Historical Context

At the beginning of the twentieth century, African-Americans were still fighting an uphill battle against the prejudices and social forces that had kept slavery alive until the 1860s. Most African Americans still lived in the rural south, trying to earn a living from agricultural labor. Now technically free to go where they wished, however, they began moving to the cities of the northeast, where black neighborhoods like Harlem took root. Although discrimination and hardship still limited their opportunities and economic well-being, the 1920s brought with it a spirit of optimism that blossomed with the Harlem Renaissance. The black intellectuals and artists who comprised this movement believed that their works, which displayed traditional erudition and talent, would compel white Americans to see African Americans in a new—and equal—light. For a time, it seemed to work: white critics and patrons directed their attention and money to black artists, making possible once unimaginable exhibits and integrated social gatherings. Furthermore, Harlem itself was in vogue among white New Yorkers: a Saturday night on the town might consist of bar-hopping from one Harlem nightclub to another, taking in shows that featured jazz musicians and black dancers. The vogue was not, however, necessarily anti-racist: many of the clubs that catered to white patrons and featured black entertainers refused to allow entrance to black patrons.

There was,...

(The entire section is 556 words.)