Blacks Got Talent
A Review of Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff’s Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era
Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff is a current assistant professor of History at the University of South Carolina. In this first book, she focused on how culture influenced the status of African-Americans. She has also written other articles such as “Variety for the Servicemen.” She is currently researching how race has become geographically demarcated in America.
BY JENNY CHOE
It was evident that African-Americans were naturally talented in cultural arenas such as singing and dancing. They were lucky to have these innate talents because they were able to be recognized by white society when racial tensions were extremely high. For black men and women, New Deal programs were not only opportunities for employment but also chances to show their capabilities, unknown to the white Americans. During the 1930s, they were able to challenge the racial status quo and fight for their civil rights through these artistic programs. Through cultural demonstration, blacks were able to reinforce their reputations. Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff claims that Black Culture and the New Deal “offers new interpretation of the New Deal era not only in conceptualizing federal race policy but in recognizing the interconnectedness of culture and politics in the 1930s and 1940s.”1
During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, African-Americans supported the Republican Party. However, they thought back to President Herbert Hoover’s administration, which did not take any action to improve black living conditions during the Great Depression. Gradually, blacks lost faith in Republican Party. President Roosevelt was reluctant to support the African-American civil rights movement because he did not want to infuriate the racist southern states that were essential to his reelection. Nonetheless, the establishment of a variety of different New Deal programs such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the National Recovery Administration (NRA) significantly improved many African-Americans’ lives. The government-sponsored programs such as the Federal Arts Project became crucial to black men and women because these programs, according to Sklaroff, “would not only employ African-Americans but would represent them in contributory fashion.”2 The Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Units gave black artists the opportunity to demonstrate their talent in public. The FTP, directed under Hallie Flanagan, established policies that fought against segregation and discrimination. The Swing Mikado, which was opened on September 25, 1938, was one of the most successful productions of the Negro Units. Sklaroff asserts that when Swing Mikado was first performed in New York, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mayor La Guardia, and Harry Hopkins praised the production for its “precision and authenticity.”3 However, conservatives in Congress were skeptical of the activities of FTP and often accused them of practicing “un-American” activities. In contrast, Sklaroff states that FTP was highly successful in achieving its goals “to acknowledge American diversity and to aid those who had been economically and culturally marginalized.”4
African-American writers faced many obstacles that white writers did not encounter. Poet Sterling Brown asserted that black writers had “limited audience [and that they had the] job of revising certain stereotypes of Negro life and character.”5 When the American Guide Series was proposed by Katherine Kellock, Brown wanted to represent the African-Americans as accurately as possible. He believed that the correct cultural representation of black Americans was critical in achieving their civil rights. Some Southern states disliked Brown’s interference in the matter of whether blacks should be included in American guidebooks. Although Brown was not able to have unlimited control over the guidebook, many state writers accepted his suggestions. A British scholar D.W. Brogan contends that with Brown’s great influence on the American Guide Series, the guidebook was successful in expressing “the real United States.”6 Furthermore, the “Portrait of the Negro as an American” (PNAM) project helped highlight the work of famous black writers, musicians, and actors and illustrated the racial violence of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Also, racial issues were often related to communism because communist ideologies were sympathetic toward the plight of African-Americans. In 1939, the House Subcommittee on Appropriations charged the guidebook of incorporating communist ideals. Sklaroff strongly argues that the termination of the Federal Writers’ Project did leave African-American writers with fewer opportunities, but “their inclusionary impulse would quickly reemerge in radio shows, films, photographs, and other media-based projects.”7
