Black Like Me: Wanna Be An African-American?
by Jonah Raskin, June 21, 2017
Would you darken your complexion and walk in the shoes of a black man in America today? Probably not, especially with police shootings of unarmed black men, and not if you remember John Howard Griffin’s memoir, Black Like Me, in which the white author passes for an African-American and exposes racism, segregation and discrimination in the South. Still, it wasn’t that long ago that very cool white men wanted desperately to be black men. Sixty years ago, Dissent magazine published a 9,000-word essay by Norman Mailer that was in large part about white hipsters and white hoodlums who wanted to change their roots and their ethnicity.
Titled “The White Negro,” the 1957 essay pissed off New York intellectuals and Beat Generation writers. While Mailer didn’t originate the concept of the Caucasian who mimics African-Americans he coined the phrase “White Negro” and popularized it. In the 1950s and 1960s the essay served as a kind of Rorschach test that revealed the neurotic national state of mind. It’s a Mailer classic in part because the United States is still haunted by the “white Negro,” perhaps now more than ever before, when kids from suburbia want to sing, dance and be hip like the African Americans they see on YouTube.
The novelist, James Baldwin, published a personal essay in Esquire, about himself as “a black boy from the Harlem Streets” and Mailer as “a middle class Jew.” In Baldwin’s eyes, his street wisdom made him a more astute observer of African-American life than Mailer would ever be. He argued that for white men, black men were “walking phallic symbols.”
Many years after he published Mailer’s essay, Dissent’s editor, Irving Howe, explained that he “should have fought with him about that one passage” which he called “an endorsement of violence.” In that passage, Mailer noted that it took courage for a hoodlum to “beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper” because he “violates private property” and enters into a “dangerous” relationship with the police. The hoodlum was a rebel without a cause.
As the author of the brilliant 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead, Mailer was treated as a great American author and given a great deal of latitude to do and say almost anything he wanted to do and say. Still, literary critic Diana Trilling condemned Mailer’s “meshugas.” She noted that the passage about the murder of the candy-store owner “was bad writing because it was bad thinking because it was bad being.” Beat poet Allen Ginsberg who had just published Howl defended the essay and its author. A kind of “primitivist” with a fascination for jungles both real and metaphorical Ginsberg sailed to Africa in the late 1940s to find an African lover. He and Mailer shared a fascination with sex and blackness. Mailer’s essay, Ginsberg explained, “was the most intelligent statement I’d seen by any literary-critical person.” Kerouac argued that Mailer was “stealing his thunder.” In a letter to Ginsberg he exclaimed “Fuck Norman Mailer he’s trying to get in the act. Why wasn’t he a hipster when it counted.”
In Howl, Ginsberg wrote about “angle-headed hipsters” and about the quintessential “white Negro,” Neal Cassady, whom he refers to as “N.C.” and calls “the secret hero of these poems.” Cassady also appears in On the Road as Dean Moriarty, a car thief, a drug dealer, and a hoodlum who is attracted to African-Americans, especially African-American women, and to African-American music, specifically the blues and bebop. He cares about sex, jazz and, more than anything else, moving quickly from coast to coast. His companion, Sal Paradise, the narrator and a stand-in for Kerouac is also a “white Negro,” though he’s a gentler, kinder version of the type than Dean Moriarty.
In a crucial passage in On the Road — which James Baldwin, found laughable — Paradise wanders through “Denver’s colored section” and wishes he “were a Negro.” Kerouac knew about segregation and discrimination, but he refused to see African Americans as victims of a racist society. In his eyes they turned their bondage into creativity and invented jazz and the blues.
Kerouac would have been the perfect candidate to write an essay about “the white Negro.” He not only observed the type and wrote about him in fiction, he also lived the life of “a white Negro,” or at least imagined that he did. In his journal from 1949 he wrote, “I walked on Welton Street wishing I was a ‘nigger’ because I saw that the best the white world had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.” Kerouac thought that by affiliating with African-Americans he might find the freedom he needed to write like saxophonist Charlie Parker.
As the descendant of French-Canadian working class parents in New England, Kerouac experienced a profound sense of inferiority. “There is something so horribly French-Canadian about my gaucheries,” he explained. He added a description of himself as “an Apache in a dim street waiting with a knife, and bored, and therefore vicious.” He asked himself “Who shall I kill tonight, what shall I destroy?”
Kerouac never killed anyone, though he was an accessory to manslaughter. In 1944, he helped his upper middle class, St Louis friend, Lucien Carr, after Carr stabbed David Kammerer. Kerouac helped Carr dispose of the murder weapon. Then the two men went to the Museum of Modern Art. Later, Carr confessed. Kerouac was arrested and briefly jailed, an experience he wrote about in Vanity of Duluoz, published in 1968, the year before he died at 47.
After the publication of Mailer’s “The White Negro,” Ginsberg admitted that Lucien Carr had stabbed Kammerer to death and that William Burroughs shot and killed his wife. But he insisted that by the time that Mailer wrote his essay, the idea of being “psychotic” was “no longer of interest” to him and his pals. Indeed, when Howl was published in 1956 and On the Road appeared in print in 1957, Ginsberg and Kerouac had turned to Buddhism.
Still, despite the fact that they distanced themselves from juvenile delinquents and delinquency, there’s a thread of violence and an endorsement of the psychotic that runs through Howl and On the Road. Ginsberg eulogizes a generation looking for “an angry fix” and “destroyed by madness.” In On the Road, Kerouac celebrates “the mad ones” and the “con men” who steal cars and flirt with existential danger.
