Archive for the ‘1920s’ Category

The following is based on part eleven of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about quantum physics:

We used to think that science could give us a perfect picture of the material world. But we now know, because of quantum physics in the 1900s, that absolute knowledge is impossible. There is a limit to what we can know – even with the most perfect and most powerful instruments imaginable.

For example, with a high-powered electron microscope you can see atoms. Yet no matter how much you increase the power you will never get a sharp image.

Even something as simple and straightforward as the position of a star in the sky is not perfectly knowable: different human observers come up with different positions and even the same person repeating the observation does not come up with the very same answer each time.

Karl Gauss in 1795 noticed that the observations made a bell curve – the closer you get to the average position, the more observations there are. But you cannot even say that the star is at the average position – all you can say is that it is the most probable position, which is not quite the same thing as its true position.

Gauss lived in Gottingen, a small German university town. It was here, over a hundred years later, in the 1920s, that some of the leading minds of physics came on the train from Berlin to work out the physics of the atom and its parts: quantum physics.

The atom is made of moving parts, such as the electron, and yet there is something very strange about them. Werner Heisenberg in 1927 found that you can tell what the position of an electron is but not its speed and direction – or, if you nail down its speed and direction, then you cannot tell its position. It is one or the other but never both at the same time. This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Gottingen had something else: a collection of skulls. These skulls were used to support a racist view of the world, a view of the world that dealt in inhuman certainties. It came to power in the person of Hitler. The skies darkened over Europe, as they had in the days of Galileo. The great minds of Europe fled – or fell silent:

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

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hughes“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) was a short essay written by poet Langston Hughes for The Nation magazine. It became the manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance. In it Hughes said that black artists in America should stop copying whites, that they will never create anything great that way. Instead they should be proud of who they are, proud to be black, and draw from black culture. Not “white is right” but, as we would now say, “Black is beautiful”.

One day a promising young black poet told him, “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet.” Which to Hughes was just another way of saying, “I want to be a white poet” or, more to the point, “I want to be white”. Which told Hughes that he would never be great:

For no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.

But there is more at stake than just great art:

… it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro – and beautiful”?

The artist, by discovering himself and his people, helps to free their minds.

America tries to make everyone the same – standardization. One size fits all. Blacks are fortunate to the degree that they escape that standardization. It gives the black artist material to draw on that few white artists can.

Yet rich and middle-class blacks wanted to be standardized, wanted to be as white as they could be – in how they looked, dressed, acted, sang and worshipped. They read white books and white magazines, watched white films. They looked down on the blues, spirituals and even jazz. Because “white is best”. Their mothers told them, “Don’t be like niggers” and their fathers said, “Look how well a white man does things.”

They never learned to see their own beauty but instead learned to feel shame about their blackness. And so through their minds whisper the words, “I want to be white.” This is the racial mountain that Hughes said the black artist must climb.

In addition to standardization, the black artist hears this:

  • the black middle-class: “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are.”
  • whites: “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you.”

Both would have kept Jean Toomer from writing “Cane” (1923), one of the best works of Black American prose in those days.


We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.

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Negro (1555) is an outdated word meaning someone who seems to be at least part black African. From about 1712 to 1972 it was the main word in printed English for black people. Now it is kind of a put-down, except in certain phrases that come from that time, like  the “Negro League” and the “United Negro College Fund”.

“Negro” is what the Spanish and Portuguese called black people. That is no surprise because in their language it simply means “black”. The English had picked up the word from them by 1555. The word “nigger” comes from it. So does “negress. The word “night” is its distant cousin. So is the “nigra” in “denigration”.

In the 1600s, the words “Negroes” and “blacks” were about equally common in printed English. Negro did not clearly take over till the 1700s. Still, even in the 1780s, say, Jefferson rarely used the word, preferring “blacks” and especially “slaves”. Frederick Douglass in the 1840s and Solomon Northup in the 1850s preferred “colored”.

From 1749 onwards it was mostly written with a lower case n: “negro”, not “Negro”. In the 1920s, the NAACP pushed to have it capitalized. By 1928 the capitalized form became the most common. Two years later the New York Times started capitalizing it too: “in recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the lower case.”

In the 1900s, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr and the early James Baldwin all preferred “Negro”. Booker T. Washington pushed for the US government to use it. The US Census used “Negro” from 1900 to 2010.

But that is printed, polite, middle-class usage. During Jim Crow times (1870s to 1960s), the main American working-class terms for black people were “coloured” and (among whites) “nigger”. Among ordinary black people, “Negro” was never all that common, probably because it sounded too much like the N-word. Whites often pronounced it as “Niggro”.

The 1960s swept all of that away.

Even though the early civil rights leaders used “Negro”, the word had become too much the creature of the older black leadership who thought the road to success and freedom in America was to act and dress and talk like white people, to depend on white approval.

