The relationship between the counter cultural movements of the 1950s and 60s and their initial ideological role models, the African-Americans, is a much discussed and complicated one. Even though the Beats superficially admired the black ‘lifestyle’ and tried to adopt it for themselves, their understanding of it was guided by misinterpretation and superficiality at best, and ignorance and racism at worst. The Great Depression of the 30s and the Second World War had marked a breaking point for white American masculinity, and by extension white supremacy, and thus called for a reshaping and re-conquering thereof. Douglas Taylor explains the process by which this reformation was brought about with Herbert Marcuse’s term of the “bourgeoisification” of the American working class. This was made possible by the G.I. Bill, which had opened up new opportunities for veterans of various (western) ethnicities, who had been previously confined to the working class, to now enjoy university education. Thus, while the white ethnic man was busy with the establishment of a new middle class, according to Taylor, he projected all traits that had once been ascribed to himself but would now hinder his own upward mobility to the black and coloured population and to women of all colours – namely, for instance, “dirt, physicality, sexuality, labor, enthusiasm, and spontaneity” – thus further fuelling racism and misogyny. Simultaneously, however, a countercultural movement was forming among young intellectuals, who distanced themselves from the limitations of societal conventions and conformity and instead embraced a rebellious but apolitical lifestyle that celebrated exactly these aforementioned traits which had been projected onto African-Americans. Representing the opposite of what society considered proper, blackness, black culture and black masculinity became recurring motives in countercultural writing.
In his essay Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity Douglas Taylor investigates the intersection of race and sexuality in post World War II US-American society, pleading for an intersectionalist approach in all further studies of black masculinity and underscoring the mutuality of projections, fears and hatred on both ends of the colour spectrum. Due to the extensive research that has already been done by numerous scholars including Taylor, it seems unnecessary to analyse both Mailer’s essay and Baldwin’s response regarding the insight that both provide on the problematic meaning of race and masculinity in the context of the early countercultural movement any further. Therefore, in this essay I want to shift the focus away from the “sorely menaced sexuality of the Negroes” and turn instead to “the white man’s own sexual panic”, which Baldwin identifies as the cause for the Beats’ obsession with black masculinity. I want to argue that Mailer is indeed not much of a Hipster at all – he is merely mimicking one – and that his fascination with black masculinity may have its origins in a different place, namely an anxiety rooted in his Jewishness. In order to do so, I shall explore the relationship between Norman Mailer and James Baldwin as the epitomisation of the ambivalent relationship between Beats and Afro-Americans, which oscillates between cultural appropriation on the side of the Beats, and a subversion of Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of ‘mimicry’, which is conventionally discussed in a postcolonial context, on the side of Norman Mailer in particular, who may have been trying to adopt a ‘hip’ lifestyle in order to escape his own racial confinement as a Jew.
In his Black Skins, White Masks, Franz Fanon elaborates on the artificiality of the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’, which – in themselves – do not hold a lot of meaning, but instead have been inscribed with meaning within the racial discourse. For the longest time, however, it has been the privilege of the white man to construct these racial differences within and by the means of the racial discourse. Throughout the centuries, the word ‘black’ has been ascribed mostly with negative terms and has thus led to the association of blackness with negativity. This formation of meaning works primarily through the use of “a galaxy of erosive stereotypes”, a number of which Fanon recalls as follows: “The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly.” Although the stereotypes which post World War II U.S.-American society attaches to Afro-Americans may be slightly more detailed and facetted than the abovementioned examples, they still are all but positive. While the Beat Generation – as it is represented by Mailer and most famously by Jack Kerouac – did not produce positive stereotypes to replace the antiquated, negative ones, they now attached positive connotations to them. ‘Dirt’ began standing for a down-to-earth life, ‘physicality’ for strength, ‘sexuality’ for masculinity and purity, ‘labor’ for self-sufficiency, ‘enthusiasm and spontaneity’ for freedom.
In his essay The White Negro, Norman Mailer claims that “[t]he hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.” He bases this thesis upon the equalisation of the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, and the “psychic havoc” that these had wreaked especially on the minds of young Americans, with the aftermath of slavery – the hatred, degradation, unfair and violent treatment – which Afro-Americans had and still have to deal with every day. According to Mailer, the young existentialist freely accepts looming danger as his constant companion, just like the Afro-American is forced to, and thus chooses to adopt the Afro-American as his role-model, who “kept for his survival the art of the primitive”. Once more, the same old stereotype of ‘black’ as a signifier for primitivism is evoked. However, from the perspective of a Hipster, Mailer interprets it in a positive way, namely a celebration of purity and life:
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.
