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."
Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.
Images from MGM, the Chicago Defender, the New York Times, American International Pictures. Video by Andrew Heisel