Free, white and twenty one


Senior Member
I know "Free, White and 21" is the name of a movie produced in 1960s. However, the above words have been used in "1919" by John Dos Passos published in 1930s:
Time: 1919
Location: Paris
Eveline looked at herself in the mirror before she started dressing. She had shadows under her eyes and faint beginnings of crowsfeet. Chillier than the damp Paris room came the thought of growing old...
"How old are you, Paul?" she asked him when she came out of her bedroom all dressed, smiling, feeling that she was looking her best.
"Free, white and twenty one..."

Please tell me if those words have a diffrent story beyond their meaning.
  • Thanks a lot dear Panj
    I saw the link and noted that "Free, White and 21" had been quite an expression for itself well before Malcolm X.
    Could you please tell me where does it come from?
    Hello Karoba. I'd never come across this until this morning so can't be any help with its origins (or spread, or anything else) but it means to me something like I'm perfectly placed in life: I've been given the keys to the world, not only am I a member of the 'dominant' race and living in a country in which I can do anything, but I'm in possession of my full majority, making me even more privileged a creature. (Rather like W.A.S.P. but even more so!) Whether or not he's being ironic, I couldn't say.
    Hello Ewie
    I'm now pretty sure it's a very old expression dated back to those days that many rights, voting among them, were granted only to "Free, White" men over 21.
    Yes, Karoba, you understand it correctly. However, the expression (which also might be heard as "over 21") was also used by women.

    Imagine a dialogue between two women in 1937:
    Helen: I think that after work I will go into the bar next to my office and get a cocktail.
    Kay: How shocking! A woman going into a bar by herself -- how could you do such a thing!
    Helen: Why shouldn't I? I'm free, white, and over 21.

    The idea is that being unfree (imprisoned, enslaved, or fettered in some other way), a member of a non-white race, or being of an age that was less than that of legal majority might all validly disqualify someone from performing the proposed action, but since those disqualifications do not exist, one can do as one pleases. The expression was based on legalized racial discrimination in the United States; with the outlawing of such discrimination in the 1960's, the expression has faded from use.

    The answer given by Paul is, in these circumstances, clearly a flippant way of saying "21", with a suggestion that he is willing to use the benefits provided by his newly attained legal majority to the maximum.
    I've heard this a few times in 30s/40s films:

    Dames (1934) - Ruby Keeler - "I'm free, white, and 21. I love to dance AND I'm going to dance." - the same sense as the dialogue quoted by GreenWhiteBlue

    Star of Midnight (1935) - William Powell - a character offers advice that he thinks is probably going to be ignored - "You're free, white, and 21, you can do as you choose, but..."

    Kitty Foyle (1940) - Ginger Rogers - a man is closing down the magazine in which his girlfriend works, offers to continue paying the girlfriend her salary, and the girlfriend uses the expression while indicating that she's capable of looking after herself, thank you very much.

    [The quotes for Dames and Kitty Foyle can be found on their imdb pages, I don't have the rep to post their urls]

    It doesn't play well these days. It would be interesting to know how it played with audiences of those days - whether it was a stock phrase that they heard and understood as a whole without thinking too much about the "white" part, or actually about any of the parts.
    My mother, born in 1918, used this phrase fairly regularly to mean that she was free to do as she pleased and that there was nothing barring her from acting on her notion or whim. It was a stock phrase for her and her generation, I'm fairly sure. They never said one of the three without the other two. It was the equivalent of "I can do what I want; no one can tell me I can't." I would never say this phrase; I've always thought it was a particularly ugly reminder of the way our society used to work. I think for her it was a casual phrase that was not intended in any way to speak about others, only herself.
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    Like James, who is almost as old as I am :eek:, I know this phrase but it is in my passive vocabulary only. I find it a bit shocking, even though most people who use it probably don't have a subtext when they say it, and I would not use it myself.
    In the film Wings of the Navy (1939), there's another example of the phrase being used in a context where someone is being given unasked-for or patronising advice. In an equivalent context, someone these days might say something like "I'm old enough to make my own mistakes". An overprotective older brother was trying to persuade his younger brother not to take a dangerous course of action, and the latter said "I'm free, white, and twenty one, I'm gonna stay here whether you like it or not".
    Here is another context which to consider this phrase signifying self-reliance:
    my mom, who is black and born during the "Great Depression" told me, when asked by me whether she watched TCM (Turner Classic Movies; that tv channel had recently, early 1990s, shown up on the cable listings and was showing as its inaugural film Gone With the Wind), she does not like "old movies. Can't stand them."
    She then recounted how she and her girlfriends had stormed out of movie house after hearing the Ruby Keeler monologue, promising never to watch another film with her in it again. My mom and her friends loved, what she called, "dancing movies." Of course, she was again agitated when another film-dancer she really liked, Gin Rogers, made the same statement. Another one she and her friends boycotted: forever.
    Even though a performer is not the author the performer is the face of the words. The audience blamed the performer as though the words came directly from that person's being. Lots of people walk away from films thinking the person speaking is the originator, regardless its accuracy.
    I understood the words "free, white" spoken to persons still feeling the pangs of their relatives during slave-times are not going to be happy to hear those words.

    I know this is a comatose, if not dead, thread but I had to attempt to throw in a different context on the phrase so nonchalantly, if not exhuberantly, accepted by some members of the society during the time the words were initially presented to an audience.