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Societal Changes and Reform in 1920s America
The United States’s 1920s was a decade of exciting social changes and profound cultural conflicts. For many Americans, the growth of cities, the rise of a consumer culture, the upsurge of mass entertainment, and the so-called “revolution in morals and manners’’ represented liberation from the restrictions of the country’s Victorian past. Sexual mores, gender roles, hair styles, and dress all changed profoundly during the 1920s. But for many others, the United States seemed to be changing in undesirable ways. The result was a thinly veiled cultural civil war, in which a pluralistic society clashed bitterly over such issues as foreign immigration, evolution, the Ku Klux Klan, prohibition, women’s roles, and race. Thus, due to the period of economic prosperity and technological advancements, the attitude during Roaring Twenties is generally labeled with a feeling of novelty that followed the end of World War I and breaks in tradition and entertainment. However, although life in the 1920s seemed to be an enjoyable experience overall, conflict over prohibition, racial and gender roles in society, and the newly introduced “mass culture” revealed underlining discontent. This discontent makes its presence known much of the poetry written during this time period, especially by those from minority groups living amidst racial and cultural conflict.
In Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” and its corresponding book-length poem suite Montage of a Dream Deferred , Hughes reflects back on American history and its treatment of black people in its past. Although it was written in the 1950s with the coming of the civil rights movement, he addresses the past, and refers to the notion of rights; equality of opportunity for prosperity and success; liberty; and democracy that comes with the American Dream. Yet in the first line of the poem, he questions the fate of “a dream deferred” (Hughes 1). An individual’s dream deferred by centuries of societal oppression towards women and all immigrants to the United States, not to mention ones whom were not white. The people of the United States in the 1920s was filled with sexist, racist, and nativist notions, making life for minorities quite disparaging. However, during the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s is when opportunities for women and black people to break away at the oppressive nature of American society arose. In addition, the repetition of “does it …” portrays the uncertainty of standing up to their oppressors and the instability of the centuries of culture they have lost due to slavery.
The rise of consumerism in the Roaring Twenties promoted the ideals of “fulfilment and freedom”, which led women to embrace their own identity and independently chose their clothing, occupations, as well as social life. Amongst young upper class white women, this is how flapper culture developed. These women wore much shorter skirts than traditional dresses and gowns, pinned up their hair or cut it short completely, and were outspoken in criticizing the boundaries men had kept women in for centuries (“Flappers”). Flappers were seen as controversial and scandalous for wearing excessive makeup, drinking, smoking cigarettes, driving automobiles, treating sex in a casual manner, yet this was their goal. Being provocative was their successful way of commanding attention, and the American public paid attention, willingly or not.
Alongside flapper culture also arose a new generation of women in the workplace. World War I had weakened the hold of the gender division in America, as necessity of women’s labor in factories and sustaining the economy trumped sexist notions. Women were offered higher wages in the workforce that had been unheard of to women during peacetime, giving them a glimpse of what gender equality could feel like. Following the end of the war, women finally won the right to vote in the United States on August 26, 1920. More and more women wished to be treated as men’s equals in society, and as a result, they developed the encompassing goals of feminism: individuality, full political participation, economic independence, and sexual freedom and viable birth control (“GCSE History – Social Change and popular entertainment”). In addition, many women now had more opportunities in the workplace and even took traditionally male jobs such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and pilots.
On the other hand, black influence in American society arose in a different matter. The Harlem Renaissance was primarily due to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south, where they had been freed from from plantations to the north. The passing of the 18th Amendment and enforcement of prohibition garnered unexpected support in the South from the Ku Klux Klan, which took advantage and abused prohibition laws to imprison and “justify” their violent attacks on innocent black people (Schuessler). In wake of this widespread violence and general search of a better and safer life, millions moved north.
In addition, World War I had created new industrial work opportunities for black people as well as women. In northern cities, black communities were able to develop a sense of identity in their community and create a better life for themselves. Negro entertainment and art became relatively more accepted with the development of technology. However, despite this, racism continued to impact African-American communities with job competition and territorial disputes, even in the North (Hutchinson). However, African-Americans channeled these hardships and were able to create a sense of pride and belonging in the idea of the New Negro. The New Negro could challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes in white culture through their intellect and production of literature, art, and music and having a culture that could prove their humanity. As their art spread, so did technology. Mainstream recognition of this black culture and jazz especially was largely thanks to the invention and introduction of the record player into the American market. Thus, the popularity of jazz, blues, and “hillbilly” music fueled the phonograph boom and vise versa.
