This is always a difficult question to answer, mostly because I have no special desire to interact with some well-known figures during the time or be a part of any iconic historic trends, but the thought of jumping into the TV and singing my way through high school with the kids of Hairspray does cross my mind from time to time. For the most part, I’d say people answer this question after having reflected on the culture (i.e. fashion and music) and/or notable people of the time (i.e. singers or revolutionaries), but there are other things worth considering as well, namely the historical context.
As a black female, I understand that it wouldn’t necessarily be the easiest thing in the world for me to return to whatever time period I desire, not just because time travel won’t exist until the Jetsons move into the neighborhood, but because of legislations such as Jim Crow laws, institutions such as slavery and the fundamental racist sentiments plaguing America before and after the Civil Rights Movements. So although I know dressing as a flapper girl of the ’20s and illegally sipping whiskey at a speakeasy would satisfy the most romantic notions of my heart, I also know that my life as a black female in the 1920s would not live up to the glamorized images “The Great Gatsby” portrays. As it turns out, there is quite a bit to contemplate when answering this very singular question, leaving some of us with rather limited options.
The 1920s, a decade given its own nicknames, is very well known. In fact, I’m sure any high-school student could name at least one thing synonymous with this ten-year span. The “Roaring Twenties” had a memorable impact on American culture with flappers, speakeasies and the Prohibition being just a few notable byproducts of the decade. Also known as the “Jazz Age,” the 1920s was an age of prosperity in this country where women were taking gender norms and throwing by the wayside, and African Americans were creating an artistic culture of their own through the Harlem Renaissance.
There was so much, imaginably, to get involved in during the 1920s, but not all arenas were open to every American. During the ’20s, Jim Crow laws were still in place, meaning racial segregation still existed and people of color were confined to dining, drinking and shopping in certain rooms or restaurants; they existed only where the “colored only” signs allowed. Sure, the Harlem Renaissance is key when considering the prosperity of black Americans, but it does nothing to cushion the reality of the white superiority complex and the inability to freely go wherever you want to go.
Even in establishments such as Harlem’s Cotton Club, the most notorious nightclub in New York and of the decade, African Americans were constricted to be performers and entertainers, never customers; their only purpose was to deliver satisfaction to their white audience. Beside segregation, the ’20s also witnessed the second revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Those three words have only ever met terror for any non-white, natural-born citizen in this country.
So although the ’20s was the era of Gatsby’s raging parties and a time where women and black Americans were shacking up history, it would not, in all honesty, be my first stop on a time traveling mission considering I’m not eager to let blatant racist signs tell me where I can and cannot go or live in constant fear of being lynched.
God bless “That ’70s Show” for, amongst other things, its keen insight on fashion of the time. The show is the closest most of us get to understanding and visualizing life during the 1970s beside asking older relatives in the typical “what was life like when you were a kid” manner. If this is a time period you fancy returning to, then grab some bell bottoms, a funky-patterned shirt and you’ll fit right in.
The 1970s is also the time period in which a classic, in my opinion, musical was born: “Grease.” The film was originally released in 1978 and doesn’t really have many of the quirks that we’ve come to know and love from “That ’70s Show,” but it is one heck of a movie, and possibly, just maybe, with John Travolta as the conflicted, high-school heartthrob and Olivia Newton-John as the sweet new girl who turns the entire school upside down, “Grease” was the original “High School Musical.” All the signs are there. Still, America wasn’t just a playground for high school kids during this decade.
With Jim Crow gone and integration already been introduced into school systems, there was likely an increase in interaction between races—even if it wasn’t all chummy and buddy buddy, face-to-face stuff. Even nearly 20 years after the separate-but-equal law was ruled unconstitutional, marginalized groups in society continued to fight for equality and black people weren’t alone in this. In Nixon’s America, Jewish people, native Americans, women and homosexuals also found themselves on the wrong side of the race, culture and gender tracks.
Granted, it may seem fun to imagine yourself flying through time and space to arrive at the doorstep of the 1970s, sit in a pot circle with the gang from “That ’70s Show” or sing alongside the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, the reality is that as a non-white American, you are most likely trying to overcome the racism that is a part of your everyday life and you aren’t hanging out with the white kids.
The 1980s to the 1990s
These two time periods kind of blend together in terms of television and iconic shows including “Full House,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Saved by the Bell” and “The Simpsons.” Overall, I would say that the ’80s and’90s are time periods that I would find myself most apt to return to. Fashion-wise, the 80s and 90s have a nice mix of contemporary and vintage style, and several trends from these decades are duplicated in fashion today: crop tops, platform shoes and oversized jackets with patches of color and varying patterns.
Along with fashion, music from these decades has yet to loss popularity, and I’m sure “If It Isn’t Love” by New Edition is just as much a part of my music playlists as any song by Bruno Mars.
In television, the mix between races is more clearly seen even though there was still slight segregation. For example, in shows such as “Full House,” whose focus remains on a white family, few people of color made their appearance, if they did appear at all; and in series such as the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” there is a recognized racial division as the all-black family takes all the spotlight and the non-black faces, when introduced on occasion, weren’t as prevalent. However, these shows of the ‘80s and ‘90s give us an honest idea of what life was like for a black person in the 1990s among social problems such as police brutality, prejudice and profiling.
Perhaps, all things considered, returning to the 1990s or the 1980s wouldn’t be so different from the way life is now; if you’ve watched the deaths of Eric Garner and others, results of police brutality, then maybe you could go back in time to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and suffer through being chased and threatened by white mobs for a chance to share some laughs alongside Will and Carlton.
The Honorable Mentions
Being the Jane Austen junky that I am, it’s only fair that I admit to having, on serval occasions, envisioned myself attending a classic English ball and following all the formalities of English society, but if Jim Crow and the second revival of the Klan were harbingers of terror for African Americans and not worth the glory of the decade, then a return to the 1800s, a time in history where it was legal to consider a human being property and treat them like cattle, just to feel like Jane or Elizabeth Bennett dancing with my Charles Bingley or Mr. Darcy is definitely out of the question. I’ll just stick to my imagination.