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american history
the 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 roaring twenties. 

*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 behaviour.

*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 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 movement.

*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 klansman inside).

this page last updated 28 september, 2009.
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