Race-The Dream and the Nightmare
Deep in the mind of America, if not actually below, at least at the lowest level of consciousness, there exist side by side a dream and a nightmare of race relations; and the two together constitute a legend of the American frontier, of the West (when the second race is the Indian), or of the South (when the second race is the Negro). In either case, it is the legend of a Lost Eden, or in more secular terms, of a decline from a Golden Age to an Age of Iron—as America moves from the time of the trapper to that of the settler, from the era of the great plantations to the days of Reconstruction. What makes the Golden Age golden is, in the case of the Indian, an imagined state of peace between white man and red man, transplanted European and aboriginal at home; love, innocence, a kind of religious, even other-worldly calm preside over this peace. And what makes the Iron Age iron is a state of war between redskin natives and paleface invaders; a burden of hatred and guilt, a history of scalpings and counter-scalpings, revenges and counter-revenges make this war ultimate hell.
For a long time, indeed, it seemed not only a peculiarly but an exclusively American nightmare; for though the history of every nation may be, as Joyce suggests, a bad dream from which it cannot awake, each has its own night-time fantasies, as each has its own fate. With the rise of the dark-skinned people everywhere, however, a peculiar white American experience (shared, up to now, perhaps, only by white South Africans) may become the common experience of all the whites of the world. I am talking about our sense of acting out our national destiny in the presence of witnesses, involved in that destiny (through fear and hate, we know; through love as well, we hope) by virtue of their color, but by the same token detached from it. It is this special experience which has bred our special nightmare, as well as our special dream.
This situation is not a creation of Americans, but a pre-condition of their existence as Americans: a heritage from the Europeans who settled on our continent before America itself was invented. With the darker races, white Americans have, of course, inevitably mixed, mingled, even mated, in friendship and in furtive lust; but they have not assimilated to them. The three races remain distinguishable in America today—though there are few Indians and perhaps even fewer Negroes without some admixture of white blood, and though culturally (even psychologically, as we shall see) differences once quite real begin to blur and disappear. Indeed, the distinction seems to become for most white men and some colored ones, too, more and more psychically important to maintain, as it becomes more and more difficult to do so. At any rate, the majority of white Americans at the moment seem unwilling to surrender a distinction it pains them to maintain. What satisfaction would it be, in any case, to reach a time when lines between colored and white can no longer be drawn, if there are no colored people around to applaud it—as there have always been colored people to suffer under and deplore discrimination?
To the two darker races, with whom he must in many places live, the white American is, then, bound by bonds of guilt, older than his national identity itself; and of those bonds he and those races are both aware. The white man knows his guilts have long been mitigated by law and statute as well as by kindness and love; but they will not disappear, cannot, he suspects, short of the moment of total assimilation which he rejects for reasons he does not ever clearly understand. And when he has persuaded himself that somehow they do not matter, he sees in the eye of the Negro or Indian watching him (or fancies he sees, it scarcely matters) evidence that they do. The intelligent white man’s burden of guilt consists not merely in knowing himself an oppressor but in knowing the oppressed know this, too.
Indeed, in our latter-day, liberal world the weight of reflexive guilt has become greater than that of direct guilt (and it is to this that a recent writer like James Baldwin has learned to appeal). We are aware that the Negro is aware of his long sexual and economic exploitation; we are aware that the Indian is aware of his expropriation and the disruption of his communal life. And it is their awareness from which we have now come to flinch. For we know even the most rapid advance of reform and amelioration in race relations cannot change it; as long as the Negro remains a Negro, the Indian an Indian, a part of his self-consciousness must be the consciousness of our offenses against him. And so long as we are able to recognize him as something distinctly other from us, we are convinced he must feel himself an other, too. But without a hatred equal to our guilt he would not know himself for what he is—i.e., what we have made him.
This is why we have long not merely dreamed a dream and a nightmare, but dreamed that the colored man dreamed them, too. We long for an accounting which we pray we may be spared, and need somehow to believe the oppressed peoples among us long for it, too. If only they dreamed it, perhaps that would be enough; or if, alternately, they dreamed with us figures of forgiveness like Harriet Beecher’s Uncle Tom. If only in fantasy we were united, no matter whether in fantasy of reconciliation or revenge, then we could forgive ourselves. But we do not forgive ourselves. And, indeed, it is hard to know which comes first in the logic of the psyche, which on that level is the cause of which: our not forgiving ourselves, or our not being able quite to imagine the dark-skinned people we oppress forgiving us.