By 1963 Malcolm X preferred “Black” to “Negro”. Notice how he uses the two words:

The Negro “revolution” is controlled by these foxy white liberals, by the government itself. But the black revolution is controlled only by God.

By 1966 Stokely Carmichael began to use “black” in place of “Negro”. Being black meant being proud of who you are. Black Power. Black pride. “Black is beautiful.” Two years later James Brown underscored that point with his song “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”.

By 1974 the word “blacks” became more common than “Negroes” in printed (mostly white middle-class) English. Among blacks in the US, “Negro” now meant an Uncle Tom, someone faithful to white people.

In 2008 it went like this in printed English:

  • 51.9% Blacks or blacks
  • 25.4% African Americans (caught on in the 1980s)
  • 19.8% Negroes or negroes
  • 2.5% niggers
  • 0.3% coloreds

The last two were never all that common in print.

– Abagond, 2008, 2016. Pretty much rewritten in 2014.

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The Rhinelander case (1925) was news across America, it was on the front pages of the New York Times for a month: Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander, son of one of the richest men in New York, took Alice Jones to court for tricking him into marrying her by passing for white.

Her love letters were read in court and she was made to show her breasts to the judge and jury (in private), but she won: from her breasts Rhinelander would have known she was black. And while Jones looked white, acted white and lived white, her father was clearly part black, which made her black too by the One Drop Rule. So either way Rhinelander had to know.

She won, but the Rhinelanders got her to agree to give up all rights to the Rhinelander name and fortune in exchange for a nice sum of money. But, as she was the last of them to die, she put “Rhinelander” on her gravestone all the same.

Mixed marriages were not against the law in New York. But if Jones had presented herself as a white woman then Rhinelander was not marrying who he though he was, making the marriage no good.

Alice Jones became the first black person ever to marry into New York high society. The Rhinelanders were not just rich, they had been rich longer than even the Vanderbilts. Jones herself was a servant, the daughter of a taxi driver.

It is clear that Rhinelander was in love with her, but his father was against it and threatened to cut him off from the family and its fortune.

Both sides in the trial agreed Jones was black. The question was not that, but whether Rhinelander knew it at the time of marriage.

Yet the case would never have gone to trial unless Jones stood right on the colour line between black and white: she was white – yet not white.

Both sides in the case took advantage of this by using stereotypes to persuade the jury of white men:

  • Rhinelander’s lawyers wanted the jury to think of Jones as a black woman: black women were (and still are) seen as loose, as using sex to get their way with men: the Jezebel stereotype.
  • Jones’s lawyers, on the other hand, were able to get the jury to see her mainly as a white woman and apply the pure white woman stereotype. This kept her off the stand and made Rhinelander look like someone who was taking advantage of her – instead of the other way round. It worked.

The NAACP had this to say:

If Rhinelander had used this girl as concubine or prostitute, white America would have raised no word of protest; white periodicals would have printed no headlines; white ministers would have said no single word. It is when he legally and decently marries the girl that Hell breaks loose and literally tears the pair apart. Magnificent Nordic mentality!

Blackface entertainer Al Jolson was at the trial to watch and give testimony.

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Written: 1929
Read: 2008

“Passing” (1929) is a novel about passing for white. It was written by Nella Larsen in the days of the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the story of Clare Kendry, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white and marries a white man who hates blacks. It is the tale of a tragic mulatto, of someone who tries to escape her race and comes to a bad end.

Because Nella Larsen herself, the author, could pass for white and because she lived in the Harlem Renaissance, the book gives you an insider’s view of both. That alone makes it worth reading.

Black high society in Harlem in the 1920s seems surprisingly English: a thing of drawing rooms, tea parties and beautiful dresses. The book has that general cast to it, even the spelling! (Ntozake Shange calls her writing “exquisite”. I did not find it so, though it did have its moments.)

It is also a book about blackness and what it is, about the nature of race in America – which is probably why I have been writing so much about those things lately.

What makes you black? Is it in your blood – that one drop, as they say. Or is it a matter of your background and upbringing? Maybe it is a little of both – or something completely different.

Clare Kendry looks white, but she is dark like a Gypsy or a Jew. You would never think she was black unless you saw her with other black people – even if she does have “Negro eyes”.

Clare thinks that if she can live as a white woman she will be happier. She will have more money and life will be easier. People will not look down on her. She can go wherever she wants, eat at the nicest places and so on.

Her friend Irene Redfield could also pass for white, but she chose to marry a black doctor and live as a black woman in Harlem. There is something inside her that does not let her turn her back on her race.

She thinks Clare is playing a dangerous game: if she is ever found out she will lose everything: her husband, her daughter, her wealth, maybe even her life. Clare knows it is dangerous but she likes to live on the edge.

