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Divided Decade: Unmasking Racial Disparities in the Roaring Twenties

The early 20th century in the United States, often referred to as the 'Roaring Twenties' or 'Prosperous Twenties', was a period of significant societal transformation and economic growth. This era witnessed the nation's ascendancy into a modern, industrialized society, characterized by a booming economy, the emergence of mass consumerism, technological innovations like the widespread use of automobiles, and cultural phenomena such as the Harlem Renaissance (“Roaring Twenties: Flappers, Prohibition & Jazz Age - HISTORY”, 2010). These developments seemed to paint a picture of boundless progress and prosperity, but beneath the surface, a stark and enduring disparity existed along racial lines. While white Americans reveled in the fruits of this era, enjoying newfound luxuries and opportunities, African Americans faced systemic discrimination, segregation, and a struggle for basic civil rights (Samples, 2021). This article delves into the historical context of the 1920s in the United States, exploring the contrasting experiences of white and black Americans during this period and examining how these racial disparities were reflected in the literature and culture of the time. By examining primary sources and literary works, we shed light on the pervasive racial divisions of the era and the resilience of African Americans in the face of adversity, demonstrating that despite the facade of prosperity, the United States remained deeply divided along racial lines during the 'Prosperous Twenties'.

Historical Context

"a captivating illustration celebrating diversity"
Figure 1: "A captivating illustration celebrating diversity" (American Psychological Association, 2019).

Humans coined the term 'race' to describe groups of individuals based on physical attributes, appearance, or characteristics. The value of secular logic, rationality, and scientific investigation was emphasized by European Enlightenment philosophers in the 17th century, in opposition to faith-based religious notions of the universe. Philosophers and naturalists were reclassifying the world and applying their findings to the public. These new views, which emerged in the late 17th century and persisted through the late 18th century, asserted that the world and human beings were regulated by natural laws. The fallacious concept that 'white' people were innately smarter, more competent, and more human than non-white people spread throughout the world over centuries. This classification of people was used to justify European colonization and subsequent slavery of African people (Historical Foundations of Race, 2023). When Europeans brought the term 'race' with them to the New World, it is believed that the meaning was not the same with the meaning we use today (Historical Foundations of Race, 2023). Instead, the necessities of the developing American society would change the meanings of those words into new concepts. According to Cambridge dictionary, race is defined as “groups who share same language, characteristics and history” (US Census Bureau, 2022). Additionally, the United States Census Bureau[1] describes the concept of race as “a person’s self-identification with one or more social categories” (United States Census Bureau, 2017). However, all these descriptions are to be able to identify the theoretic meaning of such a hard concept. In the United States, the concept of race was always a source of trouble because it turned out to be a categorization apparatus. Thus, for centuries, marginalized groups, victims of the concept of 'race', fought for their freedom and rights. Laws were passed by the U.S. Congress to be able to protect them. However, in practice, not all races were equal throughout U.S. history but in order to get concrete answers about the concept of race it is essential to focus on a specific era.

Racial Disparities in the 1920s

This captivating vintage photo captures the exuberance of the era, with elegantly dressed individuals dancing the night away at a glamorous 1920s event.
Figure 2: "A vintage photo capturing the exuberance of the Roaring 20s" (History, 2010).

'Roaring Twenties' or 'Prosperous Twenties' refers to the decade of the 1920s because of the rising economy, appearance of mass consumerist society, the United States’ domination in the film industry, wide use of automobiles and the Harlem Renaissance. These developments in different fields drew quite a positive portrait of the U.S. Nevertheless, things were not as it seemed. While white Americans were enjoying the prosperity of the 1920s, black people were still in need of a place to live peacefully. They were searching for better economic opportunities and education systems both for themselves and for their children. Their desire for betterment of their lifestyles was not too much to ask for actually, since the life they were dreaming of was the life of white people. A culture of consumption was building up. White people had the privilege of purchasing cars and engaging in the entertainment culture, while black people suffered solely because of the color of their skin. “When movies began to be popular, all Americans were able to watch movies with no seating restriction except for African American people; they were segregated” (Locke & Wright, 2019, p. 245). It is obvious that improvements did not change African American individuals’ place in the society even when the American society was developing in every aspect. On the contrary, certain groups and races were able to experience social and economic developments. For instance, in the movie The Great Gatsby, the parties took place in Jay Gatsby’s mansion were full of white people who were privileged enough to be able to enjoy the prosperity of the 20s. Throughout the movie, the black community is invisible to the white privileged people since black people has no place in the world they created for themselves (Luhrmann, 2013). They are completely excluded. We see the separation of a certain race from the society and this is like tearing one part from a whole that makes it deficient. The understanding of superiority of one race over the other is also covered in the movie;

“‘Civilization’s going to pieces,’ ‘I have gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard? Well, it is a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we do not look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It is all scientific stuff; it has been proved… This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It is up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things…The idea is that we are Nordics. I am, and you are, and we have produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?’” (Luhrmann, 2013).