Our greatest literature has always understood what we are just beginning to come to terms with in the realm of social action: that white Americans have from the first hopelessly confused the real Negroes and Indians—with whom they must, for the sake of social survival and civil peace, learn to live—with certain projections of their own deepest minds, aspects of their own psychic life with which precisely they find it impossible to live. Here is the deepest sense in which the oppressor suffers equally with the oppressed, enslaves himself along with those who are his slaves. But to understand it adequately we must be willing to risk a detour (from which some have never returned) into the no-man’s-land between politics and psychology.
What we customarily call “oppressed minorities” (and the same is true when the oppressed are, in fact, majorities) are exploited not only economically and politically, but also psychologically; though this latter fact is less noticed in election speeches, newspaper editorials, or even serious analyses of class and race relations, whether pro or con. Oppressors, that is to say, project upon the oppressed certain of their own psychic dilemmas, elements of their own mental life of which they are ashamed, or toward which they are deeply ambivalent. And such projection, it is worth noting, does not work both ways—only from the more favored group to the less favored one; from, say, white to Negro, but not, in a white-controlled society, from Negro to white. So in the Middle Ages, males projected upon females their own longings for lust and treachery, their unconfessable fear and hatred of marriage; so under Hitler, Germans projected upon Jews their own self-hatred and resentment of their demonic leaders, as well as their own most secret erotic impulses—particularly toward children. So adults project upon school-children and adolescents their own denied desire for irresponsibility and sheer dirt; so masters project upon servants their suppressed wish for more disorderly sex lives, less devotion to honor, etc., etc. So, finally, heterosexual males, in our society, project upon homosexuals their own unconfessed dream of aping and competing with women, of turning the other cheek. But in all of these cases, a one-way psychic transaction is involved; there is no equal and opposite projection possible for females or Jews, children, servants, or homosexuals.
Meanwhile the psychically oppressed flounder in their attempts to come to terms with the burden imposed upon them: the obligation—clearly understood or dimly felt or unwittingly suffered—to act out, in addition to their own authentic roles, secondary ones corresponding to the inner necessities of quite alien others. The culture they share with their oppressors demands of them duplicity; and like all who lead double lives, they are troubled by anxiety and guilt. To allay this, various strategies are available to them, all aimed at mitigating or destroying the unendurable doubleness of their lives, by denying either their authentic selves or their projective roles.
In the first instance, we are dealing with the strategy called by American Negroes “passing”: the attempt of the psychically exploited to remake themselves in the image of those who exploit them, to assimilate to those exploiters; or at least, to seem to do so. With such an end in view, homosexuals marry and beget children; Jews join the Episcopalian Church; the Irish send their children to finishing schools; and Negroes take out hunting licenses. But “passing” is, alas, impossible to those of the psychically underprivileged who are as clearly distinguishable from the group that imposes its fantasies upon them as, say, women and children; for they cannot, in ordinary course, disguise themselves as males or adults. Indeed, total assimilation is even difficult in America for Negroes and Jews, conventionally identified by certain quasi-mythical physical traits: kinky hair, blubber lips, great hooked noses, etc., etc.
Yet there are, of course, businesses and professions which flourish precisely on the basis of attempts to change or conceal such identifying traits: the producers of skin bleaches and hair-straighteners, or those doctors who specialize in bobbing noses. Where names serve as additional devices for segregating the unfavored group, name-changing becomes a conventional device: those with conspicuously non-Anglo-Saxon family names, for instance, applying to the courts for others, or at least bestowing on their children names derived from ancient English castles or more recent English poets. So in the 19th century, women eager to write books rather than appear in them as archetypal characters, rechristened themselves as males (usually choosing, for obscure reasons, to call themselves “George”); and so in the 20th, Indians eager to be done with reservation restrictions depend on some conveniently French name to make them seem more Canadien than redskin. Finally, however, only intermarriage does the trick, actual physical assimilation; though in cultures where interracial psychic exploitation flourishes, the children of such mixed marriages have still to make the choice of “passing” or not. The unions which produce them may, indeed, be motivated by mythical pressures as well as love (the hunger of one partner for what he has cast out of himself on to the people of the other); and choosing between Mother and Father, the children take sides, or are chosen for one side or another before they have a chance—in the most desperate of psychological games.
