A Review of When the Negro Was in Vogue, a Story by Langston Hughes
The 1920’s in America were a time of change, and that change was shown socially, economically, and politically. This was the time when people in America began to be less concerned with their individuality and more concerned with what we call the mainstream. For the first time in American history people were moving out of farm land and the country and into cities, where they became acquired to new ideas, cultures, and environments. When the Negro was in Vogue by Langston Hughes is a short story that in basic meaning, is about aspects of black culture becoming a mainstream interest for white people. In the 1920’s American society experienced urbanization, new inventions, and shifted away from the traditional norm that society once had. All of these things may seem like great advancements for the country as a whole, but as When the Negro was in Vogue explains is that just because non-minorities became accustomed to black culture, little to no advancements were made in tackling segregation and black people receiving the liberties they deserve as free American citizens. When the Negro was in Vogue shows a different side of the roaring twenties and revolves around one main theme, being that it is human nature to use people to benefit personally and lose respect once a person gets whatever he or she may have desired.
The black culture being studied and remembered from the 1920’s relates to The Harlem Renaissance, which is also remembered as the New Negro Movement. During this period over 6 million African Americans moved to the northern part of the country in search of new lives and a chance to live in a less hostile and racially driven environment that they experienced in the south. With them they brought new forms of music, literature, and other new talents that would become so appealing to non-minorities that African Americans finally felt that they had a reason to be shown respect and could prove their place in American history.
The problem is that even after society established African Americans could often have a great amount of creative talent, segregation wasn’t outlawed and if an African American wasn’t known nationwide for their talents, not a lot seemed to have changed for them. By this time white people had turned Harlem into their very own city to experience black culture. Blacks were invited in jazz bars and clubs, but only to entertain whites. Hughes writes, “White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites.” (P. 5) Tsahai Tafari of PBS.org describes Jim Crow laws in an article as, “A system of segregation and discrimination that barred black Americans from a status equal to that of white Americans. The United States Supreme Court had a crucial role in the establishment, maintenance, and, eventually, the end of Jim Crow.” (P. 1) If the 1920’s were known as such a great and progressive time and white people were beginning to enjoy black talents more than ever before, then why wouldn’t the two races be able to get along and drink from the same water fountains?
Langston Hughes takes his readers through just one of the many experiences African Americans had with getting a glimpse of what it would be like in a peaceful nation but losing that glimpse after a short period of time. Hughes writes, “The Negroes said: ‘We cant go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won’t even let us in your clubs.’ But they didn’t say it out loud- for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there.” (P. 6) The main thing Hughes is trying to get across in When the Negro was in Vogue is that the 1920’s may have been seen as a completely different generation to the African Americans of Harlem than to the white people who and majority of people perceive the 1920’s. The title of the story tells a story in itself. Instead of calling it When the Negro Was in Vogue, Hughes could have called it when white people disrupted the predominately black city of Harlem because it was popular thing to do, but showed no interest in any other black areas or black people outside the city of Harlem.
When the Negro was in Vogue could be read over many times by an individual before he or she recognizes what Langston Hughes intends to be the big picture. While white people invaded Harlem, turning black establishments into establishments of their own, and beginning to take interest into a small amount of black culture, the black people of Harlem were being used. Hughes tells a story that subliminally makes it clear that his opinion on The Harlem Renaissance is different from how it may be taught in the history books. While many people think The Harlem Renaissance made strides in defeating segregation, it didn’t because as Hughes makes clear, the whit people didn’t care about the talent of black musicians, poets, and artists. They simply were using the hard work and talent of the colored people of Harlem to sooth their ears and entertain them, and when people woke up the next morning, blacks were still unable to use the same restrooms as whites and were forced to sit in the back of bus’s. Hughes sees The Harlem Renaissance like this because of the proof backing it up. Joshua Rothman of TheAtlantic.com wrote an article describing segregation in the 1920’s. When mentioning the Klu Klux Klan, Rothman writes, “By 1925, it had anywhere from 2 million to 5 million members and the sympathy or support of millions more.” (P. 6) It’s no wonder why Hughes views The Harlem Renaissance differently than some people. While we emphasize the rise of black culture and how great it was in the 1920’s, When the Negro was in Vogue shows the viewpoint of an individual who is the one that is supposed to be being celebrated. This text shows that The Harlem Renaissance was a good thing, somewhat, but didn’t benefit everyone and shouldn’t ever be known as a time where blacks were celebrated. If black culture was truly being celebrated it wouldn’t have taken forty years for Jim Crow laws to be abolished and non-minorities would value black people for more than just the talents that is deemed entertaining to white people.
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