Popular Culture and Race in the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age saw the rise of a culture of leisure and mass consumerism unprecedented in history.1 By the beginning of the 20th century, the cultural scene of the United States was dominated by sports such as baseball, publicly accessible events such as vaudeville shows, and the consumer goods now widely available in the department stores springing up across the country. Americans had more time and more access to diversion than ever before and they took advantage of this leisure and access. This is especially true of young Americans, who flocked to the new amusement parks, stores, and shows, and took up the new sports and dance crazes of the era.2

In the Gilded Age, as now, the youth were the biggest consumers of popular culture and in large part determined its contents. Also as now, members of the previous generations saw youth culture as shocking, immoral, and even dangerous.3 Ragtime, for instance, was a popular form of music and dance for young people of the Gilded Age that received a great deal of condemnation from elders who saw the associated dances, which involved close contact between dance partners of opposite genders, as lascivious.

One source of the criticism leveled at popular culture was the origin of many of its elements, including especially music and dance, in black culture. Older generations saw this influence of black culture, according to Ellen M. Litwicki, as a potential source of “moral depravity” for white youth who partook of popular culture.4 Ironically, however, in spite of these origins in black culture, American popular culture was often used as a means by which to reinforce stereotypes of blacks and continue the culture of racism, subjugation and marginalization. One popular song, for instance, declared in its title that “All Coons Look Alike To Me.”5 While the influence of blacks on later popular music and dance, including rock and especially hip hop, would allow African-Americans to enter the mainstream of American culture and society and, arguably, serve to undermine and eliminate racism among young Americans, ragtime and related elements of popular culture more often served the opposite purpose and instead acted as a vehicle for the propagation of racism during the Gilded Age.

Aspects of popular culture which did not derive from black culture also, similarly, served the ends of racism. Sports, for instance, were intended to cultivate and convey a sense of the importance of masculinity, from which concept black men were explicitly excluded.6 This exclusion was made tangible through the segregation of sports fans in the audience at sporting events as well as through the ban on participation of blacks in popular sports like baseball.7 When blacks were allowed to participate in popular cultural events, such as the popular theater of the era, it was generally for the purpose of reinforcing stereotypes.8 As a result, they were generally placed in demeaning roles and expected to act in accordance with white expectations.

American popular culture of the Gilded Age also served to reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans. Popular Wild West shows, such as the famous one run by Buffalo Bill, depicted Native Americans as warlike savages.9 While, as Litwicki points out, depictions of Indians and the stereotypes attached to them “were never as completely negative as those African Americans had to work within” Native Americans were nonetheless subject to the same disfiguring American consciousness as blacks.10 Both groups were dehumanized, stripped of individuality and personality, and replaced with caricatures that met white expectations, reinforced white superiority, and justified their continued marginalization.
The racism depicted in and reinforced by American popular culture served to justify the continued oppression of blacks and Native Americans in reality. The stereotypes of blacks as a comically ignorant, ugly, immoral, and sexually promiscuous “other,” for instance, justified continuing their separation from the white mainstream of American society. This marginalization and perpetual status as the ontological “other” was made law with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that gave federal sanction to segregation as a constitutional practice.11 Similarly, the depiction of Native Americans as savages and their culture as backwards and primitive justified the continued attempts by the federal government to eradicate native ways of life, cultural traditions, and tribal units, such as was attempted with the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which law sought to force Native Americans to adopt the agricultural lifestyle of rural whites.12

The increased leisure time of Americans coupled with the new commodification of culture in the Gilded Age to create the United States’ first true popular culture. Through the popularization of stereotypes, American popular culture of the Gilded Age served to justify the continued marginalization and subjugation of oppressed groups such as Native Americans and blacks. One great irony of this new youth culture is that much of its content derived from the culture of the very groups whose oppression it sanctioned.

Notes

1 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 117.

2 Ibid., 118.

3 Ibid.

4 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce Technology, and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 194.

5 Ibid., 196.

6 Edwards, 114.

7 Litwicki, 200.

8 Ibid., 191-2.

9 Ibid., 202.

10 Ibid.

11 Leslie H. Fishel Jr., “The African-American Experience,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 157.

12 Edmund J. Danziger Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 180.

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