There is, however, another order of assimilation, a kind of “passing”-once-removed, in which the psychically exploited emulate in the privacy of their own excluded world, and for no eye other than their own, the behavior patterns of their exploiters. It is as if they sought to prove to themselves their absolute immunity to all the impulses and desires projected upon them by those exploiters; as well as their complete identity with those who consider them completely other—whether those others ever acknowledge it or not. So, for instance, Jewish boys gathered in fraternities dedicate themselves to athletics, hard drinking, and sex, to make clear that they are by no means the joyless scholars, the bodiless “brains,” that gentile fantasy would make them. So, too, the members of all-Negro P.T.A.’s in more prosperous neighborhoods gather to discuss juvenile delinquency or the threat of comic books—the ladies in fur scarves, the gentlemen in rimless glasses—to prove their lives are as earnest, well-regulated, and gray as that of any white philistine. So, finally, high-school kids, even from Indian reservations, gather in jackets and ties at Boys’ States to hold mock U.N. meetings, to second motions and pound gavels; as if they never “made out” in parked cars, or wallowed drunkenly on illegitimately bought whiskey, or sat with their parents around the bonfires at peyote “picnics.”
Such “passing”-once-removed often results in parody rather than genuine emulation: an unconscious parody of the solemn idiocies of the social world of the psychic exploiters, which those exploiters find it easy to take as a joke on the exploited.
Certainly, for generations now (up to the recent moment when the N.A.A.C.P. decided to impose its veto on such traditional literary condescension), white American humorists from Mark Twain to Octavus Roy Cohen and the writers of “Amos and Andy” have delighted in mocking the Negro’s attempts to re-enact the mores of white society and white business—not realizing how double-edged the ridiculousness of such travesty in fact is.
A second strategy of the oppressed, generally called “Tom-ism” after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s much admired and much maligned Uncle Tom, represents a resolve on the part of the underprivileged to be done with doubleness by becoming entirely what it pleases their exploiters to think them, thus abandoning any attempt to establish an authentic identity. So Anglo-Saxon women, for instance, not merely endured but enthusiastically embraced the symbolic virginal role imposed on them by male guilts and fears from the mid-18th to the early 20th centuries; and, indeed, they not merely read but wrote the books which defined for their fellows such archetypal functions. The scornful “Uncle Tom” has been conventionally used to designate only those willing to turn themselves into the images of humility and forgiveness dreamed by their oppressors; but similar satisfactions are provided by those who agree to become the bogeymen of terror and revenge also dreamed by those oppressors. Uncle Tom and Bigger Thomas are not very different in the end; woolly-haired sniveler and black bully both sacrificing the possibilities of authenticity and full humanity, in order to provide “satisfaction and security” for those bound to them by ties of mutual terror. To play the black rapist of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is as abject a surrender as to play the hero (really an Anglo-Saxon Good Woman in blackface) of Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And precisely such a surrender we see these days in the “beat” young (really Bad Negroes in whiteface), who act out the repressed fantasies of their middle-aged parents in a profitless and self-betraying charade.
Indeed, the woman who turns herself into the pale embodiment of Virtue, the young man who assumes the role of Mother’s Helper, the pious black advocate of understanding and non-resistance are likely to seem in the end more disturbingly ambiguous and more truly dangerous to husbands and parents and white segregationists than the dark, passionate vamp, the run-away young rebel without a cause, or the sullen, insolent Negro. For the professional Good Darky, like the Good Girl and Good Boy, the psychic oppressor cannot help suspecting, may be putting him on, pulling his leg; and, indeed, there is a wavering and uncertain boundary between true “Tom-ism” and what homosexuals call “camping”; the flagrant exaggeration of characteristics attributed to the minority of outsiders by unsympathetic insiders—in order to disarm and mock those insiders.
