Production Dramaturg Faedra Chatard Carpenter discusses the Great Migration, racial violence and the KKK’s rise, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Mississippi Flood, and the Great Depression; all of these events loom in the background of Ma Rainey and inform its characters.
[Coming Soon] Timeline: Tracking historical occurrences around the 1920s.
From approximately 1916 to 1930, thousands of African Americans migrated from predominantly rural Southern states to the more industrial North during what is now called The Great Migration. Drawn by job opportunities and the promise of equality, migrants were certain that they would find in the North the economic stability and human dignity that was so fervently denied to them in the South. These dreams were further propelled by the encouragement of friends, relatives, and passersby, as well as by journals, pamphlets, and African American newspapers such as The Chicago Defender.
The rapid changes in the racial demographics of Northern cities energized African American communities and fostered social and artistic movements (epitomized by the Harlem Renaissance). However, these drastic changes also resulted in disappointment and frustration. The ever-swelling numbers of migrants in over-crowded cities led to inadequate employment opportunities, insufficient housing, and labor and racial conflicts.
In various plays, interviews, and writings, August Wilson encourages his audience to consider the gains and losses associated with The Great Migration. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is no exception. Not only are the band members in Ma Rainey emblematic of the Southern migrants who came to the North to “make a way,” but the play’s thematic current of dreams deferred serves as a powerful reminder of the less-glorious realities of the migration experience.
The Great Mississippi Flood
August Wilson’s stage directions for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom specify that it takes place in March 1927—a month before one of the United States’ most devastating natural disasters: The Great Mississippi Flood. On the morning of April 15th, the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, had warned its readers: “The roaring Mississippi River, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage…. All along the Mississippi considerable fear is felt over the prospects for the greatest flood in history.” Despite the embankments that had been built to prevent such a tragedy, the power of the deluge proved to be too much. The levees broke under the intense pressure. With water that reached heights of 30 feet, the flood decimated the region, covering the land in six states and victimizing hundreds of thousands of people. Wilson’s nuanced reference to the Mississippi Flood in the character of “Levee” serves as a telling metaphor, reminding us of the devastation that can occur when the weight of outside forces becomes too great to bear.
Great Flood: A fairly straightforward explanation of the flood, of the battle against the river and the breaking of the levees, of people displaced from their homes and black workers forced to work in wretched conditions. Article by Stephen Ambrose, from the National Geographic News.
The Great Flood of 1927 through a Post-Katrina Lens: Comparison of the two disasters, noting such particulars as the similar responses by authority figures. Article by Prita Lal, from leftturn.com.
[Coming Soon] Timeline/Maps
Racial Violence and the Rise of the KKK
In 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Ku Klux Klan was founded by six former Confederate soldiers. The central goal of the organization: to restore the subjugation of Blacks within the Southern states. While Klan activity subsided during the late 1800s, the population shifts of the Great Migration re-ignited fears and prejudice, inspiring a revitalized and reinvigorated Klan in 1915. By 1925—two years before the events of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—the Klan’s anti-immigration, anti-Black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and anti-Communist sentiments had attracted an alarming number of members; incidents of related violence were once more on the rise.
The Harlem Renaissance
The 1920s and 1930s witnessed a proliferation of African American cultural expression. Centered in New York’s Harlem, and dubbed The Harlem Renaissance, this flurry of intellectual and artistic production gave birth to a bevy of still-influential thinkers, writers, visual artists, and performers. Most significantly, it is the political and sociological ruminations of figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey that help to frame the poetic yet critical discourse in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In their own words and in their own way, Wilson’s characters pontificate and wrestle with issues related to Black Nationalism, African consciousness, communal advancement, and individual responsibility—an ongoing debate initially ignited and propelled by the synergies of the movement.
The Harlem Renaissance: An introduction to the various aspects of the Renaissance, touching on topics from political issues to philosophy to music performers. Hosted by John Carroll University, the site emphasizes multimedia content.
The Great Depression
In October, 1929—two years after Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place—the Great Depression will transform the American fabric. For many, the heyday of the Roaring Twenties will suddenly transform into the hell-days of the ravaged Thirties. America’s sudden reversal of fortune will result in widespread unemployment, homelessness, and starvation. In the worst stages of the Depression, White unemployment will be at 25%, while Black unemployment will double that. Thus, for African-American communities, the Great Depression will only exacerbate their already desperate state of affairs. But that is the future. The blues musicians, gathered for a fairly routine recording session at the start of the play, know nothing of what is to come.