When the United States was about to enter World War II, most African-Americans, according to a black attorney John Levirt Kelly, were unwilling to join the war since they considered it a “white man’s war.”8 However, the famous boxer Joe Louis encouraged black support for World War II. Joe Louis demonstrated that blacks could become victorious over white men. Louis, unlike other black men, was also eager to fight for America when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was an important black figure who was able to eliminate racial stereotypes. Sklaroff notes that Louis was regarded by the white society as a “genuine patriot [and a] credit to the boxing profession.”9 He gave hope to many African-Americans and demonstrated that they all could eventually achieve their goals with hard work and determination. During the 1940s, almost all rural and urban Americans listened to radios. War officials such as William Hastie and Truman Gibson sought to lessen racial tensions by using all-black radio shows such as “America’s Negro Soldiers” which demonstrated black patriotism toward America. A popular variety show called Jubilee was sometimes referred to racial inequality—for example, Timmie Roger’s song “Scrub, Sweep, and Mop”, which described how black soldiers had degrading tasks compared to those of white soldiers. Sklaroff believes that although Jubilee was discontinued by 1949, it “has become a significant archive of black cultural expression.”10
Black men and women recognized that films could have a great impact in fighting against racial injustice. Walter White, an African-American journalist who later served as the head of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, made significant efforts to enhance black representation, asking the southern audiences whether they were fine with “films featuring black actors in roles that were not stereotypes.”11 In the NAACP’s annual convention, he expressed the eagerness to destroy racial stereotypes. During the 1940s, the most famous black war films were Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Cabin in the Sky portrayed a man named Little Joe who is addicted to gambling and is saved from hell by his wife Petunia’s prayers. Stormy Weather portrayed a dancer, Bill Williamson, who falls in love with Selena, an independent woman. While both films earned positive acclaims, critics from Bureau of Motion Pictures stated that “neither fulfilled its established war aims.”12 In addition, combat films such as Bataan and Sahara were highly successful in depicting significant black roles during the war and in emphasizing their importance. As Sklaroff states, Bataan, Sahara, and other combat films such as Lifeboat and Ox-Bow Incident all differed from government-sponsored culture in that “they offer[ed] visual scenario[s] of racial integration and focus[ed] selectively on black men.”13 Despite restrictions from conservatives and southern censors, Sklaroff observes that Hollywood films represented the “willingness of some American audiences to accept new forms of racial imagery.”14
Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff argues that cultural programs during the 1930s were an important part of civil rights policy in that they provided opportunities for black men and women to prove that they were essential in building a stronger America. Through “cultural emancipation,” African-Americans were initially able to address their “Negro Problem” and demonstrate their cultural importance in representing America. Sklaroff asserts that “culture and politics [were] inherently intertwined” during the New Deal era.15 The author believes that although African-Americans faced strong discrimination and racism when they participated in interracial programs and wartime media projects during the 1930s, they also gained both cultural and political advantages. She assumes that the white society’s fascination with and impression of black talents provided a stepping stone for African-Americans in gaining civil rights.
As a white woman, it might have been hard for Sklaroff to write about African-Americans prior to the 21st century. However, it was easy for her to write a book about blacks and have an unprejudiced view of them because African-Americans had equal rights with white men and women around the time the book was written. Her focus on the cultural arena also comes from her curiosity of how America has become interracial.16 As racial tension was reduced, more white authors started to write about African-Americans. Thus, the author might have taken an interest in black culture during her time period since countless African-American artists dominated American culture by then.
Sklaroff did an excellent job in describing the various types of programs that African-Americans were involved in. She emphasizes that the book provided detailed information including dates about “the importance of the FAP and wartime media programs.”17 The author also describes specific shows that were popular during the New Deal era. A thoroughly supported thesis guarantees reader understanding. Although the book demonstrates how African-Americans tried to fight for racial justice through New Deal programs, it also mentions their failures. In this way, the author depicts the true atmosphere of the New Deal era accurately and holistically instead of trying to assert her thesis by ignoring other facts. However, the book focuses too much in characterizing the artistic programs. More than half of all the chapters describe the purpose of the different types of projects and how they were established. Despite the concrete information about the “important moment[s] in the cultural formulation of racial policy” as Sklaroff asserts, the descriptions do not fully relate to how blacks were affected and make the author’s thesis more obscure for readers to recognize.18 The book would have been better if the author included more discussions of how these programs impacted both the African-Americans and the white society of America.
