Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

Article excerpt

Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era. By Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 2009. Pp. [xvi], 312. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-8078-3312-4.)

Studying the widespread impact of New Deal programs, Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff convincingly demonstrates that historians have overlooked the role of cultural projects in laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement. She draws extensively from government records, administrators' papers, magazines, and newspapers to assess the contentious "process of production" that crafted favorable representations of African Americans in the Franklin D. Roosevelt era (p. 11). Liberal white administrators eager to erode racial stereotypes mediated between civil rights advocates and racially conservative white southerners--groups vital to Roosevelt's political agenda.

After a discussion "of the complexities of racial liberalism" in chapter 1, Sklaroff examines live performance and print media in chapters 2 and 3 (p. 11). By introducing many African Americans to the theater and promoting plays supportive of workers' rights, the Federal Theatre Project inspired a generation of blacks to participate in theater arts as well as politics. Successes such as Swing Mikado (1938) also broadened the audience for black culture. The American Guide Series of the Federal Writers' Project offered a means of realistically portraying African American communities and their history. Material for the series was reviewed by Negro Affairs editor Sterling Brown, the highest-ranking African American in the four New Deal arts programs. Although only some of his recommended changes appeared in print, Brown filtered out the most offensive materials. Sklaroff astutely recognizes the complexity of the editing process and reminds readers that the guides were both government creations meant to celebrate national diversity as well as products dependent on a largely white tourist market. …


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