Who can tell the moment at which the bluff and hearty stage-Irishman, the obsequious and hand-rubbing Jew, the mincing, wrist-flapping fairy, the blond, blue-eyed, dependent girl, the faithful black servitor crying “Yassuh, massah!” cease genuinely trying to assume the humble roles in which they have been cast, and begin to exploit those roles subversively? A recent book by Elia Kazan, finally published under the title of America, America was called originally That Anatolian Smile—with reference to the placating, insidious show of teeth common to all those who flaunt before their oppressors the humility demanded of them, yet somehow make it a threat. Such a smile represents a first level of slave-revolt—a psychic counter-attack which presages social and political action, but which can be proved against those who practice it in no court. Thinking of all that smile means, James Baldwin has written to Kazan in praise of his book, “Gadge, baby, you’re a nigger, too”; thus recognizing how not only Greeks, like Kazan’s forebears, but all the psychically underprivileged, including Negroes, have learned to tread the dangerous line between being “Tom” and playing “Sambo”: between, that is to say, genuine self-abasement and self-denial, on the one hand, and the secret freedom of mad, mocking “camp,” on the other.
Even “camping,” however, is an activity less than fully human: a slave’s secret revolt that leaves him (even in his own deepest self-consciousness) a slave still; and the joke of composing manifestoes of freedom in code, a language of gesture and speech really comprehensible only to the in-group, soon runs out What final satisfaction is there in Emancipation Proclamations written in Yiddish which the gentile exploiters cannot read; or of songs of contempt in a jive-talk which the square white masters do not understand? The point is ultimately, of course, to make them understand; and all minorities dream of the day on which they will be able to declare openly their freedom not only from archetype and stereotype, but from the devious strategies with which they have long had to come to terms with their double existence: the day they will be able to boast that they have begun to invent themselves.
American Negroes have in fact reached that point during the last decade or two, not only on the level of mass culture and popular propaganda through the political movement which calls itself the Black Muslims, but also in the fiction of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, John Williams, and William Melvin Kelley. It was, however, in a prophetic little story by a white author, which first appeared in Partisan Review for May-June 1943, H. J. Kaplan’s “The Mohammedans,” that the New Negro, the Negro as his own mythologist—comic and terrible at once—entered our literature. And the younger Negro writers who have followed him have not been able to start from scratch, but have had to construct their images of themselves on models provided by white writers, European and American—by Faulkner, for instance, or Franz Kafka. Nevertheless, Negroes in the United States are coming to exist at last in their own minds, not reflexively but directly, despite the images of Aunt Jemima which beam out at them from the boxes of pancake flour, or the pictures of Little Black Sambo that grin up at them out of kids’ books.
And this is perhaps why the old ladies of Harlem, however little they may be able to formulate such an idea even to themselves, hail James Baldwin as he walks along the street—quite as if he were a leader in their political struggle like, say, Martin Luther King. But at the moment that he invents himself, the Negro begins to invent the white American, his white American, too; must, indeed, invent him out of the scraps he has left over, the human elements he has chosen—painfully or in apparent relief—to discard from his own image. And already there are white Americans who begin to see themselves as “fay” or “o-fay,” as everything the Negro thinks them when he names them so in contempt; just as all Negroes once, and many still, thought and think of themselves as “niggers.”
One nail, however, has not yet quite driven out the other; for still in our greatest books, and in our deepest imaginations, we find the old archetypal images of Negro and Indian, and we turn to those images still, eagerly though with diminishing psychic returns. What, then, have and do the darker peoples (not only Indians and Negroes, but Polynesians and Orientals, too; even Mediterranean Europeans, who are half-Negroes to the pallid Anglo-Saxon-Celtic-Scandinavian-Germanic blend that makes up the legendary Amerikansi) represent to our pale-face majority? Two things chiefly, closely linked but still distinguishable: nature itself, which is to say the romantic’s nature—the wilderness, anti-civilization, anti-culture; and the impulsive life—the extra-rational part of the mind, which earlier Americans liked to call “The Heart,” but which we prefer to call instinct or libido or id.
