Race is a major theme in American social history since 1865. Although the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s changed racial views, a true definition of race has never been created. Race is not an absolute, but rather it is an artificial social construction. Throughout history race has trumped religion, gender, and social class. The three races which have impacted America the most are the Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, and African-Americans.
First of all, Jewish-Americans have played a vital role in American social history since the Victorian era. Since the Victorian culture believed in segregation, Jews were not allowed into the regular high-class businesses so their only option was to work in show-business. Jews had access to money because most of their assets were liquid since in Europe they could not own land. The film industry started in New York but the Jews moved the industry to Hollywood to escape the Victorian anti-Semitism. During the late eighteenth century, famous Jewish entertainers like Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, Houdini, and Sophie Tucker left their marks on music and the theater.
The 1920s gave rise to the age of jazz, and entertainment continued to provide Jews with a way of assimilation. Jews often changed their names to sound more American. They popularized musical theater because it was similar to European Opera. The most famous film of the era, The Jazz Singer, starred Al Jolsen, and it told a parable about the Jewish experience as a young boy rejects the family business to become a singer.
Jewish-Americans continued to influence popular culture even to the end of World War II. Rodger and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! celebrated American traditions, and Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man embraced the same themes. The greatest song of the era was Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
Secondly, Irish-Americans have also impacted popular culture since the Victorian era. Irish entertainers acted on Broadway. Irish gangs dominated Chicago and New York like Plunkitt with Tammany Hall. Boxing became a favorite American pastime as the Irish cheered for John Sullivan.
Although many Irish came to America before the Civil War, the immigration peak was between 1900 and 1910 when 9 million immigrants (Irish, Germans, Italians, and Russians) came to America. These “new” immigrants changed the urban landscape and created cultural diversity. Mainstream Americans resented the Irish because of their Catholic religion and political ideologies. Prohibition actually tried to control immigrants by controlling alcohol and restricting crime. Resistance to immigration was strongly supported by the Ku Klux Klan and the WASPs.
Finally, African-Americans have impacted American popular culture the most since 1865. The three leaders of popular culture in the Victorian era—Stephen Foster, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain—popularized African-American speech and culture. At the turn of the century, entertainment shifted from minstrel shows to Vaudeville, and racial assimilation happened on stage and in the audience.
The biggest cultural contribution of African-Americans to popular culture was jazz in the 1920s. Scott Joplin started jazz with his ragtime music, and jazz included a strong racial connotation which started to slowly change the American culture. Turn-of-the-century writers like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington advocated for civil rights. During the 1920s, African-Americans moved into the cities, and the Harlem Renaissance began in New York City. The Harlem elites created world-class literature and music which celebrated the common man.
Following World War II, African-American music changed to promote rebellion through the form of jive and bebop. Bebop had its own vocabulary which created our modern slang terms. During this time, Hollywood helped advocate for civil rights by changing the racial views of mainstream Americans through films that promoted tolerance and acceptance.
In the 1960s, African-Americans created a “counter culture” as part of the Civil Rights Movement. In music, composers used hymns to further civil rights. Soul music and rock n’ roll became popular forms of expression. Films like To Kill a Mockingbird questioned racial prejudice. In sports, Muhammad Ali used boxing to promote civil rights, and in the 1968 Olympics, African-American athletes gave the Black Panther salute. The final culmination of African-American influence on popular culture came in the 1970s with the mini-series Roots. Roots was a very handy way to argue about the impact of popular culture on history as it told the story of a man who traced his family history back to Africa.
So since 1865, Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, and African-Americans have had a great impact on American popular culture. Race continues to play a major role in American popular culture today. The increase of mixed races has changed the historical definition of race. Instead of race being labeled by physical appearance, language and culture actually determine race according to today’s standards.
– Hannah S. Bowers