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In this context, Taylor legitimately remarks on the irony of Mailer, a white man, the source of the danger which Afro-Americans find themselves threatened by, now romanticising and appropriating this same danger for himself. No matter how enthusiastically Mailer makes these assumptions and shapes his interpretation of a black lifestyle, he still is a white man determining the black man from without. The fact that he chooses to depart from past interpretations, or to at least twist these in a way, only reveals the objecthood of black individuals in the white gaze, and how black identity, as if it were made of clay, could be shaped by white hands according to their own choosing. This idea of objecthood is one of the main themes of the fifth chapter of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, ‘The Fact of Blackness’, in which he concludes that within this narrow framework of binary oppositions and stereotypes constructed by white discourse, there is no chance for the black object to participate in the discourse that defines them as an ‘other’:
And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away slices of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel, I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genus. Why, it’s a Negro!
Fanon has painted a bleak image of the white, racializing discourse which continues to define and confine black subjects, and it echoes in Baldwin’s writing as well. In his essay The Black Boy looks at the White Boy, Baldwin’s response to Mailer’s White Negro, he reclaims his subjecthood; first of all, by participating in the racial discourse and voicing his own opinion on Mailer’s subject matter, and in doing so, secondly, by turning the tables and assuming the subject position, from where he defines and objectifies Mailer instead. He clearly identifies him as a fraud, a wannabe-Hipster, who then in turn would only be a wannabe black man, as opposed to Baldwin, who is a black man and thus exceeds Mailer in both authenticity and knowledge of the field in which Mailer so helplessly tries to hold his ground. As Taylor explains, because of his position in society as a renowned, white writer, “Mailer has the power to dominate and control; Baldwin, the power to unmask.”
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In the process of unmasking Mailer, he goes directly for the roots of his ideas, for Jack Kerouac, the “King of the Beats”, whose writing he recognises as echoing in Mailer’s text and which he sovereignly dismisses as “absolute nonsense, of course, objectively considered, and offensive nonsense at that: I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.” He thus continues ridiculing Mailer, stripping away every last bit of his claimed authenticity and effectively disqualifying him. He recalls the times that he and Norman had spent together, as friends, sometimes surrounded by Afro-American jazz musicians, who Mailer in his essay identifies as the hipsters’ “cultural mentors”, and who “did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely “hip” and Norman did not know this”, instead, “[t]hey thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” Here, he uses Mailer’s own terms in order to expose not only his lack of authenticity, but also his sexual insecurity. Responding to Mailer’s fetishisation of African-American masculinity, he asserts that “to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others. The relationship, therefore, of a black boy to a white boy is a very complex thing.” A complex thing it is indeed, especially if the white boy is not only white, but also a Jew, which is exactly where Baldwin pinpoints him in opposition to himself: “I am a black boy from the Harlem streets, and Norman is a middle-class Jew.”
Fanon acknowledges similarities between the discrimination and harassment of Jews and that of people of African descent, but even more so makes a very clear distinction between the two, for “the Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness. […] His actions, his behaviour are the final determinant. He is a white man, and […] he can sometimes go unnoticed.” He even goes as far as to dismiss the Holocaust as mere “family quarrels”, because the Jew’s skin is still undeniably white and thus he belongs to the dominant race. Fanon bases his whole argument on outward appearance, because it is the black “uniform” that can never be taken off and inevitably signifies the hateful stereotypes it has been imbued with, which ultimately enslaves black individuals to racism. However, this superficial approach does not suffice in an analysis of the complex similarities and differences in the experiences of both Jews and Afro-Americans, and an argument based on the trivialisation of the Holocaust can hardly be compelling. Nevertheless, Fanon’s elaborations provide valuable insight into a black writer’s perspective on such issues and illustrate just how difficult it is to compare these two fundamentally different experiences of racial persecution with one another.
Going back to Mailer’s White Negro, it indeed pays off to analyse his perspective not as a white one, but as a White-Jewish point of view, which is, albeit the colour of his skin, a perspective from the margins of white society. In the very beginning of his essay, he evokes images of Jewish suffering by mentioning “the tens of millions […] killed in concentration camps” and the fear of “a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber”, which are then followed by a screaming silence regarding this subject matter, and instead replaced by an idealisation and desire of black masculinity. In her essay The (Jewish) White Negro – Norman Mailer’s Racial Bodies, Andrea Levine argues that Mailer’s “fetishization of an aggressive African American response to a history of persecution is in part an effort to obscure the image of the cowed, impotent Jew, going meekly to the gas chamber.” Emphasising the central role of gender in the shaping of Jewish identities, she asserts that Mailer’s obsession with African American masculinity derives from his anxiety to be labelled feminine and weak, a stereotype which has been well established in Western discourses, depriving male Jews of their sense of masculinity. In this context, Baldwin’s assertions on the white man’s sexual insecurity take on even more weight.
