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Black Culture and the New Deal

Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

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  • Book Info
    Black Culture and the New Deal
    Book Description:

    In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration--unwilling to antagonize a powerful southern congressional bloc--refused to endorse legislation that openly sought to improve political, economic, and social conditions for African Americans. Instead, as historian Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff shows, the administration recognized and celebrated African Americans by offering federal support to notable black intellectuals, celebrities, and artists.Sklaroff illustrates how programs within the Federal Arts Projects and several war agencies gave voice to such notable African Americans as Lena Horne, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and Richard Wright, as well as lesser-known figures. She argues that these New Deal programs represent a key moment in the history of American race relations, as the cultural arena provided black men and women with unique employment opportunities and new outlets for political expression. Equally important, she contends that these cultural programs were not merely an attempt to appease a black constituency but were also part of the New Deal's larger goal of promoting a multiracial nation. Yet, while federal projects ushered in creativity and unprecedented possibilities, they were also subject to censorship, bigotry, and political machinations.With numerous illustrations,Black Culture and the New Dealoffers a fresh perspective on the New Deal's racial progressivism and provides a new framework for understanding black culture and politics in the Roosevelt era.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0461-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-14)

    Four years after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt remembered her frustrations when racial issues, such as the antilynching bill and the abolition of the poll tax, reached her husband’s desk. “Although Franklin was in favor of both measures, they never became ‘must’ legislation. When I would protest, he would simply say: ‘First things come first, and I can’t alienate certain votes I need for measures that are more important at the moment by pushing any measure that would entail a fight.’”¹ A powerful southern congressional bloc influenced the executive treatment of race relations during the Depression and World War II....

    (pp. 15-32)

    During the first week of June 1939, Washington, D.C., avidly followed news of the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. “A crowd as enthusiastic and large as ever greeted an American President on inauguration day turned out today to watch and take part in the pomp,” theNew York Timesreported, chronicling all aspects of the historical occasion, down to the king’s and queen’s attire.¹ On June 8, President Roosevelt received the royals at a state dinner; before approximately three hundred guests, he joined the king in a pledge to “walk together along the path of friendship in...

  6. chapter two HOOKED on CLASSICS
    (pp. 33-80)

    “Drama is culture, and the culture of the race portends its advancement,” John Silvera wrote in his foreword to a list of “representative plays” of the Federal Theatre Project’s (FTP) Negro Units, “a new era is dawning for the Negro artist.” For a black administrator such as Silvera, the Negro Units represented a space for cultivating new talent among black playwrights and performing socially relevant material. Silvera and others struggled to establish criteria for African American drama: “Is the play a competent piece of craftsmanship? Is the theme a possible situation? Would its presentation be acceptable by and for Negro...

  7. chapter three the EDITOR’S DILEMMA
    (pp. 81-122)

    In a speech delivered to the National Negro Congress in October 1937, the renowned writer and poet Sterling Brown, national editor of the Negro Affairs division of the Federal Writers’ Project from 1936 to 1939, relayed the many obstacles facing black authors: “The Negro writer is faced by a limited audience: his own group, for various reasons, reads few books and buys less; and white America, in the main, is hardly an audience ready for truthful representation of Negro life. The Negro writer has the job of revising certain stereotypes of Negro life and character, whose growth extends from the...

  8. chapter four CONSTRUCTING G. I. JOE LOUIS
    (pp. 123-158)

    In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt underscored the importance of African American patriotism when democracy was under siege. “The European conflict with its spread of the Nazi and Fascist influence makes a challenging appeal. . . . This is a time for national unity and I am strengthened in my hope for the preservation of peace . . . by the knowledge that the American Negro has maintained a cherished tradition of loyalty and devotion to his country.”¹ Even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government’s priorities had shifted to the international arena, affecting federal rhetoric and policies concerning black Americans....

  9. chapter five VARIETY for the SERVICEMEN
    (pp. 159-192)

    In 1944, Truman Gibson, civilian aide to the secretary of war, and Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. expressed great excitement over the activities of the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). Two of the most influential black Americans involved in the war effort, Gibson and Davis indicated that the AFRS was making a “great contribution” and that the program was “easily the best from an administrative point of view.”¹ This high praise is not surprising, given the AFRS’s achievements in featuring black Americans on the radio. As part of its innovative program schedule to meet the entertainment needs of American...

  10. chapter six PROJECTING UNITY
    (pp. 193-240)

    In 1943, a number of prominent black film actors including Hattie Mc-Daniel, Mantan Moreland, and Ben Carter participated in a roundtable discussion on the role of black Americans in the motion picture industry. TheBaltimore Afro-Americansponsored the event, declaring that these men and women had an enormous impact in promoting social change. “You [black actors] are challenged because the motion picture is the greatest propagandizing force for good and evil in the world today,” theAfro-Americaneditorialist insisted. “The motion picture, more than either the press or radio . . . has a more indelible effect upon the consciousness...

    (pp. 241-252)

    After he received the seminal civil rights report,To Secure These Rights(1947), President Harry Truman expressed outrage towards the prevalence of racial violence and discrimination in America. After discovering that African American veterans had been murdered in several southern states, he declared, “I can’t approve of such goings on and . . . I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause.”¹ This statement reveals a larger executive commitment to civil rights than Franklin Roosevelt was ever willing to advocate. In...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 253-286)
    (pp. 287-300)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 301-312)