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Jews Still “Acting Black” in 2007: From White Negro to Jewish Hipster

The death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer has cast attention back on some of his early essays, including “The White Negro,” an influential piece that first appeared in Dissent magazine in 1957. Written during a period he described as … Read More

By / November 26, 2007

The death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer has cast attention back on some of his early essays, including “The White Negro,” an influential piece that first appeared in Dissent magazine in 1957. Written during a period he described as "the years of conformity and depression," Mailer's essay focused on the hipster—"the urban adventurer. . .who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts"—as a hero capable of providing the antidote to America's stultifying postwar culture.

"The White Negro," and the hipster lifestyle it details, remind us that white Americans have looked to blacks not only as a group upon which they could project the negative aspects of their society, but also as an object of longing: Whites fantasize that the African American embodies the expressiveness and sensuality with which they as whites have lost touch in their self-styled "march toward progress." Bristling under the confines of postwar culture, Mailer admired the hipster as white man who, like his imagined black counterpart, could free himself from "the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization," divorce himself from society, and relinquish "the pleasures of the mind for…the pleasures of the body."

Although Mailer did not explicitly mention his Jewish background in "The White Negro," the essay was undoubtedly shaped by the symbolic importance African Americans and their culture have long held for American Jews. Mailer himself was a product of the urban streets where Jewish youth of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s often listened to "race records," formed their own jazz bands, and occasionally made evening excursions to Harlem and other African American neighborhoods. Not only were many of the leading white interpreters of African American music during the interwar period Jewish, but so was the original hipster, Mezz Mezzrow (né Milton Mesirow), a clarinetist who declared himself a "voluntary Negro" and devoted himself—in his own words—to "hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can."

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