Ask any American for his attitude toward Indian and Negro, and you will discover his attitude toward his own impulsive life; or conversely, find how any American deals with his own basic drives, and you can guess his attitudes toward our colored minorities. The man who “whops niggers” or “shoots injuns” is, symbolically, trying to kill the savage in himself, though he may, perhaps must, at the same time lust for dark flesh. Mrs. Stowe, much more acute than anyone can ever quite remember, knew all this when she made Simon Legree a son of the Puritans to begin with, and portrayed him as pursuing black females when not tormenting black males. But maybe both, after all, are forms of exorcism congenial to the Puritan mind: whipping and rape—a double assault on the despised natural. There is a curious pessimism in Mrs. Stowe; for though her book may have provided an ideology for abolitionism, it does not really foresee such a solution, ending short of any Happy Ending, even the rescue of Uncle Tom by the White Boy who loved him. For her, love comes too late, here on earth at least; and the reconciliation of Black and White must be remanded to Heaven.
Other Americans have, however, if not quite hoped, at least imagined more; for they have known how much depended upon our making peace with the Indian and Negro, on the symbolic level as well as the literal one; Thoreau, who both lived and imagined the role of a white Indian, was one of these. His account in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers of the idyllic friendship between the trapper Alexander Henry and the Indian called Wawatam represents first of all, of course, a desire we all share to achieve social peace and a united nation; but on a second level, it stands for our need to come to terms with the wilderness, into which emigrating Europeans were thrown with a rude suddenness which created perhaps the greatest culture shock of human history: the shock out of which our image of ourselves has exploded. And on a third, the deepest, perhaps the ultimate level, it represents the need of men divided against themselves by the heritage of the Puritans (which alone enabled them to survive that culture shock) to join together their sundered selves: the impulsive self identified with the hostile forest and its inhabitants, the moral self identified with the best they had rescued from the Old World and hoped to preserve in the New.
In the other very greatest American writers, in Melville, for instance, and Mark Twain, even (despite his embattled political position as a latter-day Southerner) in William Faulkner, we discover the full realization that until the American solves what he calls the “Negro” or “Indian Problem,” the white American cannot be a whole man. The Emancipation Proclamation we long for is the proclamation of our own emancipation from a genteel rigidity of spirit, the rigor mortis of Anglo-Saxon morality; and it is in search of this that Ishmael yields himself to Queequeg, Huck embraces Nigger Jim, and the Boy of Faulkner’s “The Bear” makes himself the foster-son of the half-Indian, half-Negro Sam Fathers. Yet none of our greatest writers, however idyllic their celebration of the union of white and colored, is without ambivalence. Elsewhere in A Week, Thoreau ponders the tale of Hannah Dustan who was carried off by Indians after her infant had been murdered and who not only escaped from the threat of naked gauntlet or rape but brought back with her “the still bleeding scalps of ten of the aborigines” whom she had killed in their sleep. Mythicizing this old story, Thoreau continues:
The family of Hannah Dustan all assembled alive once more, except the infant whose brains were dashed out against the apple tree, and there have been many who in later times have lived to say that they had eaten of the fruit of that apple tree.
In Twain, the murdering Indian is balanced off against the loving Negro, while in Melville the loving Polynesian is answered by the treacherous Black; and in Faulkner the representatives of instinct and nature are sorted out not by tribe or race, but by age: post-menopausal colored women and aging colored men playing saintly or even Christ-like roles, in contrast to young and potent Negroes who are cast as demi-devils.
But this we expect, and indeed, find everywhere until very recent times, when political liberalism and the cult of the primitive succeed in driving the dark side of our ambivalence deep, deep underground. Traditionally there have been two contradictory attitudes toward nature at work in the American mind, the “Rousseauistic” and the “Puritan”—the first, as we have seen, expressed in the dream of Alexander Henry, the second in the nightmare of Hannah Dustan. Not only in our literature but in our lives, we have shuttled back and forth between a romantic nature cult and a philistine anti-nature religion: on the one hand, becoming enthusiastic advocates of nudism, and the world’s warmest supporters of Freudian psychology; on the other, joining movement after movement against whatever pleases the flesh—alcohol, meat, tobacco, drugs. In fact, we maintain these two polar attitudes not alternately but simultaneously, choosing duplicity rather than compromise, and this, indeed, is the essence of the American way.
