The 'White Negro' Hall of Fame Needs a New Wing for Rachel Dolezal

For better and worse, fluid racial identity has long been part of hipster culture


Photo: YouTube screen capture

Let's welcome Rachel Dolezal to the "White Negro" Hall of Fame, a place named in honor of Norman Mailer's seminal 1957 essay about race identity and the world of hipsters. We'll do a quick sprint through the exhibits, checking out some musicians, writers, and of course its founding theorist.  As you'll see, this Hall of Fame is really a labyrinth, and Ms. Dolezal's unexpected induction could require the place to build her a wing of her own.  

But first, meet Milton Mezzrow. Jewish kid. Born in Chicago at the turn of the last century. Jazz music blew him away, and he grew up to become Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet player and black guy. He's remembered in the jazz world less for his playing than he is for helping better musicians by underwriting their studio time. He eventually founded King Jazz Records, where he played with the likes of Fats Waller. He was also notorious as a dealer of high-quality marijuana. "Muggles," it was called back then. It soon came to called "Mezz," after him. "Light up," went his pitch, "and be somebody."

In 1947, Mezzrow published an autobiography, Really the Blues. From his first encounter with jazz, he writes, he knew he "was going to be a Negro musician, hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can." As you can hear, Mezzrow addressed the world as a hipster, the necessary voice of the white Negro.

Mezzrow describes the arrival of jazz on New York's Lower East Side: A burlesque house started playing jazz records in the lobby with the doors open; the blocks within earshot were soon filled with bearded immigrant Jews in skullcaps rubbing their hands with pleasure. They may have been surprised to hear Eastern melancholy translated into an American idiom, or maybe the jump numbers reminded them of klezmer. "I got my kicks from the way the Lower East Side took the colored man's music to its heart," writes Mezzrow. Critic John Leland was to write in 2004 that Mezzrow's scene embodied Hip's essence: "The knowledge of connection even in the context of separation."

Mezzrow married a black woman. Lived in Harlem. When he was sent to jail for dealing drugs, he managed to persuade the prison authorities that he was black, and should get a cell among the other black prisoners. "I'm colored, even if I don't look it," he told them. Housing him with white inmates could be dangerous, and anyway, he had a lot of friends among the black prisoners. His jailors went along with it, making Mezzrow the prison band leader.

(Mezzrow's co-author on Really the Blues is worth an aside: Bernard Wolfe, formerly Trotsky's secretary during the Mexican exile. After Trotsky's murder, Wolfe learned to write professionally, he claimed, by pounding out pornographic novels on a monthly schedule catering to the tastes of a single patron, an Oklahoma oil millionaire. Wolfe later wrote one of the oddest of all dystopias, Limbo, a vision of—among many other things—cybernetics and masochistic self-amputation.)

Now, meet Ioannes Veliotes. Greek-American kid from California. Became Johnny Otis, the "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues." He once told an interviewer that, "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black."

Otis lived "black" in many roles, including his personal life, but also as a musician, composer, band leader, record producer, dee-jay, impresario, artist, and lots more, including, toward the end, that of preacher. Most people now know him only as a one-hit wonder for his 1958 record, Willie and the Hand Jive. (Here it is featuring Otis and a trio of zaftig black ladies called Three Tons of Joy. Otis spent decades denying that he borrowed the beat from Bo Diddley, and sometimes reminding people what Bo Diddley himself owed to the 1952 record, Hambone.) Otis actually had a long string of hits on the "race music" charts in the pre-Alan Freed era, before black music crossed over to a white mass audience. In those days he worked clubs and theaters with black orchestras; at the close of the big-band era, he played an important part in the development of small-band R&B.

In the early 1950s he formed The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan, a travelling set of black acts that provided the first big breaks for an astonishing array of now-legendary performers: Little Esther Phillips, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, The Robins, Little Willie John, Lady Dee Williams, and more. An unknown Little Richard sang with his band. One of his discoveries was Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton.

