In his "Many Thousands Gone", Baldwin wrote

The Negro, who had been during the magnificent twenties a passionate and delightful primitive, now became, as one of the things we were most self-conscious about, our most oppressed minority.

It seems like there was a change in attitude towards black community. And there was a time--"magnificent twenties"--that African American was "passionate and delightful". I wondering what events or period of time Baldwin was referring to? Thank you

3 Answers 3


In addition to the other answer there are a few points I think are important. For one many African American service men, most who had never left the farm or city, were exposed to a vastly different society and racial attitudes in Europe. They came home more idealized and realizing that there was much much more to be offered them in life.

Also in this time period was the Great Migration, where half a million blacks left the deep south and missisippi delta for work and opportunities in the north. This lead to a great improvement in job prospects, housings, standards of living, etc. As stated here

Wartime opportunities in the urban North gave hope to such individuals. The American industrial economy grew significantly during the war. However, the conflict also cut off European immigration and reduced the pool of available cheap labor. Unable to meet demand with existing European immigrants and white women alone, northern businesses increasingly looked to black southerners to fill the void. In turn, the prospect of higher wages and improved working conditions prompted thousands of black southerners to abandon their agricultural lives and start anew in major industrial centers. Black women remained by and large confined to domestic work, while men for the first time in significant numbers made entryways into the northern manufacturing, packinghouse, and automobile industries.

The impact of World War I on African Americans often receives less attention than the effects of the Civil War and World War II. Because racial conditions failed to improve significantly after the war, it is often viewed as a disillusioning moment. To the contrary, World War I brought about tremendous change for African Americans and their place in American society. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of black communities in the North and the South. The war effort allowed black men and women to assert their citizenship, hold the government accountable, and protest racial injustice. Military service brought thousands of black men into the army, exposed them to new lands and new people, and allowed them to fight for their country. Black people staked claim to democracy as a highly personal yet deeply political ideal and demanded that the nation live up to its potential.

  • Thank you! Based on the context of the text, I think you are definitely write.
    – JJW22
    Oct 27, 2018 at 2:23
  • 1
    After reading the chapter in the book you cited, it seems to me almost that when he says magnificent twenties, he just means the twenties decade was magnificent all around for everyone, not that it was a magnificent time for black people. Also the quote is not necessarily a praise, being passionate was often a euphemism for rash/reckless/uncivilized (someone who favors emotion over logic) and delightfully primitive is hardly a compliment.
    – ed.hank
    Oct 27, 2018 at 17:58

Maybe it's a reference to the Harlem Renaissance;

The Harlem Renaissance is generally considered to have spanned from about 1918 until the mid-1930s.[7] Many of its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature", as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, took place between 1924 (when Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression).


The 1920s were a time of "unprecedented" opportunity for African Americans. Not that "discrimination" against them would stop for a long time to come. But at least this stopped "expanding," and began to see a pullback.

Following the immediate "euphoric" period after the Civil War, there had been an anti-black backlash that had resulted in increasing restrictions on them for over 50 years. Immediately after the war, a number of southern states passed "black codes" that forced former slaves to work,and pushed them into a form of slavery. The Ku klux Klan was organized in the late 1860s to further hobble African Americans. After the end of Recontruction in 1877, this was followed by Jim Crow Laws in the 1880s and 1890s, that mandated segregation, and were ratified by the Plessey v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896.

The 1920s saw a modest lessening of these pressures. The First World War had created a shortage of white workers by reducing immigration, allowing blacks to get factory jobs in the North for the first time. This led to the "Great Migration" of blacks to the North, where they faced real, but lesser discrimination than in the south. There as a large concentration of the in Harlem, New York, and they created a Harlem Renaissance that made black culture a force in American society. For instance, Black writers and composers and white publishers mingled freely for the first time. Harlem also had an international impact, pulling in Caribbean and French Africans from abroad. All this helped create a "New Negro" that was more acceptable to both blacks and whites than the old one.

The 1920s were a time of relative social freedom, for non-Establishment groups in America such as women and minorities, particularly blacks, that would not be seen again until the 1960s. It was also a "fun" time, and the African-Americans got a share (perhaps not their "fair share") of it, unlike earlier times.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.