Chapter 2: 1930s The Great Depression
The Industrial Revolution brought new life to the U.S.,
Jobs and businesses flourished—for some,
Upper and middle class folks were the only ones who could feast upon the trough of easy money,
New stocks were created,
The market was manipulated
To keep those dividends coming,
Then the banks fell into the fray
Investing depositor’s money
Figuring they could pay back the loan and keep the profit,
But poor folks, who were most folks,
Couldn’t party with the rest, because their wages were too low,
So they couldn’t buy stuff and couldn’t invest in the seeming prosperity that was all around them.
By the mid-twenties, the market slowed,
Because people only bought one car, one house and one radio,
Meanwhile the countries overseas were having troubles of their own,
The slow walk to disaster was certain,
But the money was too good to let go.
Inventory backed up and businesses had to cut back,
Had to lay off some of their workers and ease up on their spending sprees,
They were reduced to buying just enough to meet their immediate needs,
And as income fell, so did demand
Cash was tight,
Just nickels and dimes
That was the cycle that continued until
The big market crashed
And wealth for most disappeared
on October 29, 1929.
While some people were prospering from borrowed money,
Others were heading west,
With government assurance of owning land,
They were told they could raise their family and work toward better days,
Told they could raise good crops
And build homes of comfort for their old age.
So, they tore up the good earth
That Native Americans had long respected,
Tore up the prairie grass that had protected the Plaines since the beginning of time,
Planting wheat all over the place,
The grace of the rain and the blessed sun
brought an abundance of crops and wealth that was laid upon them.
Grain dominated the world,
New equipment made it easy for them to plow some more,
They plowed and planted, planted and plowed
Wheat grew clear over their head,
The market soared
Everybody ate more bread
The rain stopped,
It was the natural cycle of drought,
But people kept hope alive and plowed some more,
Only to have another crop that was destroyed,
So, they plowed again and again planting more seeds,
Hoping for a crop next spring
But the precious top soil had blown away in the dried electrified air,
Clouds of dust could be seen
As far east as Washington D.C.
Turning day into black night,
it must have been a frightening sight
Not sure whether to go or to stay,
Huddled in their homes
Coughing up dirt
And trying to pray.
The locusts came,
Jack rabbits took over and livestock died,
People succumb to dirt in their lungs
And the odds to survive became small.
When market fell, the price of wheat did too
And it didn’t pay to try any more,
So they packed what they had left and headed west
Looking for relief from the man-made desert,
Hoping to find work, a new start and more merciful weather,
It took the minds of scientists and engineers to teach others how to take care of the soil,
When the earth is abused and taken for granted
We will lose because we failed to live in harmony
With our strong yet delicate planet.
A Harlem Afternoon
“So, what are we going to do?” was the question on the table.
“They closed the Savoy Ballroom, we can’t find a job on the avenue much less own a business, we can’t go downtown unless we’re a butler or a maid; nobody comes uptown since the riots back in 43 and our brownstones are in disrepair,” Adam Clayton Powell said in despair.
“We have to somehow bring our people up,” Sterling Brown said,
“I remember Booker T. Washington told us no race can prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”
W.E.B. Dubois lamented, “Well I say no way! We can get an education and take a front seat,
There is nothing second place about our proud black selves. Lawyers, doctors, and profound thinkers, that’s who we are!”
“Hold on there now,” said Adam Clayton Powell,
“These people have to eat. They need jobs and decent pay. Can’t sit in the front seat if you’re broke. That never has and never will make the grade.”
“That’s right,” A. Philip Randolph agreed,
“I’m tryin to get my sleeping car men better treatment on the rails,
And if Roosevelt doesn’t get to movin, I’m bringing all of Harlem to Washington D.C.”
“We gotta stop the poll tax first!” Langston Hughes claimed.
“No! We need to stop the lynching!” James Weldon explained,
“And what about the high rent rip-off in these old buildings?
What about these slickters in the street, selling every sin across town?
We can’t uplift ourselves with people like that dragging us down?
How can we take a front seat when we can’t get through the front door?
Cotton Club said we can’t come in and that’s right in our own neighborhood.”
“My people! My people,” Zora shook her head.
Alain Locke professed, “Our social and cultural reformation will bring about the New Negro,”
“To address the Negro problem?” Zora rolled her eyes.
Alain Locke went on, “Even among ourselves, we’re something to be argued about, condemned or defended; kept down or kept in place; helped up. We’re to be worried about or worried over, harassed or patronized,”
What new Negro? What Negro problem? I am not tragically colored,” Zora asked.