Corresponding to each attitude there is, moreover, a program, a kind of politics which creates divisions more fundamental and real than the purely nominal ones which separate Republicans from Democrats among us. One program urges us to Stamp Out Nature: chop down trees, kill off buffalo, slaughter whales, rape and ruin the wilderness, join the Christian Science Church. The second cries in answer, Disappear into Nature: preserve our primitive areas, guard our natural resources, provide summer camping grounds with real live bears, strip to the buff and lie in the sun. And each of these approaches, of course, entails a corollary program in respect to the Negroes and Indians: the first, Stamp out the Coloreds; the second Blend with Them. In its most extreme form—as in the case of the Indians, for instance, who have always seemed to us economically dispensable—the negative program is simply: Kill Them Off, an American version of the Nazis’ Final Solution. And certainly there rings deep in the mind of anyone who has ever seen an old-fashioned Western movie or read an old-fashioned Western story the folk saying: “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”
But the advance of civilization quite soon mitigated the naïve totalitarian approach with which we began; and Pen Them Off replaces Kill Them Off as official policy. Especially if there are economic advantages, as with the Negroes, in keeping the underprivileged alive, but, for enlightenment’s sake, too, in other cases, it seems preferable to isolate the oppressed in segregated communities, in colonies abroad or ghettos at home, on reservations, in slave-quarters, or red-light districts. The last has always appeared to us an especially attractive solution. In the West, for instance, the early brothels were stocked largely with Indian girls; and even when the gun-fighters we honor had begun to bring in and protect their white replacements, a longing for more local fare remained. Similarly the slave quarters on Southern plantations were notoriously private brothels for the master and his sons; and a taste for Negro women survived their abolition. To make a woman a whore is like making any human a slave; it denies her identity, even reality (especially in a bourgeois world where the human is defined almost wholly by the family group), and ends by making her a thing, a device for pleasure.
Ghettoization has, then, two purposes: to force on those who are ghettoized conditions of squalor which seem to verify the grounds of discrimination against them; and to make them if not unreal, at least invisible. We affect surprise at how “invisible” the German concentration camps were to many Germans; but precisely as “invisible” are the Negro ghettos of New York and Chicago to those who never walk that way; for to be thus “invisible” is precisely the point of their existence. And if, in the United States, poverty has in recent years become “invisible,” too, this is because it has tended to become more and more exclusively the lot of those already penned off for their skin color or cultural backwardness. But this is the final triumph of Puritanism, to have ghettoized the unsuccess it fears as the outward sign of sin, along with the dark-skinned people who symbolize its own deepest guilts and fears.
Alongside the Puritan program of annihilation and segregation, however, there has always flourished a sentimental counter-program of conciliation and love. Beside the figure of the Indian-killer, there lives in our imagination that of the Indian-lover; and if the former is likely to be, like Hannah Dustan, a woman, and the latter, like Alexander Henry, a man, this is because we have always sought to keep distinct the notion of a comradely union (which our deepest mind approves) and miscegenation (which our deepest mind abhors). Though we have continued to tell each other in the schoolroom the tale of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, we have traditionally distrusted the squaw man, the renegade; and the notion of the woman who goes over to the wigwam has until recently stirred on the popular level nothing but horror. In the past, at least, it has been only the dream of a Garden of Eden with two Adams—one colored, one white—and no Eve, that has given us the illusion of “satisfaction and security”; though as early as the 20′s, Sherwood Anderson and D. H. Lawrence had begun to express overtly an envy of and a longing for the presumed superior pleasures of dark-skinned sex; and in the 60′s the “spade chick” begins, at last, to replace Chingachgook and Nigger Jim as a mythical figure of reconciliation in the novels of, say, Jack Kerouac and Robert Gover.
The recent popular success of the latter’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding marks, perhaps, a critical point in the evolving mythology of the Negro in the United States. Certainly few would have predicted, even a year or two ago, bestsellerdom for a book which tries to turn Topsy into America’s Sweetheart, by glorifying her as a fourteen-year-old black whore, who understands orgasms and drugs, but despises fast cars, television, and war. Gover’s is finally a false book motivated less by a desire to tell the truth than by white self-hatred and self-abnegation (his chief white character is a cartoon version of what the “o-fay” imagines the Negro imagines him) ; but it is not untypical of a moment in the history of our culture, when a young white Montanan can write and believe, after a night of peyote-eating at the bonfires of the Cheyenne: “The Indians are collossal downmen (they are too lazy to write). While we have been playing checkers they have been playing give away. As a result they have nothing but poverty, anonymity, happiness, lack of neuroses, wonderful children and a way of life that is free, democratic and in complete fulfillment of the American dream. . . .”