In addition to subjecting African-Americans to racism, American citizens, many of who were immigrants themselves, showed strong xenophobia towards new immigrants and immigrant-hopefuls at the start of the 1920s. After the World War I, the American public did not wish for interference from immigrants in the recovering economy, and had the fear of these immigrants replacing them in the workforce. In addition, they viewed these immigrants as simply inferior to them, and from this nativist mindset sprung the eugenics movement. The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was formed “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family” by using the concept of social darwinism to “justify” the right to carry out selective breeding. Those with undesirable traits, a considerable fraction of which were immigrants, were sterilized and banned from having children (Wilson).
The introduction of “mass culture” and the invention of multiple new forms of media changed the way Americans looked at their own society. Not only were the American people now listening to the same music and watching the same films, they were invested in the same national issues. It made the argument of pressing issues of everyone’s concern, not just the men in Congress. The development of the radio, phonograph, and film camera spread media across the country like wildfire. It homogenized culture in a way that had never been seen before, which drastically shifted the way the public reacted to news and politics as well. Before, politics were addressed in newspapers, but now discussion on politics was found on the radio everyday, in movies, shows, and performances of any sort. The consumer media addressed prohibition, immigration, flapper culture, and race through jokes, portrayals, or music. (“GCSE History – The ‘Roaring Twenties’”). However, much of it was inaccurate, and Hollywood did its share to reinforce misogynist, racist, and nativist stereotypes by denigrating minority groups.
Not only were jokes spread, however, but also propaganda over mass media was also used to certain groups’ advantage. For example, membership of the Ku Klux Klan dramatically increased nationwide in the 1920s thanks in part to its coverage in the news media, and the sharing of their very radically conservative views. In 1921, the New York World, amongst other daily newspaper journals, had ran a three-week front page exposé of the Klan with full denunciations of its ideology, activities, secrecy, and violence. However, the very act gave the group coverage in their hatred-run faction, and the Ku Klux Klan gained hundred of thousands of members in the 1920s (Schuessler).
This struggle over defining societal issues reveals the true attitude of the 1920s. Although the novelty of the rapidly developing society was ever so present, there is a very established collective desire in society for change and progression. No matter if it were “dry” crusaders, led by pietistic Protestants, social Progressives, and the Ku Klux Klan; “wet” supporters mostly from Catholic or German Lutheran communities (who were large manufacturers of beer and liquor), as well as many in the upper class in urban areas; or members of the National Woman’s Party, who fought for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s and beyond; it is the first time in a few decades that debates about issues were held beyond political party lines (“GCSE History – Social Change and popular entertainment”). Factions and communities of people who may have never intermingled in other contexts banded together to advocate for a shared belief. The desire to improve and progress from World War I and the corrupt unequal distribution of wealth during the Gilded Age mobilized people to make a change in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s until the Great Depression. No matter what the improvement was, people were dissatisfied by the way they were living and approached one specific aspect of life to fix, whether it be through prohibition, repeal of prohibition, societal and government reform, or development of culture and identity.
As a result, in this decade, Americans were agitated by race and immigration, angered over prohibition, excited by the newly created flapper culture, and the inventions of the car, radio, and new technology. Many were compelled to hop on the bandwagon and join in the new, and, as such, the clash of tradition against progress was not addressed upon as much as it could have been. The focus fell far more on the change in culture. Once Americans got pulled into the fads and trends, the issues the progressivists of the decade before attempted to address, saw no substantial conversation had on the matters they accurately deemed important. The absence of focus on the underlying issues left America wide open to relapse once again into tradition, as well as preventing the country from truly shaking off such values like gender roles and tradition against progress.
In conclusion, this racial and gender contention pushed for change beyond the bonds of societal norms. Within this fight for equality, minority groups turned towards entertainment and the arts, developing an identity within it that was solely theirs. This identity that women found in flapper culture and embracing activities that previously were only allowed to men, and the identity African Americans found in the Harlem Renaissance and music in particular, both gave them a sense of belonging and also established them with notable in society, where they could speak out. Whether this sense of community was what sparked the boom in the arts or if it was a result of it is unknown, but what is important is this desire to rebuild and reform a better society of which impacted the country in ways that still can be seen to this very day.
- Editors, History.com. “Flappers.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 6 Mar. 2018, www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/flappers.
- “GCSE History – Social Change and Popular Entertainment – CCEA – Revision 1.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zt896yc/revision/1.
- “GCSE History – The ‘Roaring Twenties’ – CCEA – Revision 1.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zsggdxs/revision/1.
- Hughes, Langston. “Harlem by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem.
- Hutchinson, George. “Harlem Renaissance.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/Harlem-Renaissance-American-literature-and-art.
- Schuessler, Jennifer. “Lisa McGirr Discusses ‘The War on Alcohol’ and the Legacy of Prohibition.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2015/12/31/books/lisa-mcgirr-discusses-the-war-on-alcohol-and-the-legacy-of-prohibition.html.
- Wilson, Philip K. “Eugenics.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/science/eugenics-genetics.
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