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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Hidden in Harlem

Take a trip to the lesser-known side of New York's 'Roaring Twenties'.

            Green lights and West Egg parties are often the first things that spring to mind when you think of the ‘roaring 20s’. Fitzgerald’s beautiful and damned depictions of American life in that decade have swept through popular culture, imposing an image of decadent parties and luxurious life onto a period that is, as usual, infinitely more complex than it appears. The “années folles” are packed with stories of change, protest, and empowerment; as a decade they fundamentally altered the way in which wider audiences engage with media and paved the way for radical cultural shifts. As we enter a decade in which culture is set to be governed by activism and protest in the face of right-wing populism and the climate crisis, perhaps it is worth meditating on the lesser-known faces of Fitzgerald’s ‘Jazz Age’, through the eyes of one of his most well-known characters.

            If Nick had driven into Manhattan one day, taking the right turns, he might have found himself in the eye of a creative storm. Jazz clubs would spring up around him, filled with artists, musicians, and poets. He would be in Harlem at the zenith of its renaissance. Of course, as a white man in the 1920s, I suspect his reaction would fall short of the awe we would feel in his place, but that doesn’t change the significance of this cultural explosion.

            The Harlem Renaissance saw the experimentation and development of almost every facet of African-American culture: music, dance, theatre, prose, poetry, and the visual arts all boomed. Artists working just miles from Gatsby’s orchestras were changing the face of American music, as jazz artists made waves on the musical scene. Spend long enough in one of the many jazz clubs and Nick might have found himself face to face with Billy Holliday or Louis Armstrong at the start of their careers. But this renaissance was more than just artistic: art was starting to find its voice as a method of activism in an extremely oppressed community.

            In his 1926 essay ‘The Negro and the Racial Mountain’, Hughes offers a powerful insight into the internal politics of the Harlem Renaissance. He laments the focus on pleasing the white community that, he argued, was a fundamental issue in previous artistic production. Nick might have been shocked to read Hughes’ poem ‘Remember’, in which he encourages the reader to “Go to the highest hill / And look down upon the town / Where you are yet a slave.’

The Harlem Renaissance did a great deal to emancipate African-American art from white constriction, and in doing so provided fertile ground for radical ideas, both artistic and political. Through figures like Hughes ideas rooted in pride were beginning to gain traction: some of the loudest roars of the 1920s came from separatists like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B du Bois.

            If, however, Nick were to look even closer at the clientele of some of the smaller speakeasies in Harlem, he might have made a discovery that would have shocked him. Harlem was already home to a nascent drag community, alongside a host of artists and patrons whose sexuality and gender were seen in a much more fluid light. The Harlem Renaissance gave performers like Gladys Bentley, a legendary Harlem singer, a moment in the sun that would not be available to them again for a long time.

            Saying that the 1920s were free often suggests the freedom to cheat on one’s spouse or go out to a party and drive home drunk. But the 1920s were artistically free outside of these spheres as well. Surrealism saw artists break with traditional from in poetry and art, while jazz became increasingly unrestrained by the rules that were supposed to govern music. As we have seen above, sexuality and gender were ‘freer’ in this period, as were women like Josephine Baker and Mae West who capitalised on their beauty and sexuality in a way that wouldn’t have been possible years earlier.

            So why are we constantly confronted with this idealised depiction of America in the 1920s when the alternatives are, frankly, far more interesting? ‘The Great Gatsby’, which received poor reviews on publication, was given out to soldiers in WW2. Since then it has enjoyed its status as a contender for the ‘Great American Novel’, and fundamentally informed our image of the 1920s through its multiple retellings. Popular culture seems to have latched on to a glittering mirage of opulence and freedom in America, erasing any alternative narratives as it went.

            The 1920s were more than parties and affairs. They were more than the straight, white, American image that has been created around them by popular culture. Culturally, it was important both in itself and as a springboard for other critical movements, whether it was civil rights or state oppression. Of course, no one could paint a picture of any decade in the space of an article, indeed it’s clear that that task is impossible in the space of a novel. However, the further we are distanced from the decade, the easier it is to reduce it to a single face. This makes it easier for us to conceive the decade without involving ourselves with its complexity, but it erases people from the narrative. Harlem is simply an important example of omission; the same process has erased artists across the world from the popular conception of the roaring 20s.

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