“No, just tragically invisible; surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorted glass,” Ralph Ellison clarified.
“We younger Negro artist who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” Langston Hughes explained,
“We may be free on the inside, but we’re still poor on the outside,” Alain Locke maintained.
Zora Neale Hurston intervened, “There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart, live leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet,” Zora described.
“Besides that, Zora,” Sterling said with a sorrowful look in his eyes.
“Remember Marcus Garvey?” Sterling went on,
“The man who never smiled,” Zora spurned.
He said, ’Can’t you see, they don’t want us here? How long before you understand,
There is some kind of accommodation for every European, except for the black man.
I have the answer
I know what to do,
I got this ship that can take us far.
Her name is Black Star and she’s ready to sail back to the motherland where we can be free and prevail in our own right and on our own land.’
I ain’t going nowhere! America is my home,” Powell professed,
’We got Negro heaven right here,” Zora stood and grabbed her things,
“C’mon, let’s get to 52nd Street and check these jazz cats on stage. The Three Deuces is jumping tonight
And I don’t wanna miss nothing,” snapping her finger.
“Yeah, trumpet man Miles. I heard he’s good,” Langston smiled.
Powell looked at Zora, “You coming or what?”
Zora put on her coat, “Be right there,”
“Wait for me for me!” Sterling stated.
“Save me a seat”, Ralph raised his hand.
“The Street isn’t my scene,” W.E.B. turned his head.
“Oh, c’mon now, be a man about town,” the men declared,
“Don’t be so uptight. Let’s walk on the Sunny Side of the Street! We all had a beautiful Harlem Afternoon, now it’s time for a good time Harlem Night.”
Three Chords and Twelve Bars
Start with any note; take it up three and bring it down four,
That’s all it takes to make one chord.
Multiply by three and that’s all you need
You can moan and testify,
You can beg and plead whatever is on your mind
Good or bad, set it free
Whatever you’re hoping for,
Play it on the piano or guitar
While sittin’ on the levy or in the juke joint,
Three chords and twelve bars
And that’s what makes the blues.
Knocking at the back-door music,
Dark skinned cousin to jazz;
The devil music church folk claim
but it always has been the back bone of rhythm and the base of soul,
Cause the Blues tells the truth,
About what everybody is going through,
It ain’t polite
It’s right down front,
Like when my man don’t love me no more
He packs up his things and goes right out the front door,
The sting of good bye keeps ringing in my ear
I just wanna walk the back streets and cry
To purge the pain that’s cold and raw,
That’s what makes the blues
Captured in three chords and twelve bars.
Some of the best lovin I ever had
I had no business with,
It was too good to let go
Had to work hard to keep it on the down low
Now, I don’t mind doing right,
But it feels so good when I’m doing wrong
Yeah, that’s the sure nuff blues.
That gives a powerful lyric
To my midnight song.
Play the harmonica
Give me that gritty delta moan,
Let the timbre expose my tender flesh and bone that’s longing for just a little love and peace in this world.
Bring in that guitar,
That speaks to the isolated core of my soul,
Flatten that ‘D’ and keep in the minor key
So folks can taste the acid in my angry tears
Coating every note of my twelve-bar melody.
C’mon now and walk that base,
Put some thunder on the floor,
Go way down in the basement and give me what yuh got!
Yeah, it’s good and hot now
We’re on the hell bound trail!
I’ll meet you at highway 61 and route 49,
Don’t ask me where I slept last night
Just keep those chords rocking
Under the deep blue lights
Of a back road, down home funky good time.
Son House testified about people grinning in your face
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s black snake moan,
Bobby Bland said you gotta hurt before you heal
You gonna go down slow,
Tryin to make a hundred cause ninety-nine and a half just won’t do,
Running from the devil and reaching for the stars
That’s the stuff that makes the blues,
Locked in the age-old phrase
Of three chords and twelve bars.
From the cotton fields to the Cotton Club
From the Dust Bowl to D.C.;
From the dirt roads to Wall Street,
How can a poor man stand such times and live?
A job was too hard to find,
And a dollar was too hard to keep.
The silver screen began to talk,
Fire side chats encouraged wearied hearts,
Incandescent lights turned night into day
Gold Dust on the Sunny Side of the Street was just
A few footsteps away.