Yet the myth of an Earthly Paradise for males only has died hard. Not so long ago, in fact, it was for the first time expressed without camouflage or disguise in a popular movie: a film called The Defiant Ones, which closes on a scene in which a white fugitive finds peace in the arms of the Negro comrade he has begun by despising, after both of them have been betrayed by an evil white woman. And in Saul Bellow’s most recent novel, Henderson the Rain King, his white hero flees the world of female love to find satisfaction in the affectionate embrace of a preternaturally well-read black prince. Yet there is a sense, especially among the very young, and those who, like Norman Mailer, speak to them most directly, that the old myth is no longer quite viable in a world in which Indians and Negroes, along with non-whites everywhere, come close to the end of their long indignity. The dream which began with the trapper Henry and flowered into the mid-19th-century cult of male friendship, seems to many contemporaries too sentimental, or wrongly sentimental, too blandly liberal, perhaps—at any rate, too easy to sustain us here and now. And in certain of our latest books, in the whole cluster of works, for instance, called “hip” or “beat,” as in our recent life, we have seen the emergence of a new dream, a new Edenic ideal—pointed toward the future, rather than, as in Thoreau’s case, toward the past.
Yet the new dream begins with the old—in fact, presupposes it; but it goes further, for it not only imagines joining with Indian or Negro in pseudo-matrimony, or being adopted by some colored foster-father—but being reborn as Indian or Negro, becoming the other. The locus classicus of this altered archetype is Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” reprinted in his Advertisements for Myself. “In such places as Greenwich Village,” Mailer writes, “a ménage-à-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.” Mailer is not a notably clear writer, and it seems at first reading as if he were merely talking about yet another sexless union of the races, in which, as he tells us, “marijuana was the wedding ring” and “it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry,” i.e., jazz, “the music of orgasm.” But he is trying to tell us about something else: about the child born at long last out of that union, about the hipster himself—rebel without a cause, pseudo-psychopath, drug addict, and pursuer of danger: in short, the White Negro.
Here, then, finally is the justification of Thoreau’s boast about the friendship he describes, “so almost bare and leafless, yet not blossomless nor fruitless”: the strange fruit, not of the physical miscegenation so long feared by white supremacists, but of the innocent union of Huck and Jim on the raft. And here, indeed, may be the solution to our deepest guilts and starkest quandary (making possible without further ado even physical assimilation, to which not skin color but cultural and psychological differences have always been the real impediments), the resolution we scarcely dared hope for in actual life, however often we imagined it in books. In light of this, it scarcely matters whether the Negro whom the hipster becomes in his imagination ever really existed at all; for it is with the projection of our rejected self, which we have called “Negro,” that we must be reconciled. Moreover, a new generation of Negroes are presently learning in Greenwich Village, or at Harvard College, to be what the hipster imagines them to be, imitating their would-be imitators. It is the kindest joke our troubled white culture has played on them; and, one hopes, the last.
In any case, the “savage” proposed by Mailer as a model for the hipster is, though he calls him a Negro, quite as much an Indian; which represents a further reach of absurdity, considering that even some forty years ago, D. H. Lawrence was already able to say, “The Red Man is dead, disbelieving in us,” and that, certainly, few of his remaining representatives ever penetrate the bohemias of America’s big cities in 1963. But Lawrence knew, too, that, contrary to folk-belief, even the dead Indian is not a good Indian; quite the contrary. “The moment the last nuclei of Red life break up in America,” he wrote, “then the white men will have to reckon with the full force of the demon of the continent.” It is not merely that the hipster’s beloved marijuana is rather the gift of the Indian through the Negro, than of the Negro himself; but that, as Mailer reports, those two imaginary Indians, D. H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, are among his “intellectual antecedents,” and that, therefore, he feels himself “a frontiersman in the Wild West of American Night life.” Somehow it has been necessary for white Americans to be reborn as imaginary Indians before they could become imaginary Negroes; and, indeed, Americans were imaginary Indians from the start, our national destiny beginning when certain New England palefaces, eager to demonstrate they were no longer Europeans, put on feathers and war paint to celebrate the Boston Tea Party.
