Roaring Twenties and the Harlem Renaissance
*The decade after
World War I was a period of great prosperity for most of America
(although for farmers it was a period of bad fortune, as food prices
fell shortly after World War I ended), and Americans were able to enjoy
that prosperity with more free time than ever before.
*Rising wages, shorter working hours and a shorter work week (the
average work week fell from 70 hours in 1850 to 55 hours in 1910 to 45
in 1930), gave people the time and money to enjoy themselves.
Furthermore, after the destruction of the Great War and the Spanish
Flu, Americans wanted to cut loose, and the 1920s were known as the
*Americans had new ways to enjoy themselves. Movies were new, and
much cheaper (only a few cents) than going to a play or concert.
The first movies had no sound (or, at most, came with recorded music
that matched up to different scenes, but with no sound effects or
talking. Even silent movies created new world-wide celebrities,
like comedian Charlie Chaplin and the handsome sheik Rudolph
Valentino. In 1927, Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, the
first ‘talkie,’ in which sound was synchronised with the pictures.
*Movies were available for anyone who wished to go out, but people
could also take part in America’s mass culture at home through the
medium of radio. Not only did this allow people to listen to
news, sports, and music, but it let music that was enjoyed regionally
to spread across the nation. Pop music from New York City, jazz
from the Mississippi Valley, and country music from Appalachia spread
across the country.
*Bristol, TN/VA is often known as the birthplace of country music,
because the most successful early country musicians, particularly the
Carter Family (A.P., his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle (and
later Maybelle’s daughter June)), had their first recording sessions
there (and Bristol remained a major recording area for decades).
*Although many of the things people had traditionally respected and
admired were being viewed a little more cynically, Americans did find
new heroes. Besides film celebrities, sports stars like boxer
Jack Dempsey and especially Babe Ruth became nationally famous.
Ruth was especially important because he helped Americans get over the
Black Sox Scandal (in which some members of the Chicago White Sox threw
the World Series, mostly because they were bribed, but partly because
they hated the team owner).
*Besides admiring athletes, Americans were also amazed by flying.
Airplanes were still new and dangerous, air shows were popular, and the
men who risked their lives to fly airplanes and set records became
famous. Perhaps the most popular American by the end of the 1920s
was Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic
Ocean, flying from New York to Paris in 33 hours without sleep or
instruments (when he pass over Ireland he slowed down, flew low, and
shouted out ‘Which way to France’ at people until someone pointed).
*As traditional attitudes declined (and new technology such as the
vacuum cleaner and the electric iron reduced the time needed for
housework), women began to gain greater social freedom. Many
smoked, wore shorter skirts, cut their hair into short bobs, danced to
modern music, and even drank in illegal speakeasies. These New
Women were called flappers.
*Traditional attitudes even changed about the mind. Sigmund Freud
made psychology popular, and his work asserted that people were mostly
driven by subconscious desires rooted in animal instinct or developed
during childhood (the id and ego) only barely restrained by reason
(superego). Some saw this as insulting to people’s intelligence,
but others saw it as an explanation (or an excuse) for strange
*The writers of the Lost Generation criticised the world around
them. Sinclair Lewis wrote about the emptiness of middle-class
life in Main Street and Babbitt. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about
the excesses and emptiness of the Jazz Age in The Great Gatsby (in
which Jay Gatsby invents a new life for himself and becomes rich, but
never achieves his dreams). William Faulkner wrote stories about
the Deep South that presented a strange, backward, and inbred
society. Ernest Hemmingway wrote about the loss of belief in
great causes such as war and even tried to strip language itself to its
simplest forms in his writing.
*Despite this disillusionment among many people in the 1920s,
African-Americans were creating new art, music, and literature in what
was called the Harlem Renaissance as the blacks who had moved north
during the Great Migration developed a new culture from old traditions.
*Jazz music is one of the few forms of music to truly develop in
America, and it did so, mostly among African-Americans (although many
white people in American and Europe enjoyed it and played it, too) in
the early 20th century. Louis Armstrong was the most famous jazz
musician in the country.
*There were many African-American writers in the Harlem
Renaissance. One of the most famous was a writer of books,
poetry, and plays named Langston Hughes. He celebrated black
culture and heritage, which were just as ancient, deep, and meaningful
as white culture. Read his poems from page 359. Zora Neal
Hurston was the most prominent female black writer, but they were only
two of many writers in the 1920s and ‘30s.
*This helped African-Americans develop a sense of pride. Read the
quote on page 358.
*Some African-Americans were even African Nationalists. The most
famous of these was Marcus Garvey, who went far beyond what Booker T.
Washington or even W.E.B. Du Bois. Through the 2.5 million-member
Universal Negro Improvement Association he tried to found or support
businesses run by African-Americans to promote black wealth and to give
African-Americans somewhere to do business so they could boycott
white-owned businesses. He published a newspaper, Negro World,
and had plans to found factories, grocery stores, restaurants, and
more: he began a cruise line, the Black Star Line, in 1919.
With this wealth, he and his followers planned to develop Liberia as a
new homeland for African-Americans who followed the Back-to-Africa
*All this was seen as dangerous by the US government, and the FBI
managed to get spies into his organisation, and eventually charged
Garvey with mail fraud. After serving part of a five year term,
he was freed early and left the US for Jamaica. W.E.B. Du Bois
felt that Garvey was a genius, but a dangerous one—by trying to do so
much so quickly (and with quite a bit of corruption involved) he might
frighten the other races with whom the black race had to work (as
demonstrated by FBI efforts to undermine Garvey's work). Garvey
also met with the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, because he
felt they understood each other—each wanted their races to be
completely separate (besides, Garvey thought every white man was a