Hipsters (1920s-1950s) were White Americans who took on Black styles of dress, language and music. They were the wiggers of their day, but they were into jazz instead of hip hop. Jack Kerouac (pictured) and Allen Ginsberg are examples. Norman Mailer called them white Negroes and considered himself one.
They were not like present-day hipsters except for being young, urban and self-consciously cool.
Hipsters divided the world into the hip and the square. They were trying to be hip – cool, fashionable, in the know – not hopelessly square like their parents. They thought they were hip, but the Black jazz musicians they were copying did not think so.
There were maybe only 100,000 hipsters at most, but their effect on White American life has been huge. Other Whites saw them as cool and started copying them.
One measure of their effect are the new words and phrases they brought into White American English, many of them from Black English and the jazz scene:
hip, square, corny, copasetic, gravy (= profits), freebie, dig (= understand, like), with it, put down, beat, cool, creep, man (as in “Cool, man”), groovy, gimme some skin, this joint is jumping, hype, in the groove, lock up (as in “lock up a deal”), moo juice.
Some of these, like “groovy”, sound dated, but others, like “put down”, are now part of Standard English. The, like, overuse of the word like comes, like, from them.
From copying the hipsters, young Whites in the 1960s:
- Became freer and more open about sex.
- Used bad language more freely.
- Smoked marijuana and started doing other drugs.
- Looked down on the hard work and material comfort of their parents.
- Started becoming hippies, who took it all a step further.
They were copying White people who were copying their idea of Black people.
Hipsters knew little about Blacks. They knew about the Black musicians, of course, and some even had a few Black friends and, on occasion, a Black girlfriend. But they still moved in White circles for the most part. So they filled in what they did not know about Backs with stereotype.
They saw Blacks as being everything their boring parents were not:
- in touch with their inner selves,
- free with their feelings,
- in love with life,
- living for the moment,
- not too concerned with money and steady work,
- free with sex,
This became their model of how to live!
Squares (who themselves were copying Wasps, the ruling ethnic group) were the opposite of all this. They cared too much about money and security and what other people thought of them. They were dead on the inside. That is why they had no taste in music: they liked Lawrence Welk more than Charlie Parker!
Hipsters were like blackface entertainers in some strange ways. Both saw Blacks as joyful and carefree. They used their own put-on Blackness to free themselves from the rules of White life. They saw Blacks as living beyond the rules, as free. And that is where they wanted to be, if only for a time.