Rise of the Harlem Renaissance
After the abolition of slavery in 1865, the racial climate in the South became increasingly hostile toward African Americans. Lynch mobs and widespread violence posed a constant threat to the physical safety and well-being of these individuals and, as a result, many African Americans chose to migrate to northern states. Urban areas like New York City provided better access to jobs and schooling opportunities, and so they attracted the majority of the migrants. Some of these jobs were created by the American involvement in World War I, which generated a need for increased industrial production. While the Northern cities did provide increased opportunities for African Americans, racial discrimination was still ubiquitous and only certain areas of the cities, such as Harlem in New York, were available to black renters. As a result, African American communities were concentrated in densely populated neighborhoods that brought talented artists into close contact with one another. During the early twentieth century, the artistic and intellectual work of African Americans blossomed, as many people strove to understand and express the black experiences of hardship and resilience. This surge in creative output was referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, and it grew steadily until the stock market crash of 1929, which drastically reduced the financial resources available to such artists. Petry arrived to work in Harlem as a journalist in the 1930s. While she was not in New York City during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, she was inspired to express her own impressions of the ghetto and drew upon the naturalistic tradition of her contemporaries.
World War II and the Drafting of African American Soldiers
Given the gross disparity in opportunities that were available to white and black Americans in the 1940s, it is not surprising that some African American men questioned the value of fighting a war to protect freedoms that were preferentially afforded to white citizens at the expense of their black counterparts. In Petry’s novel the character of Boots exemplifies the sentiments of black men who believed they were being drafted into a ‘‘white man’s war.’’
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Ann Petry, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010