“Wedding Band” by Alice Childress is a story of a love/hate interracial relationship between two lovers in the south. The play is set in South Carolina in 1918. “Wedding Band” truly captures the essence of the time and place in which the play was set in. That era (1915-1931) is one of the most significant in the history of this young nation. The decade of the 1920’s is often characterized as a period of American prosperity and optimism. It was the “Roaring Twenties,” the decade of the bath tub gin, the model T, the $5 work day, the first transatlantic flight, and the movie. It was a high point in African-American history as well. The Harlem Renaissance took shape; it was a time when African Americans began an intellectual movement. Harlem became the center of African-American culture. Most African-Americans began a movement to rethink their values and appreciation of their roots and Africa. The “Great Migration” began at this time. Approximately two million Southern blacks move to northern industrial centers in hopes to escape the oppressive nature of the deep south. However, for every upside their is a downside. The decade was a period of rising intolerance and isolation. Americans retreated into a provincialism evidenced by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the anti radical hysteria of the Palmer raids, restrictive immigration laws, and prohibition. Influenza and the first world war brought an alarming amount of Americans to an early death. Racial motivated riots spread throughout the country and protests endorsing and condemning racism were the norm.
Life in the south was at most times unbearable for the blacks, and many felt that the southern atmosphere had such a suffocating affect on them that escape was the best option. African-Americans were showing their pain inside, little by little proving themselves to the racist whites in the south that they were somebody, not a property, but a human being with self worth and dignity who should be treated equally. The main place that the black southerners were blinded of was the urban places in the north. These were the places that captured their attention. Many of the southerners who were enslaved or sons and daughters of enslaved Africans began to migrate in the northern cities. These were the places where they began to live a life of independence and freedom. The migration of the black southerners was a success. Their lives changed when they moved to the urban cities.
Harlem created a growth of African-American culture which created a community exploding with art, politics, energy, and racial pride. “When the blues was hot and jazz was a growing stay in America’s culture; when speakeasies were filled with both blacks and whites dancing to the ‘rhythms of life’ set out by the saxophone, trumpet, and drums……” This is a definition that truly captures the Harlem Renaissance. The Boogie-woogie, the Turkey Trot, and the Big Apple are just few of the many dances that developed during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance produced a shine of new authors during this time period. The authors knew each other well and frequently exchanged ideas. The Renaissance writers remain important not just for their own work but because the literary tradition they built would become a platform which future African-American voices could shout and be heard. There were many big authors during the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Jessie Redman Fauset, Countee Cullen, Claude Mckay, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston. Also, artists flourished during this period. Names such as, James Van Der Zee, Aaron Douglas, and Richard Bruce Nugent. These are just a few of talented artists in the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes was of the Harlem Renaissance, this artistic movement of the 1920s in which black artists living in Harlem and elsewhere blossomed in musical, poetry, theatrical an cultural expression. The musical and oral traditions of black America inspired Hughes, and the rhythms of jazz music can be heard in much of his poetry. In several of Langston Hughes’s poems, he expresses sociopolitical protests. He portrayed people whose lives were impacted by racism and sexual conflicts, he wrote about southern violence, Harlem street life, poverty, prejudice, hunger, and hopelessness. These great minds of the Harlem Renaissance will eternally live on in the proud history of African-Americans.
In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan receives a charter from the Fulton County, Georgia, Superior Court. The organization spreads quickly, reaching its height in the 1920s when it had an estimated four million members. In 1923, Martial Law was declared in Oklahoma as a result of activities by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1925, 40,000 Ku Klux Klan members parade in Washington to show the nation just how powerful they are. These hooded cowards were the cause of agony, torment, and death to many blacks and other targeted immigrants. The 1920’s had a massive waves of immigration. These “new” immigrants were largely from Italy, Russia, China, and Ireland. There was mixed reaction to these incoming foreigners. While they provided industries with a cheap source of labor, Americans were both afraid of, and hostile towards these new groups. If there was one person who singlely used America’s fear of immigrants to advance his own political goals it was Attorney General Palmer. The rise of communism in Russia created a fear of its spread across Europe, and o America. Palmer tied this fear to that of immigration. He denounced labor unions, the Socialist party, and the Communist party in America, as being infiltrated with radicals who sought to overturn America’s political, economic, and social institutions. Palmer exasperated this fear in Americans and then presented himself as the country’s savior, combating the evils of Communism. During the infamous Palmer raids thousands of aliens were deported and even more were arrested on little or no evidence. Their civil liberties were violated, they were not told the reasons for their arrests, denied counsel, and not given fair trials. Immigrants, along with blacks felt the oppressive mentality of the dominant white society in America.
The United States entered World War I in 1917. In 1918 the first world war ends. Official records indicate that 370,000 black soldiers and 1400 commissioned officers participated, more than half of them in the European theater. Three black regiments — the 369th, 371st, and 272nd — received the Croix de Guerre for valor. The 369th was the first American regiment to reach the Rhine. Blacks showed unparalleled bravery and valor in action yet returned to a nation ungrateful and hostile. Truly sickening when you hear of stories were a black man was spit on for wearing his uniform, yet he fought with all of his life on the battlefield. Race riots spread all over the nation during this time. Major race riots in East St. Louis, Illinois began in 1917. Also in 1917 More than 10,000 blacks marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City in a silent parade to protest lynchings and racial indignities. Race riots in Houston lead to the hanging of 13 black soldiers in 1918. Racial motivated riots also occurred in Charleston, Washington, Chicago, Arkansas, and Texas throughout 1919. A total of 26 riots during the “Red Summer” of 1919.
The Influenza, which is the disease the Herman dies from in the “Wedding Band”, was reeking havoc across the world in the 1920s. The Spanish Influenza hit the United States in two waves: spring of 1918, when it struck the military camps throughout the country, and fall of 1918, when it was reintroduced from Europe with troops returning to the United States from World War I. On March 11, 1918, the first case of this flu was reported at Camp Funston, Kansas. By noon, 107 cases were reported at the same camp and two days later 522 cases were reported. This fast moving, air borne disease was in every state of the union within seven days! By the time it was over 800,000 people, 28% of all Americans died. That is ten times as many causalities of World War I (It is also believed that 50% of the soldiers killed in WWI fell victim to the Spanish Influenza, not enemy soldiers). In one week in October, in Philadelphia, 4,600 people died. Despite the fact that it is called Spanish, this influenza, a type A disease, was a worldwide pandemic that probably originated in China. From there it hit Japan, then Europe, then America and Africa. It probably got its name in May of 1918, when a very large number of Spaniards died as a result of the disease. It was worse than the Bubonic Plague that hit the world during the Middle Ages. It is estimated that the Bubonic Plague killed 137 million people in three eruptions during the sixth, fourteenth, and seventeenth centuries. The Spanish Influenza killed 25 million people n a single year.
Overall, the decade is often seen as a period of great contradiction: of rising optimism and increasing isolation, of increasing and decreasing faith, of great hope and great despair. Put differently, the 1920s is a decade of serious cultural conflict; definitely evident in the “Wedding Band”. It is an era in our history that was filled with turmoil, however, these events helped future generations better deal with situations dealing with race, war, disease, death, and most importantly life.