Norman Mailer’s ‘White Negro’ gets the treatment

Action speaks!
By IAN DONNIS  |  October 15, 2008

Long before suburban kids began digging Dr. Dre and Tupac, an earlier generation of young white people venerated the jazz and swing music of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. This cultural crossover helped inspire “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections On the Hipster,” an essay published by Norman Mailer in Dissent in 1957, not to mention the subsequent hipster, beatnik, and mod movements.

With a focus this year on race in American society, Action Speaks! — the provocative annual discussion series at AS220 (115 Empire Street, Providence) — will use Mailer’s “White Negro” to discuss how marginalized cultures become models for those alienated from the culture at large, and how black culture has been stereotyped and altered in the service of others. The discussion (see will take place Wednesday, October 22, from 5:30 to 7 pm.

Via e-mail, we spoke in advance with one of the panelists, Greg Tate, a longtime Village Voice journalist and the author of Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (Harlem Moon, 2003).

To take a cue from Action Speaks!, are race and ethnicity a dance that anyone can learn?
I believe anyone can learn to perform a stereotype — to boldly and baldly and even badly impersonate the racial and ethnic Other as it were, for fun and for profit. This we see everyday, and our entertainment marketplace encourages and rewards those performances. Not surprising, since the American entertainment industry history has such deep roots in minstrelsy, especially cinema when one considers The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer, which both furthered film technique and racism in the same “blacking-up” breath.
How has the embrace of rap and hip-hop by so many young white people impacted race relations in America?
Since white Americans and black Americans still largely live segregated lives in segregated communities, and largely attend segregated schools and universities, and work in segregated workplaces, I’d say hip-hop’s impact on American race relations — outside of small racially adventurous cultural pockets — has been pretty negligible. That there is marginally greater social exchange between blacks and whites in America now than in the 1950s should largely be attributed to the civil-rights movement than to hip-hop. A few million white kids grooving to a Tupac CD doesn’t remake the racial landscape or upset the racial balance of power.

What are some of the top lessons that Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” holds for us today?
The writer Ntozake Shange once observed that black people are the subconscious of America — the place where the culture’s deepest fears, hopes, and desires are formed and reside. Mailer’s recently published correspondence makes it clear that he hoped and desired the black movement of the ’60s would politically save America from what he feared was a quickening drift towards totalitarianism, conformity, and repression. The success of the Obama campaign across the racial divide may represent a similar desire to see bold black political advances re-ignite and re-energize America’s commitment to democratic progress.

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