Of course, Big Mama Thornton may be most famous for having Elvis Presley in her debt, and for being part of a long debate over race and cultural markets. In fact, both Thornton and Presley owe Johnny Otis. "Hound Dog," the 1956 record that solidified Presley's place in the culture, had been an R&B hit for Thornton in 1952. But it was Otis who had invited a pair of teenage song writers named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to his house to meet Thornton, and to encourage them to write material for her: That's how they came up with "Hound Dog." Now, Elvis, and Janis Joplin, and plenty of others have sometimes been accused of cultural theft, of cashing in on glory that justly belonged to Thornton and black artists like her, and of erasing them culturally. But even if one considers Thornton's "Hound Dog" to be the better, more "authentic" version, in terms of the race angle this story gets pretty complicated, featuring a pair of Jewish writers and a Greek black guy at its center.

Indeed, the whole issue of race and aspiration in American pop culture is filled with complicating surprises. That's why this Hall of Fame is such a labyrinth. Take, as one example, Marvin Gaye. Until he signed with Motown, Gaye hoped to sing standards, and his role models were all Italian-Americans: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and, in Gaye's own words, "especially Perry Como." Yes, Perry Como. "Perry had a great attitude," Gaye told biographer David Ritz. "When I finally got some money together over at Motown in the sixties, I used to sport Perry Como's sweaters. I always felt like my personality and Perry's had a lot in common."

Surely the most famous credo of 'White Negro' yearning belongs to Beat master Jack Kerouac. In On the Road (1957), he wrote, "At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy , kicks, darkness, music, not enough night…. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a "white man" disillusioned…. I was only myself… sad strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could change worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America…."

Kerouac's prestige has survived this passage, because what most white readers have usually chosen to hear is less the racial condescension than the personal disillusion. Yet Kerouac was speaking here with only one of his available voices: He had a dimension of exotic outsiderness of his own to draw on. Rather than being a source of happy true-heartedness, however, it may have been a problem, one he never resolved.

Kerouac had French-Canadian roots, and though he was born in Lowell, Mass., he started out deep in a world of immigrant Quebecker and didn't start speaking English until he was six. (In fact, he once thought his life's work would be to chronicle this group.) This was a world of joual, a French dialect that was to become a point of pride to later Quebec separatists, but which in Kerouac's lifetime was more a mark of working-class origins. A snobbish Parisian-French speaker strolling through Lowell on a lilac evening of his own might have perceived the Kerouac family in terms like those Kerouac used to evoke Denver's ethnics. (Kerouac would later spend ten days drinking his way through Paris, ostensibly in search of his roots, and being perceived in ways he didn't always like.)

Some students of Kerouac, and at least one author who knew him intimately, believe that he was "haunted" throughout his life by his double identity. "For Jack, whose attachment to his heritage was as strong as it was anguished," writes Joyce Johnson in her 2012 memoir, The Voice is All, "the process of becoming American would never be completed, and it would prove to be particularly wrenching." (You can watch an ill-at-ease,  joual-speaking Kerouac in this interview.)

Kerouac's hidden demons notwithstanding, his famous passage of muscle-aching white disillusion stands as a pretty good example of the theory of white negritude as laid out by Norman Mailer. Mailer published "The White Negro," his 9000-word essay on hipsters, in 1957 in Dissent; it later appeared as a free-standing pamphlet from the Beat publisher, City Lights, and is included in his egomaniacal 1959 collection, Advertisements for Myself.  The essay was a essential piece of sixties counter-culture, and remained core reading for decades among adherents of the (overwhelmingly white) New Left.

For Mailer, the White Negro is "the American existentialist," reacting to the imminent threat of atomic annihilation, and breaking free from the deadening conformity of the Squares' world and "the totalitarian tissues of American life." In places like Greenwich Village, he goes on, "the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life." A given hipster somehow "absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro."