Whiteness does not buy happiness, as Clare finds out. Instead it makes her unhappy. She always feels out of place, she does not feel like she belongs, she does not feel free. She wants to be with black people, if only to hear them laugh again. And with blacks she can be free in a way she never can with whites.

So even though Clare acts white and talks white and even looks white and lives white, something deep inside her is still black. And that in the end is what counts.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for two books, “Quicksand” (1928 ) and “Passing” (1929). Her characters are women like herself who are part white, part black and not quite sure who they are.

For years she was out of print. In the 1970s she started to be read again. Those who teach courses in black and women studies at American universities like her books because her characters question who they are as women and as blacks.

In America there is the One Drop Rule: if you look part African, then you are considered to be black. If you look pure European, then you are seen as white. Most people fall squarely on one side or the other. But some, like Nella Larsen herself, lie on the colour line. Some pass for white.

“Passing” is about two friends who are on that line. One marries a black man and lives as a black woman in Harlem. The other passes for white: she marries a white man, who has no idea she is part black, and lives as a white woman. She thinks it is the answer to all her troubles, but in the end she finds she would rather be poor and black than rich and white!

Helga Crane, the hero in “Quicksand”, is also on the colour line. Much of the book is based on Larsen’s own life. Crane goes from place to place, but she does not feel like she belongs anywhere. Not with whites, not with blacks. She goes from man to man but never finds love.

Larsen’s books were so good that in 1930 she got a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first black woman ever to get one. But soon after her life started to fall apart. First people said her short story “Sanctuary” was copied from someone else’s story. Not true. Then in 1933 she went through a very public divorce.

She left Harlem. She said she was going to South America. Some thought she never left the country but changed her name and passed for white. No one knew what became of her till 1964 when she turned up dead in the Lower East Side, a poor part of New York. She had been working as a nurse in Brooklyn all those years.

Her father was a black man from St Croix in the West Indies, her mother a white woman from Denmark. Her father left and her mother married a white man (some say it was her own father passing as white). Larsen grew up in a white part of Chicago, the only black person in a white family. It was not till she got to Fisk, a black university, that she found herself among blacks.

She went from place to place till she came to New York in 1912. In time she became part of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Harlem (1658- ), also called Uptown, is the part of Manhattan in New York City just north of Central Park. For much of the 1900s it was, in effect, the capital of black America. Its glory days were in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. The Apollo Theater is there and so is the Cotton Club.

Some streets have been renamed:

  • Martin Luther King Jr Blvd – 125th Street, the main street going east to west
  • Malcolm X Blvd – Lenox Ave, the main street going north to south down the middle of Harlem
  • Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd – 7th Avenue
  • Frederick Douglass Blvd – 8th Avenue

Strivers’ Row, which is 139th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, has some of the best terrace houses (row houses) in Manhattan.

Harlem was a woods and then farmland. In the 1800s summer homes began to appear, a place to get away from the city. In the 1880s the city itself started to spread into Harlem. At first it was a well-to-do white neighbourhood of Protestants and Jews.

Harlem turned black during the 1920s. It saw a flowering of the arts: the Harlem Renaissance. It became famous for its wild jazz joints along Lenox Avenue where both blacks and whites went. Harlem was still part white in those days. There were even white nightclubs where most blacks could not go, like the Cotton Club.

Blacks came mainly from the South and the West Indies. Some came from the old black neighbourhood on 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan.

By 1930 Harlem had 225,000 blacks, making it larger than any black city in Africa or the world. But the 1930s brought bad times. The buildings started to fall apart and yet more people arrived. Riots broke out in 1935, 1943 and again in 1964.

In the 1950s and 1960s another wave of blacks came to New York from the South, but this time most moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens, not Harlem. By the 1960s they each had more blacks than Harlem.

Harlem hit bottom in the 1980s: crack had arrived and property owners were giving up buildings as a lost cause to the city. Most people were poor and black, with Hispanics in the east and the north. There was a small black middle-class.

Most white people were afraid to go to Harlem, even to busy 125th Street in the middle of the day. That level of fear is not based on a sound reading of police reports. It is based on outright fear of blacks. Chinatown seemed worse yet plenty of whites went there.

With rising property values in Harlem since the late 1990s it is no longer as poor as it once was. Parts are even turning white again.

Given how close it is to Midtown Manhattan, Harlem is extremely underbuilt.

You saw Harlem in these films:

  • Shaft (1971, 2000)
  • Claudine (1974)
  • Cotton Club (1984)
  • Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
  • Rage in Harlem (1991)
  • Jungle Fever (1991)
  • New Jack City (1991)
  • Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
  • American Gangster (2007)

– Abagond, 2008. 

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