The surprising connections between the Democratic Party and the postwar American novel.
Last year, French presidential candidate François Hollande released a campaign commercial showcasing support across Paris’s racially diverse suburbs with a rather surprising soundtrack: Jay-Z and Kanye West’s infectious radio hit “Niggas in Paris.” The song, of course, has nothing to do with French electoral politics and everything to do with its composers’ hedonistic globetrotting, but Hollande presumably hoped it would highlight his own commitment to France’s marginalized minority communities. If the Hollande campaign’s bizarrely cavalier appropriation of the n-word is unthinkable in an American context, the core strategy will prove familiar. In an Obama campaign ad last year, a well-known rap star—Jay-Z again—lent the President his support, flanked by images of multiracial crowds. As in the Hollande spot, progressive, racially inclusive politics are emblematized in the figure of a popular black musician.
Michael Szalay’s book Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party came out a few months too early for the author to consider the Obama/Jay-Z commercial. That’s too bad, because Jay-Z’s official endorsement of the President—and, equally important, the President’s and by extension the Democratic Party’s endorsement of Jay-Z—would have made a fitting coda to Szalay’s impressive, wide-ranging study. Hip Figures traces three braided trajectories. It is a social history of the Democratic Party from its loss of the South to the election of Obama; it is an account of American “hipness” across the same period; and it is a study of the racial politics of the American novel after 1945. Along the way, we get informative mini-histories of such attendant cultural phenomena as jazz and Madison Avenue advertising. The book’s “central contention,” Szalay writes, “is that, over the last fifty or so years, a range of predominantly white fantasies about hip have animated the secret imagination of postwar liberalism and, more concretely, organized the Democratic Party’s efforts to redress ‘the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.’ ”
These liberal fantasies include the relatively benign, such as that of blacks’ quintessential American authenticity—their regional association with the Old South and its folkways, for instance. But they could also be disturbingly racist. Consider Norman Mailer’s notorious celebration of blacks’ alleged existential psychopathy in his essay “The White Negro”: “Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive…. It is therefore no accident that psychopathy is most prevalent with the Negro.” Such projections of glorified marginality, titillating to countercultural whites like Mailer, were the underbelly of liberal whites’ identification with African-American struggle. Think of the “yippie” Abbie Hoffman comparing “a fifteen-year-old kid who takes off from middle-class American life” to “an escaped slave crossing the Mason-Dixon line.” Ultimately, whites found in the black hipster—supposedly at odds with a deadeningly conformist society—liberating energies of opposition, personal freedom, and the drive for justice. But they also found convenient vehicles for their own reveries of cultural revolt.
But why novels? According to Szalay, “the fantasies of hip that have mattered most to liberalism first emerged in novels”; novelists were, therefore, “the most important political strategists of their time.” This last strikes me as a bit of calculated overstatement, or the kind of hyperbole that can result from disciplinary distortion, as when a musicologist attributes the rise of the bourgeoisie to the invention of the piano. As it happens, Szalay contextualizes his treatment of the novel with relevant discussions of other cultural forms, most importantly music, which vies with literature for top billing in this history. But Szalay reminds us that during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, novelists were granted access to politicians in ways hard to imagine today. He cites Gore Vidal’s retrospective assertion that during Kennedy’s presidency, “politics and literature officially joined forces.” There’s also Kennedy’s friend William Styron remembering a request by the President to meet black novelists: “Did I know any Negro writers? Could I suggest some Negro names for a meeting at the White House?”
Hip Figures is about the complex dynamics of blackness’ symbolic function within the Democratic Party. It’s commonly accepted, of course, that the GOP exploits its base’s well-known antipathy to African Americans. Rick Santorum’s notorious pronouncement in last year’s Republican primaries that “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money” is a recent case in point. The “black people” involved here are entirely notional; as Gary Younge pointed out in The Nation, Santorum’s concerns were expressed in a place, Woodbury County, Iowa, with a 13-percent rate of food-stamp dependency and almost no African Americans to speak of.
Szalay’s study insists, provocatively, that the exploitation of symbolic blackness is not the exclusive preserve of the GOP, although the two parties’ strategies are hardly identical. One project of Hip Figures is to complement what we know about Republican racial resentment with a picture of the equally problematic, if ultimately far less sinister, use of the idea of blackness by Democrats. An example: the “mutually reinforcing” role blackness played in two key projects of the Johnson Administration, civil-rights legislation and the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. Szalay observes that Johnson “often linked African Americans and their culture with the arts legislation” and argues that he saw “his commitment to the arts as part of his commitment to black political freedom.”
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