Friday, August 19, 2016

The Rise and Fall of an All-American Catchphrase: Free, White, and 21

I've never heard of this before. The Rise and Fall of an All-American Catchphrase: 'Free, White, and 21'

She was a young society woman. He was an enigmatic stranger. They’d just met at a speakeasy and as dusk set in were parked lakeside in his roadster to get better acquainted.

“You mind if we stay here a while,” he asked, “or must you go home?”

She pulled back, eyes wide, insulted.

“There are no musts in my life,” she said, “I’m free, white, and 21.”

Poor choice of words, but only because the guy was a fugitive from a chain gang. It’s right there in the title of the movie: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Otherwise, neither he nor the assumed audience would have thought much more of the expression. It was a catchphrase of the decade, as blandly ubiquitous as any modern meme: a way for white America to check its own privilege and feel exhilarated rather than finding fault.

“Free, white, and 21” appeared in dozens of movies in the ’30s and ’40s, a proud assertion that positioned white privilege as the ultimate argument-stopper. The current state of contention over the existence and shape of white privilege weaves back into the story of this catchphrase: its rise, its heyday, and how it disappeared. White America learned the same lesson as the society woman saying “free, white and 21” to the fugitive: you can’t be sure to whom you are speaking. Every time a movie character uttered this phrase so casually, they were giving black America a glimpse into the real character of American democracy. Decades before it came to a head, they inadvertently fed the civil rights struggle. The solution to this problem would be quintessentially Hollywood, and thus quintessentially American—a combination of censorship and propaganda that would erase “free, white, and 21” from films, from public life, and nearly even from national memory.

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