The New Deal era was a radical period as more white men started to accept the new picture of African-Americans. According to Sklaroff, the “Roosevelt era represented [a] significant moment in history of civil rights” because African-Americans used their employment in New Deal programs as a tool to fight against racial injustice.19 The 1930s was a time when the blacks gradually turned to the Democratic Party. They surmised that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would help them more than President Herbert Hoover did, despite Roosevelt’s obvious apathies toward blacks. Black men and women never had the freedom to express themselves directly and publicly before the 1930s. As Sklaroff argues, although the white audience viewed black artists, musicians, and actors solely as an entertainment, “African-Americans understood culture as central in procuring civil rights.”20 Gradually, with the help of radicals who strongly advocated racial justice, blacks were able to disprove several racial stereotypes. Black representation in cultural programs during the New Deal era seemed to foreshadow the increasingly enhanced political status for African-Americans, but “the national impulse to continue promoting black culture never paralleled a sustained federal commitment to eliminating racial inequality” in the postwar era.21 Thus, the 1930s was a brief revolutionary period for African-Americans.
The New Deal programs helped black men and women not only to address their political grief to the public but also to survive the Great Depression. The black political scientist Earl Brown stated that “countless Negroes were snatched from a living death by New Deal relief.”22 This illustrates how essential and important the New Deal programs were to the survival of black men and women. When unemployment rate were high among African-Americans, President Roosevelt issued cultural programs to distribute jobs among the unemployed people. Programs such as Works Progress Administration made remarkable changes in blacks’ life by supporting millions of African-American families and providing education for their young. The New York Times stated that the blacks felt thankful “for the benefits of [the] New Deal.”23 During the 1930s, many new jobs were created to relieve the economic crisis and hence economically benefited many jobless African-Americans.
The 1930s was a watershed on American culture. At the same time, the innovative and progressive projects that were issued during the New Deal era brought a new perception of African-Americans to America. Prior to this time period, blacks were not culturally well recognized by the white society. However, through the artistic projects, black men and women were able to represent their vital identities in American culture. Sklaroff asserts that Theater and writing projects helped the NAACP achieve one of its goals: “to eradicate radical stereotypes and to preserve black cultural autonomy.”24 Despite the southern states’ resistance of black performance, famous black figures such as Sterling Brown and Walter White constantly supported performing black men and women. Brown believed that “cultural representations [are] directly related to the political and economic progress of black Americans.”25 As the white population became more exposed to the African-American culture, more white audiences began to regard African-Americans as creditable representatives of American culture. African-Americans were not able to completely eliminate racial stereotypes, during the 1930s, yet they proved their importance in representing America.
Before 1930s, racial tension was high; African-Americans faced segregation and discrimination in their everyday lives. The New Deal programs had an immense impact on African-Americans because they changed the traditional view of blacks which was formerly held by most Americans. None of the administrations prior to Roosevelt established radical and revolutionary programs that were beneficial to blacks. Thus, Sklaroff comments that “Roosevelt administration was the first to implement a wide-scale federal arts program that aimed to acknowledge black Americans publicly as a voting constituency.”26 Today, one might argue that American culture is half shaped by African-Americans. There are numerous famous black artists such as Michael Jackson who represent the modern American art arena. The flourishing of modern black artists demonstrates that according to Sklaroff, the “cultural emancipation” of blacks that began during the 1930s had a great impact on America today.27
The New Deal era was a memorable time period for African-Americans politically, economically, and for the most part, culturally. During that era, black culture flourished as an increasing number of black men and women was employed in media projects. Sklaroff claims that once African-Americans demonstrated their talent to the whole society, it was evident that “art and media projects [issued by the Roosevelt administration were] viable forms of racial policy.”28 Through the New Deal programs, blacks sought to fight for racial justice and to challenge the racial status quo. Although the African-Americans could not fully accomplish their goals, they were successful in providing the rest of America with an accurate depiction of their culture. The life of African-Americans has changed completely—black artists can enjoy the freedom to express their talents and ideas. However, this change would have not occurred if there was no such cultural revolution during the 1930s.
1: Sklaroff, Lauren Rebecca. Black Culture and the New Deal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 8.
Jenny Choe was born on December 15, 1992. She is currently involved in clubs such as Youth Action Team, California Scholarship Federation, and Amnesty International. She likes listening to music and creating different types of art. She plans to major in International Studies.
© 2010 Advanced Placement United States History. All rights reserved.