How do we account for the sudden nostalgia for the "roaring" Nineteen Twenties? Maybe “roaring” seems like a welcome relief after years of “persisting.” It’s telling that we hardly know what to call these past two decades. The term “the aughts” never really caught on. That word is rooted in a linguistic error, anyway, as writer Rebecca Mead has pointed out: “Aught” is a 19th century corruption of the word “naught,” which really means zero. “Aught” properly means “anything,” so the aughts were both nothing and anything, leading to the Twenty Tens … or were they the Twenty Teens? Our linguistic equivocating suggests we don’t yet know what to make of those years.
So, I get the zingy appeal of the “Roaring Twenties.” But, behind the clichés of speakeasies and fringe, racism thrived in that decade, as did all kinds of corruption and prejudice. Still, we might reach back to the 1920s of our own ancestors to find plenty of inspiration for right now.
In the 1920s, my maternal grandparents moved away from small town life in order to meet cute in bustling, if dusty, Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, my dapper grandfather worked as an embalmer and my grandmother worked at her family’s flower shop. They resourcefully turned funerals into a chance at flirtation. My grandmother was an early adopter of pants-wearing, earning her the teasing nickname, “Steve.” I’m quite sure her sartorial sass and independence course in my blood today.
My paternal grandparents fell fast in love in a Bohemian enclave of Chicago, surrounded by Czech and Yiddish speakers, in two-flat walkups with rye bread cooling on kitchen windowsills. A fading photo of my grandma in 1927 captures her particular “roar.” She’s on a day trip from the sweltering city to the New Buffalo, Michigan beach, bare-legged and rocking a revealing knitted bathing suit with her name, ELOISE, embroidered across her bosom. Her stance is confident and wide, and she’s tousling her freshly bobbed hair, like a defiant beauty queen. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years earlier, women wore knee-length bathing dresses and wool stockings to the beach. It’s easy to imagine, though, how this spark plug of a young woman won a dance competition doing a twist on the Charleston, the Black Bottom Stomp. I’m making a note: More defiant dancing in the coming decade, please.
Those family stories are tethered to political and social movements that we’ll also be hearing a lot about this year. Certainly, we should roar with celebrations and cautionary tales as we observe the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, finally granting the vote to many women. Still, Jim Crow laws kept millions of African Americans from voting for 45 more years. Those are lessons to revisit, with voter suppression once again on the rise.
In 1920, just as the 19th amendment was ratified, writer Crystal Eastman wrote her landmark essay, titled “Now We Can Begin,” reminding us that remaking the culture would require more than the ballot. She argued that the revolution must begin at home, writing, “… fundamentally [freedom] is a problem of education, of early training — we must bring up feminist sons.” In that short essay, Eastman also argued for pay equality, affordable childcare, and the equal division of housework … social justice issues still plaguing us a hundred years later. Let's roar toward solutions, finally, yes?
And let’s keep roaring with activism. Who could have imagined, just a few years ago, that so many of us would show up, persistently, with hand-markered rally signs, write letters and call our representatives over and over, and build networks with so many new people? Given national and international headlines, let’s consider the past years a warm up for the democratic skills we need now.
So, sure, let’s go ahead and roar into our own Twenties, but let’s look deeper than meme-culture for our inspiration. Try your family’s photo albums and stories for insights on community-building, on the power of unions, on the joy of unlikely friendships and perhaps the progressive ideals that propelled so many of our ancestors forward. Let’s roar with optimism, with joy, with a desire to look back in ten years — and more — and say: That’s the year we shaped the decade … and righted the course for the 21st century.
Music: "The Barrel" by Aldous Harding