As for the actual flesh-and-blood Negro, he's unable to "saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him," and thus has "kept for his survival the art of the primitive…relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body." This "black man's code" is now also the code of the white Negro, just as the black man's language is the language of the white hipster.

Mailer explores a lot of territory in the course of his argument, but his exaltation of the black man as a noble primitive is, of course, the original sin of this whole line of thinking. It's one thing to be hip, but if in the process you are depriving your model of the "pleasures of the mind," and limiting him to the "pleasures of the body," then you're piling one form of dehumanization on top of another.

James Baldwin, the era's leading black novelist, was appalled that "so antique a vision of the blacks should, at this late hour, and in so many borrowed heirlooms, be stepping off the A train."  He wondered "why should it be necessary to borrow the Depression language of deprived Negroes, which eventually evolved into jive and bop talk, in order to justify such a grim system of delusions? Why malign the sorely menaced sexuality of Negroes in order to justify the white man's own sexual panic?"

Mind you, Baldwin was a friend of Mailer's, and admired his work (or says he did). They saw a lot of each other when they were both in Paris in the 1950s, sometimes in the company of Baldwin's black jazz musician friends. Baldwin lets on in his 1961 Esquire essay about Mailer, "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," that none of these jazz players regarded Mailer as remotely hip. "They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic."

Anyway, that's an overview of our edifice, the Hall of Fame as Mezzrow, Kerouac, Mailer and others have built it (and as Iggy Azalea and others are still building it).  Where should we install Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who engaged in a lengthy racial masquerade and rose to become head of a Spokane NAACP chapter? Actually, there's nowhere to put her, because Rachel Dolezal has done something that no one else seems to have done before. Mailer's White Negro was a meld of the bohemian, the juvenile delinquent, and the Negro (as Mailer imagined him); Rachel Dolezal masqueraded not as a noble primitive, but as a member of the black bourgeoisie. She needs a wing of her own.

Dolezal's act was built not merely on tinting her skin and kinking her hair, but on being a black studies academic as well as an NAACP leader. Add in the misleading photographs of a prosperous black family that Dolezal posted, and it's almost as if she'd stepped out of a 1950s back issue of Ebony, the monthly that focused on black accomplishment. In the 1950s heyday of white negritude, however, the black bourgeoisie weren't always perceived as hip; some people thought they were the negation of hip. E. Franklin Frazier, the most influential black sociologist of the last century, thought they "lived in a world of make-believe." As he wrote angrily in his 1957 study of the group, "The masks which they wear to play their sorry roles conceal the feelings of inferiority and of insecurity and the frustrations that haunt their inner lives."

So was Dolezal wearing a mask to be part of a group that was itself already masked? Hardly. A lot has happened since Frazier dipped his pen in sociological venom. Among them is a significant growth of the black middle- and upper-middle classes, including in highly visible areas of "hip" commerce: Successful black designers and authors and business executives and TV hosts and political office-holders, not to mention athletes and music-industry figures, have continued to increase the standing of this group. The contemporary black bourgeoisie certainly is not in need of the embrace of any Rachel Dolezals, any more than black hipsters were ever in need of white imitators. But looked at from the world shared by Norman Mailer and E. Franklin Frazier, Dolezal's masquerade could be counted as a perverse recognition of the group's glamour and its attraction to people are aren't members.

Writing in the post-hipster year of 2004, critic John Leland argued that, "The misconception of the white negro is that he wants to be black." The true hipster doesn't want to reach the other side of the racial divide, thinks Leland, so much as he wants to keep moving. "He's in it for the ride, most himself when he is in the middle." What he wants most of all, argues Leland, "is to be both black and white: to be free of the fallacy … that he need be one thing or the other."

What of those who do cross? The least successful, like Dolezal, whose attempt ended in scandal, seem to end up mired more deeply in race than ever. But maybe the most successful of them—Johnny Otis is probably an example—end up leaving race behind altogether. That's being free of the fallacy, too.