Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” (1957):
At lilac evening I walk with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley. I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro houses; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensuous gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs.
James Baldwin comments on this passage in an essay about Norman Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” (Esquire, May 1961):
Now, this is 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.
And yet there is real pain in it, and real loss, however thin; and it is thin, like soup too long diluted; thin because it does not refer to reality, but to a dream. Compare it, at random, with any old blues:
Backwater blues done caused me
To pack my things and go.
‘Cause my house fell down
And I can’t live there no mo’.
I agree with Baldwin.
First, Kerouac is viewing the lives of Negroes, Mexicans and overworked “Japs” (a racial slur) from a safe, white middle-class distance. He thinks he is experiencing their world, but he is not. He is at best a tourist. He can escape their world whenever he wants. It is a telephone call away. So he does not know what it is like to be poor with no way out or what it is like to be the “wrong” colour – with no way out. Hell, he does not even know what it is like to stick to one woman for more than a few months. The biggest thing wrong with his life is boredom! Not enough kicks. The country gives him the best it has and this is what he says?
Second, he is stereotyping or exoticizing black women: they are sensuous, mysterious, etc. And he says this just after saying life does not have enough kicks, joy and darkness. And right after admitting he left a woman because of his “white ambitions”, whatever that means. While he does not consider black women to be ugly or anything like that, it is clear that he still does not see them as living, breathing women, but just as a good time, a cheap thrill.
- Jack Kerouac
- James Baldwin
- Bessie Smith: Backwater Blues – the blues song he quoted
- exotic women
- Jezebel stereotype – black women as sensuous gals
- Why so few white men marry black women, part 1, part 2
- White people cannot know how it feels to be a person of colour
- white privilege
- “Black is beautiful”