Dr. Jai Maharaj
2015-09-10 22:51:24 UTC
White, and 21'
By Andrew Heisel
Thursday, September 10, 2015
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
"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.
The saying emerged around 1828, when property ownership
was removed as a prerequisite for suffrage, and voters
needed only be free, white, and 21 (and also, it needn't
be said, male). It should have died with the passing of
the 15th amendment in 1870, but of course racism is
stronger than the law, and by the end of the century,
legislators were working to bring the two back into
harmony. In 1898, when Louisiana put forward its version
of the grandfather clause, a judge asserted that the new
legislation was simply a way of maintaining the "right of
manhood," deserved of all men "free, white, and twenty-
Yet it took women to popularize the phrase--or fictional
women at least. The expression figures in romance
narratives starting as early as 1856. Later, Dorothy Dix,
the nation's first advice columnist, would recycle it,
directed to young women. If the primary sphere of
influence for the white male was in the voting booth, for
the disenfranchised white woman it was the home. Her
privilege was narrow but vital: to choose which white
male to share it with.
Jai Maharaj, Jyotishi