Life for African Americans in the Roaring Twenties

Here we are in the 20s again, not the roaring 20s, but the 2020s. Have you ever wondered how life was different for African Americans in the 1920s?

If you were an African-American in the 1920s, you might have ridden on the back of the bus and in the colored car of the train, but you also might have danced to the Charleston, listened to poets like Langston Hughes in Harlem or heard Bessie Smith sing at a Speakeasy.

Three African American Harlem Women Dressed in the 1920s fashion. Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Three_Harlem_Women,_ca._1925.png

The 1920s:

  1. Politics:
    • Jim Crow laws kept African Americans segregated from other Americans. These laws were largely enforced throughout the south and in some border states, such as Maryland and even in some western states. Learn more here and here.
    • The 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote was passed on August 18, 1920. African American men technically were given the right to vote through the 15th amendment, but, both black men and black women were routinely denied the right to vote throughout the south through policies that were designed to suppress the black vote. The KKK and other racial terror groups sometimes threatened African Americans who tried to register to vote.
    • In 1927, advocates argued against a policy in Texas, which aimed to keep African Americans from voting in the primary elections. This case became known as Nixon v. Herndon and was struck down by the supreme court.
    • Even though Black women, like Ida Wells, had demonstrated leadership in the suffrage movement, many African American women did not benefit from the passage of the 19th amendment in the same way as white women. Learn more here.A map of the great migration patterns of African Americans from 1910 to 1940 and 1940 to 1970. The map shows city populations in the North increasing during this time. Photo credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1c/GreatMigration1910to1970-UrbanPopulation.png
    • The Great Migration: After WWI, African Americans faced an upsurge in racial violence and terror. Many African American WWI veterans faced harassment and, in some cases, lynch mobs. This violence spurred many African Americans to begin to move to the Northern states where they could escape the Jim Crow segregationist policies of the south and begin life anew. This time period from 1920 to 1940 became known as the First Wave of the Great Migration. Learn more here.
    • African Americans and white allies advocated for an end to the lynching in the south and in 1922, the US House of Representatives passed an anti-lynching bill, but the bill failed in the senate. President Harding condemned the lynching of African Americans in the south in 1920. Learn more here.
    • In 1923, a Senator from Mississippi worked with the United Daughters of the Confederacy to commission a statue of a black “Mammy,” figure which would sit on the National Mall. While African Americans were dying in the South from lynching mobs, the fictional Mammy was being promoted in Washington, DC. Thankfully, this statue did not come to fruition.
  • Food and Drink: African American cuisine is influenced by Western and Central African, American and European cuisine. African American cuisine is often referred to as soul food. Foods such as beans, yams, poultry, black-eyed peas, fish and seafood, greens, seasonings, peanuts, and seeds were commonly eaten in western and central African cultures.
    • During the middle passage, some African Americans brought their culinary traditions with them and some even snuck seeds or beans (like black-eyed peas) aboard the slave ships. African American dishes like gumbo and black-eyed peas originate in western and central African cuisine. During the 1920s when African Americans traveled to the North, they often brought their traditional southern foods with them on their journey. These dishes, which had largely been consumed in the south became more widespread. Learn more here and here.
  • Prohibition: During the 1920s, alcohol was illegal. Like many other Americans, African Americans attended speakeasies, dances, and clubs that secretly sold alcohol. In cities like Harlem, speakeasies often included entertainment from African American jazz artists, dancers, and poets. Learn more here and here.
  • Entertainers

Bessie Smith

Ma Rainey

Josephine Baker

Louis Armstrong

Paul Robeson

African American Flappers

  1. Culture:
  • Carter G Woodson publicized the first Negro History week in 1926. This was a precursor to Black History Month.
  • Quicksand, which tells the story of a mixed-race Black woman was published by Nella Larsen.
  • In 1926, Langston Hughes’s book of poetry, The Weary Blues was published.
  • The Charleston music and dance was popularized by the African American composer James P Johnson and often played in the clubs of Harlem and speakeasies across the country.
  • “Shuffle Along,” which was created by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissy was shown on Broadway in 1921.
  • The movie “Hallelujah,” starring Nina Mae Mckinney debuted.

The real miracle of the 1920s was that despite the terror that African Americans faced, they continued to build a culture through the arts, culinary traditions and to advance justice for everyone. Learn more about African Americans in the 1920s here and here.

