Ellison’s life and the two decades during which Shadow and Act was written span a pivotal period in United States history, one full of change and activity. Born only half a century after the end of the Civil War, Ellison’s world was still resonating with the effects of the conflict. In the South, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, enforcing strict segregation between blacks and whites. Abolition of slavery crippled the South economically, and rampant poverty was the result. A rise in northern industry after the turn of the century followed and, consequently, so did a migration of southern blacks to northern urban centers.
The outcome of such a migration was manifold. On one hand, the 1920s marked a period of artistic experimentation during which African-American culture came into vogue. This national temperament, combined with a trend toward altruism and philanthropy on the part of many wealthy, white northerners, resulted in what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, a period during which African-American art and literature flourished. On the other hand, the movement disrupted family traditions from the South and set many African Americans adrift without family support, and the flood of labor to the North resulted in eventual unemployment and poverty. Two major events eventually helped to improve civil rights for African Americans: the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929 and continued throughout the 1930s, bringing...
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