Modern history

Challenges to Social Conventions

While most of the nation ignored growing evidence of the fragility of American prosperity, the social and cultural consequences of the second industrial revolution received considerable attention, as new, distinctly modern cultural patterns emerged. Advertising and credit, two of the mainstays of modern capitalism, sought to bypass the time-honored virtues of saving and living within one’s means. Conventional sexual standards came under assault from the growth of the film and automobile industries, which influenced fashion styles and dating practices. In addition to moral and social behavior, traditional racial assumptions came under attack. African American writers and artists condemned the kind of racism Ossian Sweet experienced, drew on their rich racial legacies, and produced a cultural renaissance. Other blacks, led by the Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, rejected the integrationist strategy of the NAACP in favor of black nationalism.

Breaking with the Old Morality

Challenges to the virtues of thrift and sacrifice were accompanied by a transformation of the moral codes of late-nineteenth-century America, especially those relating to sex. The entertainment industry played a large role in promoting relaxed attitudes toward sexual relations to a mass audience throughout the nation. The motion picture business, increasingly centered in Hollywood after 1920, attracted women and men to movie palaces where they could see swashbuckling heroes and glamorous heroines. In an era of silent movies, patrons in the nation’s twenty thousand movie houses were enthralled not by the occasional dialogue printed on the screen but by the powerfully attractive images of the film stars.

Originally shown as short films for 5 cents in nickelodeons, the movies appealed to a national audience. Melodramas and comedies entertained the masses, and films such as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) appealed to racial prejudices by glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. By the 1920s, films had expanded into feature-length pictures, Hollywood film studios had blossomed into major corporations, and movies were shown in ornate theaters in cities and towns across the country. The star system was born, and matinee idols such as Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, and Mary Pickford influenced fashions and hairstyles. Female stars dressed as “flappers” and wooed audiences. Representing the liberated new woman, flappers wore short skirts, used ample makeup (formerly associated with prostitutes), smoked cigarettes in public, drank illegal alcoholic beverages, and gyrated to jazz tunes on the dance floor.

Americans could enjoy new entertainment opportunities and still remain faithful to traditional values. By 1929 approximately 40 percent of households owned a radio and could listen to stations affiliated with the two major broadcasting networks: the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Shows such as The General Motors Family and The Maxwell House Hour blended product advertising with family entertainment. Amos ’n Andy garnered large audiences by satirizing black working-class life, which, intentionally or not, reinforced racist stereotypes. In cities like New York and Chicago, immigrants could tune in to foreign-language radio programs aimed at non-English-speaking ethnic groups, which offered them an outlet for preserving their identity in the face of the increasing homogeneity fostered by the national consumer culture.

The most spirited challenge to both traditional values and the modern consumer culture came from a diverse group of intellectuals known as the Lost Generation. Gertrude Stein coined the term to describe the disillusionment that many of her fellow writers and artists felt after the ravages of World War I. Already concerned about the impact of mass culture and corporate capitalism on individualism and free thought, they focused their talents on criticizing what they saw as the hypocrisy of old values and the conformity ushered in by the new. In the novel This Side of Paradise (1920), F. Scott Fitzgerald complained that his generation had “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” In a series of novels, including Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927), Sinclair Lewis ridiculed the narrow-mindedness of small-town life, the empty materialism of businessmen, and the insincerity of evangelical preachers. Journalist Henry Louis (H. L.) Mencken picked up these subjects in the pages of his magazine, The American Mercury. From his vantage point in Baltimore, Maryland, he lampooned the beliefs and behavior of Middle America and groused that its residents had turned democracy into “boobocracy,” or government by boobs.

While radio audiences howled with laughter over the exploits of Amos ’n Andy, scholars discredited conventional wisdom about race. Challenging studies that purported to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of whites over blacks, Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas argued that any apparent intelligence gap between the races resulted from environmental factors and not heredity. His student Ruth Benedict further argued that the culture of so-called primitive tribes such as the Pueblo Indians, which emphasized cooperation and spiritual ideals, produced a less stressful and more emotionally connected lifestyle than that of more advanced societies. The ideas of Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychoanalyst, shifted emphasis away from culture and race to individual consciousness. His disciples stressed the role of the unconscious mind and the power of the sex drive in shaping human behavior, beliefs that gained traction not only in university education but also in advertising appeals.

The African American Renaissance

The greatest challenge to conventional notions about race came from black Americans. The influx of southern black migrants to the North spurred by World War I and continuing into the 1920s created a black cultural renaissance, with New York City’s Harlem and the South Side of Chicago leading the way. Black intellectuals joined their white counterparts in criticizing conventional social and cultural norms. Gathered in Harlem—with a population of more than 120,000 African Americans in 1920 and growing every day—a group of black writers paid homage to the New Negro, the second generation born after emancipation. These New Negro intellectuals refused to accept white supremacy. In militant voices, they expressed pride in their race, sought to perpetuate black racial identity, and demanded full citizenship and participation in American society. Intending to enrich the culture of the United States, black writers and poets drew on themes from African American life and history for inspiration in their literary works.