More References:

#NationalPoetryMonth: Jessie R. Fauset

A photo of a poem by Jessie Fauset, title is "There is confusion" Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/Thereisconfusioncropped.jpg

April is National Poetry Month. April is almost over, but better late than never. I thought that I’d share a poem by Jessie Redmond Fauset.

Harlem Renaissance writer, Jessie Redmond Fauset was a journalist, novelist, poet and civil rights advocate. She worked for the Crisis, which was an NAACP paper (founded by Dubois). The focus of many of her works was changing the perception of Black professionals. She brought the Black middle class into the limelight through her work during a time when Black people were routinely portrayed through a stereotypical lens. She pushed the Uncle Tom, Mammy and Aunt Jemima stereotypes aside and brought a more realistic, diverse portrayal of the Black middle class to life.

It makes sense that Fauset aimed to portray Black people in a more diverse, dignified light when you consider her background. Fauset was born April 27, 1882, in New Jersey and attended Philadelphia Highschool for Girls. She graduated as a valedictorian, possibly the first Black valedictorian. When she got older, she wanted to attend Bryn Mawr College, but they were so against accepting African-Americans that they were willing to pay for Fauset to attend another school of her choice. She chose to attend Cornell and graduated in 1905 with a degree in Classical Languages. Later, she earned her Masters in French from the University of Pennsylvania.

She became a teacher in the segregated Dunbar school in Washington, DC, where she taught French/Latin. Fauset also spoke and taught French in Washington, DC and New York City and spent her summers studying at the renowned La Sorbonne in France.

She wrote four novels, represented the NAACP at the Pan African conference and co-authored the Black children’s literary magazine, The Brownies Book. 

She mentored Langston Hughes, the famous African-American Harlem poet and may have taught James Baldwin.

She was an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta.

Fauset married to Herbert Harris, at the age of 47, and died on April 30, 1961.

Without further ado, enjoy this poem by Jessie Fauset-

La Vie C’est la Vie

On summer afternoons, I sit

Quiescent by you in the park,

And idly watch the sunbeams gild

And tint the ash-trees' bark

Or else I watch the squirrels frisk

And chaffer in the grassy lane;

And all the while I mark you voice

Breaking with love and pain.

I know a woman who would give

Her chance of heaven to take my place;

To see the love-light in your eyes,

The love-glow on your face!

And there's a man whose lightest word

Can set my chilly blood afire;

Fulfillment of his least behest

Defines my life's desire.

But he will none of me,

Nor I Of you.

Nor you of her.

'Tis said

The world is full of jests like these.

I wish that I were dead.

To me, this poem speaks of love desired, but not realized. Perhaps the woman is giving all of herself and bargaining for love. Others look at her love in envy, but she wants to die. How do you interpret this poem. Am I not thinking deeply enough?

Notable Novels by Fauset:

  • There is Confusion
  • Plum Bun
  • The Chinaberry Tree

Source

Source 2

“In life there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

The above quote is by Langston Hughes. If any words are a reflection of the Harlem Renaissance, I believe it’s those words. The Harlem Renaissance was the great REBIRTH of Black culture in the US. The beauty and vibrance of the Harlem Renaissance is forever embedded in the souls of our culture, not just in the United States, but around the world. Artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong were all at their height during the Harlem Renaissance and what they created touched people. The beauty, sophistication and cleverness that was unearthed during the Harlem Renaissance was a testament to the humanity and dignity of Black people everywhere. No one could tell us that we were inferior when we were creating art that changed the world.

The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the “New Negro Movement,” was the widespread birth of innovative and original Black art forms. The Harlem Renaissance spanned the 1920s- 1930s era and changed the course of the world. Jazz music was at its height during this time.Sometimes I wish that I had grown up during the Harlem Renaissance…the height of African-American literature, film, jazz,dance…everything. Just the bustling and booming expressions of Black Soul.

This was around the time that artists like Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong all blossomed and changed the course of America and the world. Together they created a rich and beautiful culture. What they created was more than just entertainment, they created art that enriched the lives and touched the souls of everyone. The jazz, the dance, the poetry, the paintings…such beauty and sorrow at the same time. I believe the Harlem Renaissance was as much about survival as it was about celebration.

In the midst of segregation, discrimination and widespread oppression, I believe that the culture is what held Black folks together. If black people couldn’t be free to sit on the bus, or free to go to the schools they wanted, then they were free in their arts. The arts that were created during the Harlem Renaissance brought freedom, vibrancy and hope to many people, black and non-black.

Check out the videos below

* The painting is by  Archibald Motley, a Harlem Renaissance painter.