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Minorities (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

The 1920s seemed to have contrasting attitudes towards minorities. 

Though prosperity might not have been as diffused as we generally think, the 1920s were good times for many people. The overall number of people who could afford a better life (at least in comparison to before) increased. 

The perceived increment prosperity gave the opportunity to many social groups to emerge and have – if sometimes for a short time – the opportunity to express themselves more freely.

Still, the Twenties were also a time of great uncertainty and therefore irrational fears, that often fell over the ‘diverse’, the ‘other’. 

The ‘Other’ in the 1920s

It would be difficult to give a univocal definition of ‘the other’ in the 1920. The era showed shattered perceptions of the different person and the different culture. Different from Western Culture, that is. 

Maybe the only thing they had in common is that they were indeed perceptions. Ideas. And almost always they were far from reality. 

The 1920s perceived increment in prosperity gave the opportunity to many social groups to emerge and have express themselves more freely #history #minorities Share on X

In the 1920s, who was ‘different’ was either very good or very bad. The perceived characteristics of the different culture could bring great good to Western society or could bring destruction. There was never any kind of equality. Always the minority was ‘the other’. Even when these minorities had lived long (sometimes long centuries) in among the main culture, the majority of the population still perceived them as alien. As something extraneous. It was never a ‘different’ part of the dominant culture.

Primitivism, the perceived goodness of Africa

On the side of the perceived goodness of ‘the other’ was Primitivism. This was the perception of the so-called ‘primitive cultures’, primarily from Africa. 

Primitivism wasn’t new to the Western World. It had started in the 1800s. It was the idea that these cultures, most of which were considered more primitive than the Western culture, were somehow luckier. They still retained the innocence and also the vitality that the Western culture had lost, weighed down by its history and its attachment to modernity. The idea of the ‘good savage’ belonged to this form of perception. 

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker

In the 1920s a new form of Primitivism manifested itself when jazz stormed over the US and then the rest of the world. 

Although this music had its roots in African music, it wasn’t a music from Africa. It had originated in the US, from the African American community, that at that time had been American for many generations. 

Still, jazz was perceived as primitive music, coming from a primitive people, and so was simpler, and more vital and even refreshing – but also beastly and brutal. 

If these perceptions were totally unrealistic, they opened up very real spaces for the people who created that music. In the 1920s, the African American community knew a Renaissance in both arts and active political life that allowed real advancement to the entire community. Everybody wanted to be part of that vitality. This sometimes allowed for a crossing of the colour line that was previously unthinkable. It may have not survived the Jazz Age, but the fact that it happened left an indelible mark on the American society. 

Anti-Semitism, the perceived danger of Judaism

Jews had been part of European history at least since the Middle Ages, though they were always ‘different’ and ‘other’. European countries had segregated Jewish communities inside ghettos sometimes located in asolated places. But inside those community, Jews kept their culture alive through the centuries. 

In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities tended to be more conservative. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, read Yiddish books and attended Yiddish theatres and movies. Older people often dressed traditionally, and led a traditional life, though younger people were more open to the dominant culture outside. 

In Western Europe, Jewish communities had instead always tried to integrate into the dominant culture, to the point that the younger generation often considered themselves as belonging to the dominant nationality as well as the Jewish.

This was the case of Germany, where the Jewish community was particularly numerous and ancient and almost entirely concentrated in Berlin. 

Concert (Imre Goth) 1920
Concert (Imre Goth) 1920

When the Weimar Republic rose, Jews, as well as other minorities, found that spaces opened for them that were previously close. Educated as they often were (Jewish had always considered education extremely important, and a means to a freer life), they found space in the republican system, as well as in the arts and cultures, where they dominated in the 1920s. 

German Jewish considered themselves German. Still, they were seen as aliens by the German themselves because of their cosmopolitanism and their dual souls. When the financial and political situation of the Weimar Republic started to deteriorate, German people turned against Jews, because it must be their fault. 

German Jews were a tiny percentage of all the German population, but because they were very visible both in the republican system as in the arts, the perception was that they were conquering essential positions in the life of Germany. 

The step to anti-Semitism was very short.


Memory – African Americans and Consumerism
Encyclopedia USHMM – Jewish Life in Europe Befor ethe Holocaust

Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992

Munford, Kevin J., Interzones. Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press, New York, 1997

Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany. Promise and Tragedy. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007


  • Kristin
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 05:12

    So easy to blame the “other”.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 10:46

    Are you watching David Simon’s “The Plot Against America” on HBO? It’s 1940s alternate history, and it is done very well…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2020 at 08:24

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. Needs to get informed 😉

  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 13:02

    It is so sad that societies always blame the ‘other’ when things go wrong. Us and Them is a tale as old as time and still as terrible.
    Virginia’s Parlour – The Manor (Adult concepts – nothing explicit in posts)
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Vampire Drabbles

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2020 at 08:26

      True. And unfortunately, I think it is wired in our psychology, otherwise how do you explain that it always repeats itself in spite of history having disproven it time and again?

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 15:55

    An interesting read. It seems it was an unstable era which led to people easily blaming any misfortune on those they perceived as “other”.

    An A-Z of Faerie: Merrows

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2020 at 08:26

      It was indeed a very unstable era. That’s what makes it so much like our times, I think.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 18:24

    A lot of the racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc. of this era was also related to the popularity of eugenics and Social Darwinism. It’s chilling to read about how socially-acceptable and open these attitudes were, and how some schools (like Columbia) went so far as to shuttle many Jewish applicants to a separate junior college in another area.

    It’s not surprising to learn Yiddish was primarily or solely spoken in countries without legal Jewish emancipation, like Poland and the former Russian Empire. There was no incentive or permission to take part in wider secular society, and many people reported never feeling at home in their native lands (despite what far-right Polish nationalists and historical revisionists insist).

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2020 at 08:28

      Thanks for mentioning it, Carrie-Anne. Eugenics and Social Darwinism were indeed huge at the time.
      The history of Jews in Europe is sad and fascinating. And it should teach us a lot more than we seem willing to learn.

  • Anne Nydam
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 19:34

    We’re seeing a sustained attempt to play on these same fears and attitudes right now. Sadly, people are always prone to looking for scapegoats, and the current politicians are more than happy to use this to their perceived advantage. I hope we will be able to keep from going any farther down that road this time around.
    (Click the Blog link on the second row) : M is for Mouse

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2020 at 08:32

      It’s when we are scared that we most want to listen to what we want, what might make us feel safer, whether it is real or not. Politicians are particularly clever at using this human inclination.
      Of course it’s easier to listen to: look, the situation is very easily sorted out this way. Than to listen to: look, there’s no easy solution, we all need to work hard to solve this situation and there’s no garantee of results.

  • Anagha Yatin
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 20:00

    the tussle between the ‘us’ and ‘they’, between ‘majority and minority’, between powerful and powerless always had lead to an imbalance in the society resulting into long-lasting impact. Live and let live is often forgotten in such circumstances. I hope we draw a lesson from this past and unite together as humans and not as this or that side of humans.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2020 at 08:32

      I really hope so. But history is a hard teacher and often we don’t want to listen. I’ve learned.

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 16, 2020 at 02:53

    Constructing an adversarial relationship between two groups, a “us” and “them,” is how the elites control the masses.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2020 at 08:33

      True. One would think that after millennia of history we had learned.

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