Timeline 1900 – 2017

Black Man and White Ladyship (1931)

In 1931 the aristocrat Nancy Cunard published the pamphlet Black Man and White Ladyship, an attack on racist attitudes and a defence of her own interracial relationship with the black American musician Henry Crowder.

The importance of Nancy Clara Cunard (1896–1965) to interracial mixing lay in her political activism and also her own interracial relationships in the 1920s and 1930s.The only child of Sir Bache Cunard, third baronet (1851–1925), grandson of the founder of the Cunard steamship line, and the American heiress Maud Alice Burke (1872–1948) of San Francisco, she was educated at home in languages, literature, and history and at various schools and academies in London, Munich, and Paris. She later trained herself as an expert on the arts of Africa, her unpublished papers including a monograph on African ivories, notes for a book of images of Africans in European art, and notes on the history of slavery. She led something of a wild life as a society girl in London, living separately from her first husband who she married in 1915 and divorced in 1925. Between 1921 and 1925 Cunard published a number of poems but claims that she had plagiarised the work of TS Elliott drove her to an expatriate life in Paris, where she began her career as an activist intellectual, setting up a small publishing press, rejecting her upper class background, and embracing the culture and music of Africa. She rapidly became an icon of the new, sexually free ‘woman of honour’.

Her political activism began in 1931 when Cunard brought to London and privately screened a print of the Bunuel-Dali film L’âge d’or. Lady Cunard disinherited her daughter because of this ‘blasphemous and immoral film’ and her public appearances in London society with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician. As her relationship with her mother deteriorated, Nancy wrote an attack called Black Man and White Ladyship, published it in W. E. B. DuBois’s Afro-American journal The Crisis in September 1931, and sent a privately printed version of it to Lady Cunard’s friends. In the pamphlet, she quotes her mother ‘Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?’ and asks: ‘How come, white man, the rest of the world is to be re-formed in your dreary and decadent image?’.

Having broken the taboos of class and family, she became an outcast in England but forged an international reputation as a public intellectual. Cunard then set to work on an enormous encyclopaedia of black history, culture, and politics, entitled Negro and first published in London by Wishart in 1934. Work on Negro (an edited collection) took her to the USA and the West Indies and she enlisted the help of many black intellectuals, including George Padmore (1901–1959), Marcus Garvey, and W. E. B. DuBois. Cunard and others contributed essays on the Scottsboro Boys to Negro, nine young black men sentenced to the death penalty in Alabama for the supposed rape of two young women. The book was banned in British colonies in Africa and the West Indies, which according to her biographer, Jane Marcus,  she saw ‘as an international collective effort to recognize the black Atlantic as a global source of African cultures, rather than merely a part of the vogue for black art among white Europeans of the 1920s’.

There then followed almost three decades’ work as a reporter on race issues for an international audience of mostly black newspaper readers in the US, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But as Marcus notes, it was Nancy Cunard’s contribution as a woman public intellectual to the twentieth-century global struggle for the recognition of African culture and the fight for racial justice for which she will be remembered.

Do you mean to say my daughter actually knows a Negro?

— Lady Maud Cunard, Nancy Cunard's mother