Even while Cab Calloway was shaking his hair
And Ella finally found that yellow basket,
Even though liquor flowed without the risk of a raid
Folks were struggling every single day;
They couldn’t seem to get started
And no matter how hard they tried,
They couldn’t find a way to get paid.
Alabama boys were accused of rape.
Georgia men were diagnosed with ‘Bad Blood’;
Tree limbs hung low and families made the great escape to the promise land
Leaving newspaper shacks for the misery of a cold water one room flat.
House rent parties kept the landlord away
Hitting the number was a part of every prayer,
Happy am I kept Elder Michaux on the air
And Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement gave people something to eat, put clothes on their back and kept a roof over their head.
Boulevard of Broken Dreams was singing the WPA Blues
Sleepy Time down South became Satchmo’s signature tune
Stormy Weather blew in the tobacco auctioneer
One quarter of Mississippi was sold!
California mines ran out of gold,
People soothed their blues with
a Pig Foot and Bottle of Beer.
They were rug cutting through the night,
Without a care in the world!
From Central to Lenox Avenue
One O’clock Jump!
Stompin at the Savoy!
All of the Depression worries faded away,
As fine brown frames lindy hopped across the dance floor.
A man was lynched yesterday.
Joe knocked out Max in the first round.
The new Negro ain’t going back to Africa
He’s gonna stay right here in the USA
And march up and down every avenue with Adam Clayton Powell on one arm and Jesus on the other,
Make way for democracy now!
Futurama Worlds’ Fair and the Land of Oz
Were like nothing ever seen before,
The newsreel said,
Churchill was nervous and Roosevelt kept his distance
But the wind had gone into the melodies of hard time songs
And both sides of the deep blue sea would soon be turning red.
Calling all Negroes!
The house and the field,
From uptown and across the track
From Sugar Hill to the lowliest American ghetto,
We have to rethink our situation here;
If we came north, we thought we would be free.
We thought that if we took up the white man’s way, we’d be alright,
If learned how to talk and learned how to walk and like what they like,
We’d be accepted and find our way in life;
We thought if we just kept quiet and did as we were told, we wouldn’t get lynched
Putting on our best manners would help us get the job and get out of the poverty pit that was made just for us,
And then our babies wouldn’t starve
So, we thought,
Maybe if we straighten our hair and lighten our skin,
We could escape the wrath of Jim Crow.
If we stood our ground and maintained a collective front,
If we eagerly went to war for our country
The crooked arms of injustice would have to relent.
We walked on the bloody edge of hope and despair.
Looking for a place where life would be fair, but it was not ours to find,
Our capacity and intellect weren’t recognized, if anything it was denied,
Even after we went to school, behaved ourselves, didn’t talk back and kept our anger under wraps, we were still marginalized,
Calling all Negros!
To rethink our situation here,
Somewhere I heard,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door”,
And we believed it.
Porgy and Bess hit Broadway,
And the dance halls were a Saturday night refuge.
Lester Young and Ben Webster backed up Billie Holiday
Count Basie brought Mid-Western Stomp,
Where everyone forgot about their troubles and woes
And delighted each other until the sun peaked through the windows.
The Depression hit like a rock,
Closed up a lot of factories, businesses and shops,
Rich folks fell on hard times,
Poor folks had it worse
It took every living soul of the universe
To keep mind and body together
Living on pennies, nickels and dimes.
Homeowners made their back rooms available for rent
Soda bottle hunts brought in as much as five cents,
A Sleep-In job was good work if you could find it;
Bed and bath, guaranteed three meals a day and ten to fifteen dollars’ weekly pay.
Pot slinger’s day
Was when the help was set free,
Thursday and every other Sunday
The uniforms were put away and white folks had no say
Free to enjoy, dance and play.
The Rag Man hit every crack and crevice of town,
Alerting people, he was coming through,
Rag man! Rag man!
Woven remnants proved to be valuable to those
Who needed to make their own clothes
Or patch the thread barren ones they had,
Country folks worked from can’t see in the morning until can’t see at night,
Their glistening brow embodied their toil to keep food on the table and poverty on the other side of the door.
They boiled their clothes because there was no bleach,
They scrubbed the house with warm water and borax
Woolen clothes were dipped in kerosene
Salt and baking soda scrubbed their teeth clean.
The outhouse by day,
And the slop jar at night,
A tin tub of well water for the Saturday night bath,
Meat was cured in the smoke house
Or salt barrel
Canning fruits and vegetables in the late summer sun
That’s how it was done,
Making a way out of no way and nothing went to waste.