Mailer’s wish to distance himself from his own racial classification and its implications of femininity becomes even more pronounced when one takes a look into his short essay Hipster and Beatnik: A Footnote to the White Negro, where he makes a distinction between “the white Negro” and the “crippled saint”, attaching physicality and violence to the former and mindfulness and impotency to the latter. He identifies the Beatnik as “often Jewish”, the addition ‘-nik’ originating in Yiddish and being a pejorative diminutive. He further elaborates on the Beatnik’s compromised masculinity, saying that even though – just like the Hipster – he believes in the orgasm as the one true joy and value in life, “he has less body to work with in the first place, and so his chances for lifting himself by his sexual bootstraps are commonly nil”. What Mailer implies is that ultimately, in a fairly immature contest amongst males, the Hipster will emerge as the one to declare ‘mine’s bigger.’ Thus, Mailer’s identification with the Hipster and his desire for a violent, black masculinity must be considered within the context of his debasement of the Beatnik’s and the Jew’s masculinity. He tries to escape the same feminising labels that he himself so readily attaches to ‘others’, who are in fact not so different from himself.
As Homi K. Bhabha explains in the colonial context, colonised individuals challenge the colonial order and the cultural stereotypes on which it is built by appropriating the colonisers’ culture. To an imperial system that is justified by a hierarchy established upon binary oppositions, resemblance is a threat. That is why Bhabha considers mimicry, used in an ironic manner, to be “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.” The Hipsters’ fetishisation of what they considered to be Afro-American culture is by no means mimicry in this sense, but cultural appropriation. However, it represents a chance for Mailer to fit in, by trying to replace his own ‘otherness’ with the deliberate appropriation of an even more stigmatised form of ‘otherness.’ In a sense, his attempt to identify himself with the non-Jewish Hipster instead of the feminised Beatnik or even – to say it with Baldwin’s words – a mere “middle-class Jew”, he mimics a culture which in itself only mimics another culture, and he ends up being “almost the same but not quite” in more than one sense. Neither can a Hipster ever live an Afro-American lifestyle, not only because they simply are not African American, but also because their idea of it is contorted by stereotypes, privilege and ignorance; nor is Mailer really a Hipster, if one can rely on Baldwin’s assessment. This becomes most evident in Mailer’s obsession with power, which is not only expressed in his desire for a violent masculinity, but also in his private conversations with Baldwin – “‘I want to know how power works’, Norman once said to me [Baldwin], ‘how it really works in detail’” – and Mailer’s later, unsuccessful run for the Mayor’s office in New York, which contradicts all his elaborations on the apolitical, rebellious and careless Hipster.
While the fetishisation of black masculinity is, as Baldwin has already pointed out, a symptom of the white man’s own sexual insecurities, these insecurities reach a new level of complexity in the particular case of Norman Mailer. By mimicking Hipsters, who deliberately marginalise themselves by appropriating parts of the Afro-American culture, without ever being in the same danger that African Americans find themselves in merely due to their skin colour, Mailer finds a way of disposing of his own, hereditary racial marker by replacing it with a self-constructed one.
 Cf. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).
 Taylor, Douglas: Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity. In: Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 1 April 2010, Vol.52(1), 72.
 Baldwin, James: The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy. In: James Baldwin. Collected Essays. New York: Literary Classics of the United States 1998, 278.
 Fanon, Frantz: Black Skins, White Masks. London: Pluto Press 2008, 99. (French original first published in 1952, English translation first published in 1967)
 Ibid., 86.
 Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro. Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Dissent Magazine. (Fall 1957), 279.
 Ibid., 267.
 Ibid., 279.
 Taylor, 76.
 Fanon, 87.
 Taylor, 80.
 Glair, Christopher: The Beat Generation. A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008, 77.
 Baldwin, 278.
 Mailer, 285.
 Baldwin, 272.
 Ibid., 269f.
 Ibid., 269.
 Fanon, 87.
 Ibid., 86.
 Mailer, 277.
 Levine, Andrea: The (Jewish) White Negro. Norman Mailer’s Racial Bodies, in: MELUS, Volume 28, issue 2, 1 June 2003, 61.
 Mailer, Norman: Hipster and Beatnik. A Footnote to ‘The white Negro.’ In: Advertisements for Myself. London: Andre Deutsch 1961, 318.
 Ibid., 316.
 Ibid., 315.
 Ibid., 316.
 Bhabha, Homi K.: The Location of Culture. London and New York: Roudledge 2004, 122.
 Baldwin, 269.
 Bhabha, 122.
 Baldwin, 279.
Baldwin, James: The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy. In: James Baldwin. Collected Essays. New York: Literary Classics of the United States 1998, 269-285.
Bhabha, Homi K.: The Location of Culture. London and New York: Roudledge 2004.
Fanon, Frantz: Black Skins, White Masks. London: Pluto Press 2008.
Glair, Christopher: The Beat Generation. A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008.
Levine, Andrea: The (Jewish) White Negro. Norman Mailer’s Racial Bodies, in: MELUS, Volume 28, issue 2, 1 June 2003, 59-81.
Mailer, Norman: Hipster and Beatnik. A Footnote to ‘The white Negro.’ In: Advertisements for Myself. London: Andre Deutsch 1961, 315-318.
—. “The White Negro. Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” In: Dissent, 3, Fall 1957, 276-293.
Taylor, Douglas: Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity. In: Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 1 April 2010, Vol.52(1), 70-101.