Harlem Newstand 1939

Social Media in the 1920s

Readers Letters to Ranch Romances
“Our Air Mail.” Ranch Romances. Vol. 97: No. 3 (Jan. 1941): 138.

Before the invention of laptops, smartphones, tablets, 5G, and the online platforms they support, newspapers and magazines were the social media of the day. Modern technology—mechanized printing presses, photography, halftone image processing, and pulp paper—made printing cheaper and faster than ever, generating a periodical boom in the 1910s and 1920s. Lower printing costs combined with rising literacy rates, soaring advertising revenues, and improved transportation and mail services meant periodicals could be sold below the cost of production, shipped around the country, and delivered into the hands of more readers than ever before. (Radio was an increasingly important way to disseminate news and culture, too, but not as many people could afford radios, and they weren’t yet portable.) Newspapers were issued as often as three times a day, and hundreds of new magazines appeared, from mass market glossies, to sensational pulps, to countercultural little magazines.

Periodicals disseminated news rapidly, and many included letters to the editors, advice columns, and society news sections that invited readers to contribute their own ideas and opinions. Like social media today, magazines gave readers something to talk about, as well as platforms to share their own art and writing, and even find friends: presaging today’s dating apps, Ranch Romances’ “Our Air Mail” section provided a forum for readers “to make worth-while friends.” (It was followed by Professor Marcus Mari’s astrological advice column, “Whom Should I Marry?”)

A newsstand in Harlem, c. 1939.

The Harlem Renaissance was, to a large degree, made possible by this periodical boom, which gave African Americans unprecedented opportunities to express themselves in print as writers, editors, and publishers. Instead of being reduced to objects circulated in white-owned media—typically as stock figures, stereotypes, and tokens—they became subjects, creators, and owners of print culture, capable of expressing their own ideas and images of their pasts, present conditions, and possible futures.

Liberator Cover, July 1919, featuring Drawing by George Bellows of two peasants carrying a basekt.
Cover of The Liberator, July 1919. Drawing by George Bellows.

Take, for example, Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay’s poem, “If We Must Die,” published in the leftist little magazine The Liberator in July 1919 in response to the bloody “Red Summer” of 1919, when race riots broke out across the U.S. Most of the violence was white-on-Black, but in the white media, it was almost always blamed on Black people. The poem bears witness to the courage of Black people “fighting back” against white mob violence. McKay inverts the dehumanizing racist tropes of white supremacy, figuring white oppressors as “mad and hungry dogs” in contrast to the heroic Black activists who “like men…face the murderous, cowardly pack.”

Listen to McKay read the poem:

One hundred year before the Black Lives Matter movement, McKay’s poem asserted the value and humanity of Black lives, showcasing a Black poet’s mastery of the revered Shakespearean sonnet form. A single sonnet in a magazine sparked revolutionary ideas that fueled the Harlem Renaissance, much in the way a Twitter or Instagram post can go viral and set off a movement today.

The Harlem Renaissance is a term coined retrospectively to describe an uprising of creative expression across the arts, much of which, like McKay’s sonnet, was disseminated, discussed, debated, and celebrated within the social media of magazines. Especially important to the dissemination of images of the so-called “New Negro” were the leading race magazines of the day:

  • The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races (1910 – ), founded and edited by W. E. B. Du Bois and the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
  • The Messenger (1917-1928), co-founded by Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph 
  • Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life (1923-1949), founded and edited by Charles S. Johnson and published by the National Urban League

Reporting on both racial injustices and progress, these magazines published emerging Black artists and writers, sponsoring annual contests with financial prizes for the best work. Though headquarted in New York, they had a broad national subscription base. Black-owned newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier helped spread news of the New Negro renaissance beyond Harlem and foster African American solidarity across the nation, while little magazines like Fire!!, Ebony and Topaz, and Black Opals experimented with avant-garde aesthetics and challenges to the more conventional uplift ideology of racial advancement.

Bennett, cover illustration for Opportunity magazine, July 1926.
Gwendolyn Bennett, cover of Opportunity, July 1926.

Magazines were social spaces—multi-authored miscellanies where disparate artists and writers could gather, meet one another, read each other’s work, be supported and mentored by editors, and gain audiences for their art and writing. They provided a platform for an aspiring young artist like Gwendolyn Bennett to publish her art, poetry, and other writings. Book publication was almost out of the question for a Black woman in the 1920s. Georgia Douglas Johnson was the only African American woman poet to publish book volumes of her poetry, and she had to do so “at her own expense.”1Claudia Tate. “Introduction.” The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: Prentice, 1997, p. xxxi. Jessie Redmond Fauset’s publication of her first novel There Is Confusion in 1924 was such an unprecedented achievement that the now famous Civic Club dinner was organized to honor the occasion. Bennett’s “To Usward,” which was selected as the dedicatory poem, was published soon after the event in both Crisis and Opportunity. In a sense, Bennett’s work went viral via magazines.