But to the literary scholar Carla Kaplan, Josephine — who committed suicide in 1969 — deserves to be remembered not just as the stage mother from hell she is usually depicted as, but as a bold if sometimes awkward pioneer at the frontiers of American thinking about racial identity.

“She pushed the boundaries of the possible,” Ms. Kaplan said during a recent visit to Edgecombe Avenue to talk about her new book “Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance,” to be published Tuesday by Harper. “For a woman of her social milieu and class, what she did wasn’t just breaking taboos. It was literally unthinkable.”

And Josephine wasn’t alone. In the book, Ms. Kaplan draws on a wealth of far-flung archival evidence to illuminate the lives of white women who might have arrived in Harlem as slummers and tourists but stayed as patrons, activists, hostesses and wives, courting — and sometimes deserving — suspicion and ridicule from both sides of the color line.