Historical Background

Jazz takes place in Harlem, New York during the late 1920s. The twenties is a period known in the United States as “The Age of Prosperity.” At the end of World War I in 1918, “The war to end all wars,” America breathed a sigh of relief, as a collective effort freed the world from German imperialism.

After helping to make the world safe for democracy, there were celebrations nationwide. Americans were eager to refocus their attention on themselves. As a result, the country experienced a growth spurt. Modernization brought the invention of the automobile, an increase in the standard of living, in economic opportunities, and in leisure time.

There was a new way of living. For the first time people worked less hours per week and there was more money to spend on entertainment and conveniences. Appliances like irons, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners were widely available. Canned foods and commercial bakeries freed women from long hours in the kitchen. Movies, baseball games, and sports of every sort were popular.

A new emphasis was placed on education. More children attended school regularly with the goal of completing their educations. An education reform movement called for going beyond the three R’s to a more progressive approach.

The political and social climates were pushed in all different directions. The twenties brought the end of the ideals of the Wilson Era.

The presidency passed from Warren G. Harding to Calvin Coolidge to Herbert Hoover. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the sale of liquor. Yet, while prohibition was in effect, speakeasies and night clubs, where liquor was sold, were fashionable and in abundance. It is believed that there were over 30,000 speakeasies in New York City and over 200,000 speakeasies in the United States.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement pushed for the right to vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920. Women formed the League of Women Voters and continued their fight for equality and a change in the status quo.

Change took place very rapidly in all aspects of life. Women’s fashions went from just inches off the ground to above the knee. There was new music, new money, and a new carefree attitude. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway best described the mindset of this era. Gaiety and youth were the new ideals and everyone did a wild and crazy dance called the Charleston.

Another important phenomenon of the twenties was the New York Stock Exchange. People had extra money to invest and putting money in stocks was considered a good way to save for the future. Eventually greed, speculation, and a manipulation of the trading system began to have a devastating effect on the economy. Inflation increased and stock prices fell. On October 29, 1929 the stock market crashed. Many experts view this day as the official end of the “Age of Prosperity.”

In the twenties African-Americans never fully benefited from the “Age of Prosperity.” African-Americans who fought in World War I looked forward to their own taste of freedom. When black soldiers returned home, they wanted freedom from the cotton fields they were still tied to. Under the sharecropping system, no matter how hard they worked, they found themselves deeper and deeper in debt.

After slavery was abolished, African-Americans were no longer forced to pick crops like cotton and sugar cane. However, the work still had to be done, and people still needed a place to live. A land or plantation owner built shacks on his land and the people who picked the cotton or cane crop were allowed to live there. They were given staples like flour, sugar, and perhaps a mule and some tools.

Instead of being paid for the work that was done, another system was devised. The owner would keep a record of how many pounds of cotton were picked, how much rent was charged for the shack, and how much money was owed for the supplies that were given at the start of the year.

Families could work from sun up to sun down for a full year and at the end of the year find themselves getting no pay at all. Furthermore, they found themselves owing the landowner hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Usually sharecroppers could not read or write and were cheated. Prices for the staples were inflated, and prices paid for the crops that were picked were extremely low.

Sharecroppers found themselves doing backbreaking work year after year with...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)