This scenein which Tom Buchanan is talkingindicates how white people acknowledged the idea that they are better and fitter racially compared to other races. He refers to the fact that civilization is a concept that has arisen thanks to the dominant white people. From this point, it can be concluded that white people exploited the racial differences by relying on the false arguments. Thus, race component in the movie is covered by holding onto the white supremacy. Discrimination drew a distinct color line between the white and black. Although, the history of the color line is not the history of the United States alone, it makes up a considerable part of the history because a lot of historical events and occasions have evolved around the 'color line'.

Literary Reflections

Drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina
Figure 3: "Drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina" (LOC, 1938).

During Roaring Twenties, African American people were experiencing a huge change. This change was not only their lifestyles, which also changed during the Great Migration, but also the understanding of their own race was also changing. Alain Locke, in his essay The New Negro, compares and contrast the old and new perception of African American people. He puts forward the idea that for years black society was the sick man of the nation who needed to be defended, helped up or worried about (Locke, 1925, p. 3). His essay tells us so much about the concept of race since throughout the essay it is implied that black people were not treated like a normal part of the society but they were alienated and segregated from the rest as a “social bogey or social burden” (Locke, 1925, p. 3). The understanding of the “black race” was clearly quite different from the white. In fact, white people was not a reason for a 'historical controversy' or "moral debate" (Locke, 1925, p. 3) while shadow of black people was more real than their genuine personality (Locke, 1925, p. 4). The consequences of this alienation and segregation were far-reaching, affecting the entire black community in the United States. However, out of this adversity emerged the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual movement that celebrated African American art, music, literature, and identity. The Harlem Renaissance was a response to the isolation and marginalization of black Americans, and it became a powerful vehicle for expressing their resilience, creativity, and desire for equality. Locke's essay and the subsequent cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance shed light on the enduring struggle for racial equality and justice in the face of systemic discrimination. They also highlight the remarkable resilience of African Americans in the pursuit of their rightful place in American society, rising above the challenges imposed by the prevailing racial divisions of the time. Additionally, this abandonment and segregation were touched upon by Langston Hughes in his poem, I, Too; “I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen. When company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong” (Langston, 2004, line I-IIV). In Langston Hughes' poem I, Too, the speaker, who identifies as "the darker brother," expresses his deep connection to America and the broader American experience (2004, line I-IIV). However, he also addresses the racial discrimination and segregation faced by African Americans during his time. The line "They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes" symbolizes the segregation and exclusion of black Americans from public spaces, forcing them into the background when white guests arrive. Despite this mistreatment, the speaker remains resilient and optimistic, as seen in the lines "but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong" (Langston, 2004, line I-IIV). This resilience signifies the speaker's determination to overcome racial adversity and be an integral part of America's diverse cultural fabric. As is seen in these literary pieces, race in the U.S. as a concept divided society into many pieces and opened deep wounds.

Figure 4: "Times Square in New York City, 1920's" (MRROCA).

In conclusion, this article has delved into the intricate historical context and racial disparities that characterized the United States during the 1920s, often referred to as the 'Roaring Twenties' or 'Prosperous Twenties.' It began by tracing the origins of the concept of race, underscoring its emergence as a human construct rooted in physical attributes and characteristics, a construct that has, over centuries, perpetuated false notions of white superiority and facilitated European colonization and the enslavement of African people. While the concept of race has undergone shifts in meaning, it has consistently been a source of division and conflict in American society. The 1920s, celebrated for its economic boom, mass consumerism, technological advancements, and cultural flourishing, paradoxically witnessed stark racial disparities. While white Americans reveled in the prosperity of the era, African Americans yearned for equitable opportunities and educational access, all while facing the harsh realities of racial discrimination and segregation. Despite the veneer of progress, the culture of consumption underscored the pervasive inequality, with white Americans enjoying privileges that eluded their black counterparts. These disparities found their reflection not only in the daily lives of Americans but also in the cultural and literary expressions of the era. Works like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby portrayed the exclusion and marginalization of black society, mirroring a belief in white racial superiority. The writings of African American intellectuals and poets, such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, laid bare the profound impact of racial alienation and segregation on black Americans. The Harlem Renaissance, born from these challenges, represented a resilient response to adversity and a celebration of African-American culture and identity. In summation, the 1920s in the United States was a decade of paradox, marked by simultaneous progress and entrenched racial disparities. The cultural and literary reflections of this era serve as poignant reminders of the enduring struggle for racial equality and justice, highlighting the resilience of marginalized communities and the ongoing quest to transcend the divisions of race in American society. The concept of race remains a complex and contentious issue, with its historical legacy continuing to shape the social fabric of the United States.

Bibliographical References

Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). Race.

Hughes, L., & But, I. (2007). I, too, sing America.

Locke, A. (1968). The new negro. New York: Arno. (Original work published in 1925).

Locke, J. L., & Wright, B. (2019). The American Yawp: A Massively Collaborative Open U.S. History Textbook. Stanford University Press.

Luhrmann, B. (Director). (2013). The Great Gatsby. Warner Home Video.

National Museum of African American History and Culture. (2021, December 16). Historical Foundations of Race.

Roaring Twenties: Flappers, Prohibition & Jazz Age - HISTORY. (2010, April 14). HISTORY.

Samples. (2021). The Roaring Twenties in America. Historic Newspapers.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2022, March 1). About the Topic of Race.

United States Census Bureau. (2017, January). Race and Ethnicity.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Hazal Kazancı

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