Not surprisingly, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, condemned the Beats in a 1958 essay that appeared in Partisan Review, titled “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Podhoretz wrote that, “the Beat Generation strikes me as the same spirit which animates the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amuck in the last few years with their switch-blades and zip guns.”
From Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beats, Podhoretz moved to Mailer and noted that his description of the “eighteen-year-old hoodlums who bash in the brains of a candy-store keeper” was “one of the most morally gruesome ideas I have ever come across.” Perhaps he had not read Richard Wrights’ Native Son, in which Bigger Thomas murders a white woman and burns her body, or Camus’s The Stranger, in which the main character, a Frenchman in Algeria, kills an Arab, and feels no remorse.
Kerouac and Ginsberg both defended the Beat Generation. In a 1958 essay entitled “Lamb, No Lion” Kerouac explained that “The Beat Generation is no hoodlumism” and that it was “the most sensitive generation in the history of America.”
Kerouac and Mailer had briefly shared common ground. As the 1950s moved into the 1960s, the gulf between the two men widened. Mailer allowed that Kerouac had a “large talent,” but he added that he “lacks discipline, intelligence, honesty and a sense of the novel.”
Kerouac lumped Mailer with “those Jews in New York.” Then he listed the names of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller. In the 1960s, his anti-Semitism became more pronounced. Ginsberg had been his closest friend in the 1940s. Now, he refused to see him or allow him to set foot in the house he shared with his mother.
Still, despite that break-up, the Beat Generation has gone viral. Kerouac’s On the Road and Ginsberg’s Howl were long ago recognized as classics of twentieth-century literature. “The White Negro” has also had a long after life, though feminists such as Kate Millet have criticized it. In Sexual Politics (1970), Millet noted that Mailer was “a prisoner of the virility cult” and that he regarded “the homosexual” as the “’nigger’ of love.” Would she use the “n” word today? Perhaps not!
Mailer included his controversial essay in Advertisements for Myself, a collection of fiction and non-fiction, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti published it as a City Lights pamphlet in 1957. The pamphlet spurred further interest in the “white Negro.” Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention sang a song with the lyrics, “I'm not black/But there's a whole lots a times/I wish I could say I'm not white.” Later, The Velvet Underground’s singer and lyricist, Lou Reed, offered an ironical take on the subject in a song titled, “I Wanna be Black.” “I want to be like Malcolm X/And cast a hex over President Kennedy's tomb,/And have a big prick, too,” Reed warbled.
Sixty years after its initial publication, “The White Negro” is worth reading or rereading, because it’s by Mailer, and also because it’s a crucial document in twentieth-century American intellectual and cultural history. “The White Negro” is perhaps the best example of the way that whites have treated African Americans as a blank page on which they could project their own fears. Isaac Goldberg noted in his 1930 book, Tin Pan Alley, “From the first, the white has been under some psychologic [sic] compulsion to mimic the Negro.” Indeed, the phenomenon of “the white Negro” goes back to the nineteenth-century minstrel shows when whites like Thomas Rice blackened their faces and then sang and danced before white audiences.
The abolitionist, author and escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, called blackface performers "the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens." Mark Twain, who had grown up in the Ante-Bellum South and who viewed slavery as a white boy, loved the minstrel acts. "If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity, I should have little use for opera," he said.
A century later, when Mailer tackled the thorny topic of whites imitating blacks, a generation of young men and women, some of them bohemians and beatniks, many of them Northerner, empathized with African-Americans and borrowed their idioms. Some went to the South to register black voters and were called “nigger lovers.” Others taught at freedom schools in Mississippi. Still others wore berets, shades and leotards and listened to jazz in Greenwich Village, North Beach and beatnik enclaves around the country.
Rereading “The White Negro” sixty years after it was first published can be a strange experience. At times one wants to agree with Baldwin who described it as “impenetrable.” But it can also seem very clear and contemporary, for example, when Mailer writes that, “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day.” Mailer added, “No Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not be visited him on his walk.”
Mailer seems to anticipate the 1960s when he predicts that 1950s “conformity” will soon be replaced by “hysteria, confusion and rebellion.” He also prefigures some of the philosophy of the New Left when he observes that, “individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State.”
Jean Malaquais, a Polish-born Jewish intellectual translated The Naked and the Dead into French, but he dismissed “The White Negro” as “hipster nonsense.” He also recognized that Mailer had the ability to “pick things out of the air and mark them with his own stamp.” Anyone who would recognize that “special talent of his,” as Malaquais called it, might read or reread “The White Negro.” Behind Mailer’s stance as a tough guy was the heart of a modern-day romantic in the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. All mankind had to be “liberated,” as African Americans were liberated from slavery, Mailer insisted. The “primitive” was preferable to “the civilized” and people were “more good than evil.”
Sixty years later, the notion of the “White Negro” hasn’t died. Pop music icon, Eninem, has been called “The New White Negro.” The white American compulsion to mimic black people has continued even in the age of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. Listen to Benjamin Hammond Haggerty, 33, who’s better known as Macklemore, and who grew up in Seattle watching African American musicians until he could mimic them. Or watch his video “Downtown” on YouTube where black men surround him as though their blackness might rub off and provided authenticity. “Got gas in the tank,/cash in the bank/And a bad little mama with her ass in my face,” he sings as though he’s a bad ass urban gangster.
As long as white middle class society feels moribund, and as long as racism exists, the white Negro will continue to morph and to be satirized by the likes of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed.
We might leave the last word to Mailer himself. In an interview for Mademoiselle magazine in 1961, he described the “white Negro” as “underprivileged” and “a true proletarian, a psychic proletarian.” He had the courage to say, “I betrayed my own by writing that piece. I advanced my career at the expense of my armies.”