Why Jack Kerouac is still Relevant – Mariana Des Forges

This is Mariana Des Forges first piece for Sonder. Her interest lies in using modern thinking to analyse classic and contemporary culture.

Why Jack Kerouac is still relevant for all the Wrong Reasons: Counterculture’s Gross Kinship with Cultural Appropriation.

The Beats have been hailed as both literary and cultural pioneers that provided a revolutionary counter culture to the stifling conservatism of the 1950s. Although made up of only a few, the Beats had a phenomenal cultural impact, particularly with young people who felt disillusioned with capitalism, consumerism and strict censorship. With the publishing of On The Road, author Jack Kerouac became a celebrity almost overnight and young white Americans everywhere took stock and inspiration from the expressive bohemian lifestyle portrayed in Kerouac’s novel. When I first read the novel myself I instantaneously concluded it was my favourite book; it instilled in me a naive idealism and, more significantly, a fervour to travel. I reread the novel recently and, now older, I realise how glaringly problematic and damaging it is; On the Road is a quintessential paradigm of cultural imperialism.

Kerouac’s style of writing – ‘spontaneous prose’ – was inspired by jazz music and throughout the novel Kerouac and travel companion Neal Cassady (aliases Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty ) frequent jazz clubs, Kerouac gushing great un-punctuated paragraphs of amour for Jazz music and wonder for life in Denver’s ‘coloured section’. However he careers blindly across the line of appreciation into appropriation with his unabashed adoption of African American vernacular and complete commodification of black (and other minority) suffering as a means to reject the mainstream that he feels oppresses him so. Susan Somers-Willet, in her book The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, suggests that the main reason black tokenism was the preferred basis for a counter culture for white youths was because it stirred a unique kind of anxiety about racial boundaries in middle-class households that was unprecedented by very little else.

Indeed, Kerouac was not the only one enamoured by Jazz and Bebop for this reason. Historian Wini Briener in a book called Post War White Girls described how

White teenage girls often expressed their dissatisfaction with middle-class norms through a strong interest in African American culture including Jazz music as well as in social groups and cultural forms that were coded ‘ black’ or off limited by the white middle class.

It struck resonance with Miley Cyrus’ 2013 VMA performance of her twerking (a dance cultivated in the 90s hip hop scene – a musical culture born out of modern urban oppression just like Jazz of the 20s – and of which its roots are African). It was her first public declaration that she had shed her ‘wholesome’ Disney aesthetic by moving into black cultural forms as a means to counter her former mainstream persona (whilst evoking a deep-seated colonial discourse that non-whiteness is ‘otherness’ and therefore somehow synonymous with moral deviance.)

Moreover twerking has been so grossly appropriated by the white dominant culture that it has now become synonymous with Cyrus despite its wholly black cultural origins. This is mimetic of how the entire dictionary of ‘Beat Slang’ is actually almost all African American vernacular used for decades before Kerouac could even write; they are words with a rich and entirely black social history whose creation are wrongly accredited to a middle-class white boy from Llowell, Massachusetts.

Moreover Kerouac’s portrayal of people of colour in the novel is reductionist and stereotypical at best and downright racist at worst. This is no better exemplified than in a passage in which he writes:

I walked…wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best of the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough kicks, darkness and music…I wished I was a Denver Mexican or even a poor overworked Jap, a anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’, disillusioned.

His crass obliviousness to his own white privilege and the reality of minority suffering at the hands of white mainstream society is astounding. He marvels at the ‘authenticity’ of their outsider status with wilful ignorance to the systematic ways in which this status was (and is) irrevocably forced upon minorities by dominant white society. Moreover, he even proclaims how unfair it is that he can never access this status because he unwittingly benefits from a social hierarchy in which he, as a straight white middle-class male, comes out on top.

However, Kerouac has no problem capitalising on his white privilege when it’s beneficial- dipping in and out the minority experience when it becomes a too ‘authentic’. For example, when he works on a Mexican cotton plantation and it becomes a little too much like real hard work, he up and leaves with money that his aunt just sends him when he asks for it. Moreover he frequently steals food whilst travelling freely throughout the states without the fear of being arrested or lynched and is able to secure employment more or less whenever he wants.  His counter-cultural experience is facilitated entirely by his white privilege, much like white people who wear dreadlocks without the systematic discrimination that comes with them nor an understanding of their socio-historic significance in the context of black resistance movements to white supremacy.

This discussion of Kerouac’s novel is relevant now due to the current number of cases in the media of white celebrities, fashion houses and magazines being publically called out for appropriating black cultural forms with complete ignorance to their social significance and history. This is no better exemplified than in actress Amandla Stenberg’s response to Kylie Jenner who recently posted an Instagram picture of herself wearing cornrows. In the Youtube video ‘Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows’ and in a post on her own Instagram Stenberg gave a crash course in black culture, explaining the damage of cultural appropriation and the wilful ignorance of white privilege – a lesson Jenner clearly ignored as she went on to post another picture in cornrows only days later. Similarly, Allure Magazine came under fire after running an online article called ‘You too can have an Afro’ under a picture of a white woman with a twist out (not only white-washing a traditionally black hairstyle but also getting it wrong.) This comes at a tumultuous time of racial tension in America where black and other minority Americans face every day micro-aggressions in popular culture, police brutality and systematic social and economic discrimination that still keeps non-white Americans as second class citizens, a situation not so distant than that of the 1950s.

It seems still, Blackness is cool, black people are not. White people continue to ignorantly commodify the proud culture created by people of colour in lieu of their exclusion from white society whilst wilfully perpetuating the exclusion of those minority people themselves.

Therefore we cannot simply say that Kerouac’s attitude and behaviour are symptomatic of his time and denounce it as historic and so irrelevant because we continue to see the same behaviour from white people today. Kerouac stole the word ‘beat’-an old African American term for being truly hopeless and beat down as a result of suffering abhorrent social injustice—and appropriated it from a black expressive cultural marker to a white person’s fashion trend.

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5 thoughts on “Why Jack Kerouac is still Relevant – Mariana Des Forges

  1. Such a great essay! Appropriation was all throughout the Beat movement, who wished to escape the ethos of Eisenhower America, but ended up being products of their culture in so many important ways. One thing worth exploring: Kerouac’s first language was French, and he lived in a community of Franco and Greco Americans in Lowell. A great many of his loving, and less amorous, racist behaviours could be perceived as a product of the immigrant experience of othering opposing minorities in order to gain ground in the new country. Thanks for elucidating the fact the Kerouac’s Mardou is little more than Shakespeare’s Caliban.

  2. “These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Ponchos of silly civilized American lore–they had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it. The waves are Chinese, but the earth is an Indian thing. As essential as the rocks int he desert are they in the desert of “history.” And they knew this when we passed, ostensibly self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment. For when destruction comes to the world of “history” and the Apocalypse of the Fellahin returns once more as so many times before, people will still stare with the same eyes from the caves of Mexico as well as from the caves of Bali, where it all began and where Adam was suckled and taught to know.”
    case closed

  3. I found Kerouac in 1964. Read him, studied him, let him wash over me, and give me direction for a long time. When I became a prof, I taught him as often as I could.

    What teaching him taught me was what this essay suggests.

    He was a writer living in Black face — pretending to be hip and beat and Black. But what talking to my students about him also taught me was that he became aware of this, aware of his inability to be the one of the lost, one of the fallen one of the estranged and strange.

    And this was a hard lesson for him to learn.

    I think it’s what killed him.

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