The White Negro

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vanilla icecream by benjamin douglass

The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’ is a 9,000 word essay by Norman Mailer that recorded a number of young white people in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s who liked jazz and swing music so much that they adopted black culture as their own.

It was first published in the Summer 1957 issue of ‘Dissent,’ before being published separately by ‘City Lights.’ The so-called white negroes adopted black clothing styles, black jive language, and black music. They mainly associated with black people, distancing themselves from white society.

One of the early figures in the white negro phenomenon was jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, an American Jew born in 1899 who had declared himself a ‘voluntary negro’ by the 1920s. This movement influenced the hipsters of the 1940s and the beats of the 1950s. In the essay, Mailer christens the hipster as a psychopath. Disillusioned by the systematic violence of the two world wars, the hipster nihilistically seeks meaning in his life through immediate gratification, especially in the realm of sex. In the rejection of the conformism wrought by industrial society, the hipster valorizes individual acts of violence as infinitely preferable to systematic violence. Mailer draws a distinction, however, between the psychopath, who is able to discharge his frustration with society’s stagnant prejudices in spontaneous acts of violent rebellion, and the psychotic, who is not. The psychotic is legally insane; the psychopath is not.

One of the definitive characteristics of the hipster is their language, adopted in large part from the African-American vernacular. Their vocabulary is semantically so flexible that a single word, such as ‘dig,’ can mean hundreds of things depending upon everything from context to tone and rhythm. According to Mailer, being so disenfranchised by mainstream American society, the African-American views everyday life in the terms of war, which the hipster adopts as his model for the rejection of conformity.

Although the essay considers a subcultural phenomenon, it represents a localized synthesis of Marx and Freud, and thus presages the New Left movement and the birth of the counterculture in the United States. Probably the most prominent academic exponent of the New Left in the US was Herbert Marcuse. The essay is also very prescient because it anticipates the pejorative use of the word wigger in contemporary society to refer to white people who emulate the manner of speech, the fashion styles, or other aspects of the expressive culture of African Americans.

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