Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dead White Negro

Norman Mailer died yesterday. I’m not going to pretend I’m all well-read and shit. But I do know that Norman Mailer coined the term “White Negro” in a famous 1957 essay of that title. So let’s discuss.

Mailer’s thesis was that black men created the style and language emulated by white men who wanted to define themselves as “hip.”

At the same time, Mailer argued that the essence of this black style was uncivilized... “primitive.”

Thank you, Norman, for that insight.

James Baldwin answered Mailer in a 1961 essay titled “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” (included in the book “Nobody Knows My Name”).

“[T]o be an American Negro male,” Baldwin wrote, is “to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others.”

Baldwin had met Mailer, and was charmed by him. And he didn’t confront Mailer about “The White Negro.”

“[T]he really ghastly thing about trying to convey to a white man the reality of the Negro experience has nothing whatever to do with the fact of color,” Baldwin explained, “but has to do with this man’s relationship to his own life. He will face in your life only what he is willing to face in his. ...

“And matters were not helped at all by the fact that the Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him.”

Oooh, snap!

To read “The White Negro” in its entirety, follow this link to Dissent magazine.

Here’s a little slice:
NORMAN MAILER: In such places as Greenwich Village, a menage-a-trois was completed – the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life.

If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.

Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible.

The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could.

Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.

For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, “I feel this, and now you do too.”

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.


susie said...

Was Norman Mailer hip?
I've never thought of him as one of the cool kids. He was more like the really smart, kind of angry kid that was a little scary.

The man had an incredible mastery of words and language - even if I don't always agree with what he's saying.

memomachine said...


There is something to be said for too much introspection.

As an aside the true symbol of the hip-cat for many Asians is Frank Sinatra.

Don't ask me why, it just is. My theory is that no Asian wedding can be complete without someone pretending to be Frank Sinatra while singing some of his songs. And don't ask me why this is true, but it often is.

*shrug* I think it's all about the different. People tend to ascribe, true or not, things to people who are different. That difference could be cultural, racial or what have you.

jena6 said...

Okay, now I feel I should have more Baldwin on my bookshelves.

I've never read Mailer. I asked someone if she had and she replied that she couldn't get into him, that his writing/persona was "dark." Then she mentioned his efforts to obtain parole for a convict named Jack Henry Abbott (who ended up killing someone after he was freed)and his fascination with convicted killer Gary Gilmore. (Remember his execution by firing squad?)

After hearing all this I should be curious about his writing, but I'm not.

Invisible Woman said...

I have read most of the books both of them have written, and as for Norman, he definitely had a way with words, and a definite facination for blacks, as I've always thought Baldwin had one for was probably love for both of them.

btw, love your post title!

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Thanks, IW. I envy you your well-read-ness. ;^)