These men and women made up the “Talented Tenth,” the leaders of the black race whom W. E. B. Du Bois had spoken of in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). James Weldon Johnson, a writer and the chief executive of the NAACP, commented: “The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.” The poets, novelists, and artists of the Harlem Renaissance captured the imagination of blacks and whites alike. Many of these artists increasingly rejected white standards of taste as well as staid middle-class, black values. Writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in particular drew inspiration from the vernacular of African American folk life. In 1926 Hughes defiantly asserted: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter.”

Black music became a vibrant part of mainstream American popular culture in the 1920s. Traveling musicians such as Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, Louis Armstrong, Edward “Duke” Ellington, and singer Bessie Smith developed and popularized two of America’s most original forms of music—jazz and the blues. Emerging from brothels and bars in the South, these unique compositions grew out of the everyday experiences of black life and expressed the thumping rhythms of work, pleasure, and pain. Such music did not remain confined to dance halls and clubs in black communities; it soon spread to white musicians and audiences for whom the hot beat of jazz rhythms meant emotional freedom and the expression of sexuality.

Marcus Garvey and Black Nationalism

In addition to providing a fertile ground for African American intellectuals, Harlem became the headquarters of the most significant alternative black political vision of the 1920s. In 1916 the Jamaican-born Marcus Mosiah Garvey settled in Harlem and became the leading exponent of black nationalism. In 1914 Garvey had set up the Universal Negro improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica, an organization through which he promoted racial separation and pride. Unlike the leaders of the NAACP, who sought equal access to American institutions and cooperation with whites, Garvey favored a “Back to Africa” movement that would ultimately repatriate many black Americans to their ancestral homelands on the African continent. Together with the indigenous black African majority, transplanted African Americans would help overthrow colonial rule and use their power to assist black people throughout the world.

Marcus Garvey Dressed in military regalia topped off with a plumed hat, the Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey embodied the spirit of black nationalism after World War I. His Universal Negro Improvement Association, headquartered in Harlem, attracted a sizable following in the United States, the Caribbean, Central America, Canada, and Africa. Garvey advocated black political and economic independence. NY Daily News via Getty Images

Garvey’s appeal did not rely primarily on this utopian project. Instead, the UNIA concentrated on building the economic strength of black communities in the United States through self-help. In the pages of his newspaper, Negro World, Garvey promoted ventures such as his Black Star Line steamship company, established in 1919. After raising more than $200,000 in less than four months, the company acquired a fleet of three less-than-seaworthy ships on which it planned to transport passengers between the United States, the West Indies, and Africa. The UNIA’s companies opened up blue- collar and white-collar jobs to black men and women that were generally unavailable to them in white-owned firms.

In addition to offering an outlet for dreams of economic advancement, Garvey tapped into the racial discontent of African Americans for whom living in the United States had proven so difficult. He denounced what he saw as the accommodationist efforts of the NAACP and declared, “To be a Negro is no disgrace, but an honor, and we of the UNIA do not want to become white.” Indeed, he proclaimed “Black is Beautiful” and asserted that both God and Jesus were black. Ironically, the UNIA and D. C. Stephenson’s Klan agreed on the necessity of racial segregation, though Garvey never accepted the premise that blacks were inferior. Garvey dressed in a military uniform with a saber dangling from his belt and a plumed hat atop his head. His appeals to black manhood were also accompanied by a celebration of black womanhood. He set up the Black Cross Nurses, and his wife, Amy Jacques Garvey, went beyond her husband’s traditional notions of femininity to extol the accomplishments of black women in politics and culture. Garveyism became the first mass African American movement in U.S. history and was especially effective in recruiting working-class blacks. UNIA branches were established in thirty-eight states throughout the North and South and attracted some 500,000 members.

Given his ideas and outspokenness, Garvey soon made powerful enemies. Du Bois and fellow members of the NAACP despised him. The black socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who saw the UNIA program as just another form of exploitative capitalism, labeled Garvey an “unquestioned fool and ignoramus.” Yet Garvey’s downfall came from his own business practices. Convicted in 1925 of mail fraud related to his Black Star Line, Garvey served two years in federal prison until President Coolidge commuted his term and had the Jamaican citizen deported. Garvey continued to carry on his activities from England, but without his presence the UNIA lost most of its following in the United States.


• How did new forms of entertainment challenge traditional morality and traditional gender roles?

• Describe the black cultural and intellectual renaissance that flourished in the 1920s.

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