but Nancy was determined to blaze her trail.

Entranced by the Harlem Renaissance

It was in the salons of Paris that Cunard’s passion for racial equality ignited. After beginning a relationship with African-American jazz musician Henry Crowder in 1928, she immersed herself in the vibrant cultural scene of Harlem.

The neighborhood was a hub of nightlife, political activism, and an emerging black elite residing in Sugar Hill and Strivers’ Row.


Writers, artists, and performers like Ann Petry, Pearl Primus, and Mary Lou Williams thrived in Harlem, nourished by its cultural energy despite facing the boundaries of racism.

The Harlem Renaissance celebrated the “New Negro Movement” and black racial pride, casting ripples of activism that would influence later movements like feminism.

Crowder introduced Cunard to this pulsating world, and she was instantly captivated, embracing black culture at a time when 1920s New York remained deeply segregated.

Her excitement over the Harlem Renaissance and relationship with Crowder inspired her crowning achievement – the groundbreaking 1934 anthology “Negro.”

Amplifying Unheard Voices

The 855-page “Negro” was a daring celebration of blackness and the Harlem Renaissance, featuring luminaries like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale, and Claude McKay. As a white woman fostering black culture, Cunard’s embrace of the movement was quite scandalous, alienating her from society at a high personal cost.

Even today, such racial transgressions can provoke fears of “contamination”, showing how little attitudes have changed.

Though “Negro,” faced dismal sales, Cunard’s commitment to amplifying long-silenced black voices was unwavering.

She poured what little money she had into the project after her family disowned and disinherited her for her relationship with Crowder. “One wonders on whose authority this is said to be the end of the Harlem Renaissance,” she defiantly wrote, a rallying cry against those diminishing the movement’s significance.

A Fearless Voice Against Injustice

Cunard’s unapologetic stance made her a target of hate mail and threats from racist detractors, some of which she brazenly published in “Negro,” refusing to be cowed into silence.

But she remained undaunted, embracing anarchism and becoming “one of the most vocal anti-fascists of her time.”

During the Spanish Civil War, she raised funds for the Republican cause and bravely reported from the front lines, her dispatches offering searing accounts of the horrors she witnessed.

And as the specter of World War II loomed, Cunard joined the fight against fascism, her life a whirlwind of passionate activism until the very end.

Related: Magnificent Rebel: Nancy Cunard in Jazz Age Paris.

For 10 days in her final years, her whereabouts were unknown before her family, deeming her mentally unfit, had her committed against her will to an asylum.

But even institutionalized, Nancy Cunard’s uncompromising spirit could not be extinguished.

Her life was a testament to the power of rebellion in the face of injustice – a woman who shattered conventions defied expectations, and fought tirelessly for racial equality and human rights.

Photo credit: 1-3) Wiki.


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