From the beginning, there have been in myth, if not in fact, White Indians among us, Crévecoeur, for instance, asking in his Letters from an American Farmer, “By what power does it come to pass that children who have been adopted when young among these people [the Indians] can never be prevailed upon to readopt European manners?”; and crying out in astonishment, “There must be something in their social bond singularly captivating . . . for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European. . . .” Even in the movies, Tom Mix and Gary Cooper (spiritual offspring of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook) preceded Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley (cultural sons of Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim); but Hemingway could never tell where Gary Cooper stopped and he began, and may, indeed, have died of the effort to prove that they were one. If the frontiersman was a mock Indian, and the Western movie star a mock frontiersman, what is Hemingway but the White Indian twice removed, out of whose union with the imaginary Bad Negro, the black rapist of the Birth of a Nation recast as a hero, the hipster, or at least Mailer’s version of the hipster, has been born.
In our very lives, we have come to repeat this pattern, individual biography recapitulating cultural history. Born theoretically white, we are permitted to pass our childhood as imaginary Indians, our adolescence as imaginary Negroes, and only then are expected to settle down to being what we are told we really are: white once more. Even our whiteness, however, threatens to become imaginary, as the Negroes we have long mythicized begin to mythicize us; and we think of the embattled whites of Reconstruction days in the South, attempting to assert counter-myths of themselves against those of their former slaves and the abolitionist ideologues. And how comically-pathetically that experiment worked out we cannot forget; intending to appear White Knights out of Sir Walter Scott, the imaginary white men of the Ku Klux Klan in fact revealed themselves as the gibbering and sheeted dead, anonymous ghosts of nameless fathers, able to ride only in malice and in the dark. The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, appalled at such a prospect, has had, to be sure, the alternative option in the last couple of decades of becoming in late youth or early middle-age an imaginary Jew—modeling himself, in accordance with his politics and taste, on Herman Wouk or Leon Uris, Irwin Shaw, Saul Bellow, or Bernard Malamud. But that option, too, begins to wear out.
In any case, for a long time now we Americans, white or black, gentile or Jew (and the rest of the world oddly follows our example, though without the deep impulses which motivate us), have been somehow pleased to see our children at four or five and ten or twelve dressed, if not actually like Indians, at least like the frontiersman, the trapper, the cowboy: all those who learned from Indians to dress in the skins of beasts, to carry a weapon, stalk the woods, and present to the world the bronzed stolid face, the inarticulate hero’s gaze common to Sitting Bull and Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway. Wherever jeans go in the world, and they go everywhere that Coca-Cola goes, the dream of the West goes with them; and wherever that dream goes, the drugs we have learned to use from the Indians follow after. First, of course, came tobacco, carried back with them by the sailors of Columbus, and introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh to the English bohemians of the Age of Elizabeth, wild young Indians like Christopher Marlowe, who added smoking to atheism and homosexuality to round out their sum of sins. And ever since the series has continued without flagging, marijuana, mescalin, the Mexican mushroom—all moving from tepee to high school or college or young man’s “pad,” as our youngsters at last begin the shift from a whiskey culture to a dope culture; and all carrying with them cancer, hallucinations, addiction, madness: the red man’s revenge.
But the boy who smokes “pot” is an adolescent, not a child—which is to say, no longer an imaginary Indian but an imaginary Negro; and, indeed, nowadays, it is the black man rather than the red who is likely to have introduced him to the red man’s “medicine.” But it is not merely a matter of dope, this affinity of the young and the Negro. Indeed, there is scarcely a father of adolescents in the United States who is not in the year 1963 beginning to be aware (though he may feel it as a pain, rather than know it as a fact) that his sons are in their whole life-style—their speech, their gait, the clothes they wear, the music they love, as well as the vices they emulate—closer to the life-style of Negroes than he could have foreseen on the day of their birth. He may find them, in fact, in posture and in gesture, in intonation and inflection, perhaps even in the deepest aspirations, which, after all, control such outward behavior, closer to the great-grandfathers of their Negro friends, than to their own great-grandfathers—Anglo-Saxon or Italian, Jewish or Greek, Scandinavian or German or Irish or Slav. It is what we have really longed for from the first—perhaps what the story of Alexander Henry has all along meant; but we have scarcely begun to acknowledge it to ourselves, much less come to terms with it. And if we are awaiting the artist who will make poetry of the pathos and comedy it entails, we scarcely know even this.