Race Issues in Early Modernism

After watching Ken Burns’ Jazz and hearing the accounts of acts of extreme violence against Black Americans in the time leading up to the Harlem Renaissance, for me it became a little more difficult to defend the bias of early modernist writers, like Ernest Hemingway, against their Black counterparts in society. The fact that lynching was a common practice in America in the 20th century, even after World War I, is a stain on the American race relations record that will never be removed. Granted, while Hemingway and his contemporaries did not necessarily advocate this behavior, it is evident that bias in literature helped to feed racism in the social sphere.

Racism aside, it is also obvious that white Americans were still content to be entertained by Black musicians, a point made clear by the popularity of the Jazz movement in America. The question that comes to mind is why was it acceptable for first class musicians and performers to be considered second class citizens in American society? Also, to what extent to you think early Modernist literature influenced this behavior?


10 thoughts on “Race Issues in Early Modernism

  1. I always thought of people who were racist to be jealous. I say this because like you said above, white Americans did not want to be entertained by talented blacks. I feel as if they were just too damn jealous and incapable of producing beautiful music themselves so they tried to degrade the black that could. I’m not saying no white man could play an instrument, but it was obvious most black men played it better. Reminds me of that saying that goes something like “Everything you can do, I can do better.” Not only were black people capable of producing music, but they were willing and wanting to do much more, but white men did not allow them.

  2. I don’t think it’s acceptable for first class musicians, or anyone else to be deemed as second class citizens. It seems somehow Whites were able to look beyond race, in the form of entertainment. For example, and this is a terrible analogy, but I love scary movies. I love to watch them over and over again. Nevertheless I would not want the character in the movie, let’s say Michael Myers, to come over for dinner. Once the film is over, I then go back to my normal life, and I think this may have been the mind set of Whites. I also agree that literature had an influence, because back then literature was a form of social media.

    Danielle Ross

    • That was a solid analogy. I agree with you (and Jonathan, about cultural tourism), in that to like art, you don’t necessarily need to like the artist. It’s not a good way of thinking, at all, but so many white Americans probably didn’t even connect the performer to their music the way we might today. If it sounded good, and everyone was going to be talking about it, they wanted in. I feel like Jazz could have been a great opportunity for racism to break apart, and let people be based on talent, and passion, not the color of their skin. But for some reason, likely the whole idea of “white corruption,” white Americans continued to make things worse. In the movie, the concept of “spectators” was brought up a couple times. People who would be walking home from work and hear the music, and investigate just because it sounded amazing. But once they got to the clubs where people were performing, there would be a separation again. It is such backwards thinking to suggest that the performer, the artist, and the man on the street are somehow two different people, but that line existed for a long time.

  3. It’s worth point out, perhaps, that one tenet of racist thinking worries about minority influence “corrupting” the beauty of the dominant culture. This is particularly resonant when talking about jazz, because jazz just happens to be the only form or genre of music that is inherently American. Every other kind of music can trace its origins to somewhere else. Not jazz. Although it builds upon aspects of blues and spirituals arriving in America from Africa, it is an entirely new musical structure and, as many critics thus argue, America’s only unique contribution to world music. So much for “corrupting” the dominant culture. A repressed, humiliated, and demeaned community gave American the signal musical aspect of its cultural identity.

  4. Also, I think Danielle’s right. Find me someone with racist views and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a Marvin Gaye album on their ipod or a LeBron poster on their wall. One of the things we’ll talk about is cultural “tourism.” This gets complicated. Often black artists during the Harlem Renaissance relied on white “patrons” for their funding. And often white audiences attended clubs and readings (particularly the Greenwich Village set) because they found black art interestingly “primitive” and thus the antidote to their crummy corporate job and the malaise of life on Main Street. There’s a lot of cross-pollination for a lot of reasons. Some good. Some not so good. I’ll shut up. We should probably talk about this in class!

    • As you touched on in your post, I think white America still allows for a degree of seperation to be present in their lives concerning how they are entertained and how they actually live (myself included); the world of athletics provides the clearest picture of this seperation. I cannot count a single black person as a close friend of mine, but love to go to or watch basketball and football games and cheer on teams predominently composed of black athletes. It is entirely possible to value a person based upon their qualities in a given setting, and even to extract these qualities from the person so that are only an “athlete”, “musician”, “actor”, etc. while performing their feat. I might argue that if we do not have any sort of personal relationship with a performer that we can only value him or her for what they are performing, and that this is not degrading to that person but all that is accessible to us.

      Andrew Doughty

  5. I would agree with Samka in saying that they were jealous, but I think they were also afraid. Isn’t that how bullying works? You are mean first, hoping to scare the other party, but you are secretly also afraid. I think the reason why they listened to jazz from black musicians is because the entertainment industry isn’t a white collar job. Yes, they were talented, but they were still serving the people who were listening to them. And as for the question on how did modernist literature create more racism, I don’t think it affected many more people than those who already were racist. Most small town racists didn’t read Hemingway, so the fact that he might call black people bad names wouldn’t really influence them.

    -Savanna Beach

  6. I would have to argue that Modernist biases were a complete byproduct of racism in the early 20th century rather than an influencing factor. For the most part, extreme acts of discrimination historically have taken place in America’s white lower classes. These people are usually ignorant, uneducated and very unexposed to the highly intellectual figures of the day. That being said, I find it very hard to believe that a Ku Klux Klan member participating in racially charged acts of violence would be up to date with Hemingway’s latest remarks about African-Americans.


  7. It is definitely interesting that first class musicians were treated as 2nd class musicians, we can still see evidence of this in the second half of the century with Ray Charles where he was allowed to perform at a large concert hall in Georgia but the blacks were not allowed to sit on the bottom row with the whites. I think Jazz and music in general have done a great deal to reduce those racial barriers, however, much as early Black literature (Frederick Douglass, of course) did to reduce those biases in the 18th century.


  8. This reminds me of Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues” because the musician was respected as a musician but not treated equally as a man. I definitely think racism exists (and always will). I said something in class before that early pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll (think Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon or even Richie Valens who was of Spanish descent) gained popularity as musicians partly because their music was played over a jukebox and the listeners couldn’t see the color of their skin. When they went to see them live, I’m sure they either dealt with it or they refused to listen to them again. The question for me is…would the listeners have given these musicians the time or day if they had known they were of a different race to start with? Probably not. I bet nobody knew that Chuck Berry originally wanted to be a country musician and was trained classically but the people at a particular country music hall wouldn’t let him play because he was black. Even today when Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish fame) won the country artist of the year award; many people got offended because he is black. It works both ways. How many white people do you see on the R&B charts? To answer your question, people hold music to an entirely different level. Celebrities in general hold the “upper hand” in society. I can’t explain it but people are much more willing to be polite to a movie star as opposed to an everyday person. One of life’s little mysterious, I guess.
    Erika Koerner

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