The Beat Generation found itself mystified by the black culture of the time. This mystification granted them agency in manifesting their deepest desires of free-flowing sexuality in what they observed from the black people with which they surrounded themselves. Associating themselves with black people allowed them to further their performance as “The Hipster” or the “White Negro.” The very idea of being “beat” implies a white desire to be black and participate in black cultural norms, such as a wider acceptance of sexuality and jazz, instead of those set by white society, which was more mainstream. Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road romanticizes black culture in this regard. However, Hettie Jones’ 1990 memoir How I Became Hettie Jones emphasizes different aspects of black life through her interracial relationship, which shows a new vision on the Beats’ desire to be black. How I Became Hettie Jones reinterprets Kerouac’s On the Road by demystifying the romanticization of his white desire to be “Negro.”
Kerouac’s character, the narrator Sal Paradise, laments on what white society lacks that black society retains. He believes the “white world” does not provide enough “darkness” or “night” (Kerouac 169-170). Through relating a dark night to dark skin, Kerouac misunderstands and overly romanticizes black culture, even from his bohemian aspect. If he sees the black world as darkness or night, then his desire to be black is not because he values their world, but rather because he wishes to be considered dark, bad, or hovering on the brinks of society, qualities which he values as a Beat but which undermine black culture. Kerouac acts more like an overly excited observer rather than actually connecting with black people, instead choosing to imitate their culture and lifestyles. He participates in some aspects of black culture, or so he thinks, but On the Road operates as somewhat misleading in regards to what that culture entails. While Hettie Jones’ writing lends to an acceptance and union of white and black people, Kerouac fetishizes black culture. Before she was Hettie Jones, she was Hettie Cohen, and her contact with black people and culture was limited. In her memoir a little black girl grasps a younger Cohen’s hand; at this Cohen realizes she has “never held a black person’s hand” (Jones 14). Her lack of exposure to a different race brings wonder but also a gentle understanding of the similarities. The hand of the little girl she holds is as “dark as [Cohen is] from that southern sun” and “[i]sn’t that different from [her hand]” (Jones 14). Cohen acknowledges that there is not much difference at all, not just in physical appearances of white and black skin but also in the manners of people that reach out to each other: she says that “[m]aybe all the brown hands [she has] held since then are descended from hers [the little girl’s]” (Jones 14). Cohen’s first exposure to black people makes her realize that people are one and the same as long as they have the same goal of connecting, and a way for people, black and white, to connect is through music.
Jazz flourished as the Beat Generation did, bringing people of all backgrounds and races together for its bop beats, its improvisational inserts. In On the Road Kerouac writes of a specific moment during which Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty sit down and listen to a black tenorman sing. This tenorman retains an expression that Sal identifies as saying, “Hey now, what’s this thing we’re all doing in this sad brown world?” (Kerouac 188). Sal associates jazz with black culture due to the style of the tenorman’s voice and his concept of a “sad brown world.” The “thing” they do refers to both jazz and living: the music is an extension of expressing how the tenorman feels and interacts with the world, and the “brown” aspect relates to the part of the world of black people and culture. Kerouac’s character Sal grants the tenorman agency in expressing through jazz his feelings living as a black man, still indicating a hierarchy on Sal’s part and interest of this man: he feels cheated he cannot feel this tenorman’s “brown” struggle, as Sal lives a white, privileged life. However, Hettie Cohen asserts that “[t]o call jazz Negro music meant whites couldn’t play it and they wanted to; to call it Negro music also put on it what was put on Negroes themselves, and no one wantedthat” (Jones 22). Though the music itself was evocative of black culture, whites who clung to it had to find a justification for doing so without integrating themselves into black culture. Listeners and critics go so as far to claim that there is “no one ‘real jazz,’ because like all art it was subject to change without notice, and their objective, in writing of it, was less to debate its absolute form than to consider it part of a wider arena” (Jones 23). White culture acknowledges the changing times but also attempts to justify their interest in jazz by saying it cannot be bound to one form; therefore, jazz cannot be considered completely “Negro.”
The downfall of existing in the white world is something Kerouac laments through his fictional counterpart Sal Paradise, who still conforms to white society even though he is bohemian or beat. He complains of embodying the “‘white man’ disillusioned” with “white ambitions” (Kerouac 170). Already social hierarchy places him above black people and culture, as he is allowed the option of “white ambitions,” which, though he opposes, he still has access to as a white man. The exclusion of black people from pursuing certain goals further establishes the hierarchy society has created, making his narrative appear unintentionally racist: he believes black life to be a simpler life, a life where “the air was filled with the vibration of really joyous life that knows nothing of disappointment and ‘white sorrows’ and all that” (Keroauc 171). The narrator Sal, and essentially the voice of Kerouac, trivializes the life of black people and their culture by asserting that white society is what brings down the Beats: he refers to “white sorrows,” which he, as a white man, has over black people, who he excludes from experiencing said “sorrows” and ultimately believes black people live simpler lives with time for producing art based on their hardship and exclusion. In contrast, Hettie Jones comments on how strange the romanticization of black culture is in regards to art. This “long romance with ‘Negro life’” unsettles her because after “the shacks [she had] seen in the South [she] refused to link hard life with art” (Jones 23). Relating the creation and duration of pursuing art as a passion or career trivializes the suffering of black people during the 1950s because it overlooks their suffering as not being up to a “white” level or standard of suffering. Kerouac’s view is not necessarily malevolent, but it does call into question his ignorance: he romanticizes black life because he sees it as simpler and happier, though really harder, a place where his ideas and imagination could possibly flourish. Hettie Jones discounts this argument because she recognizes that hardship does not mean art: it means hardship, no matter if the culture is black or white.
The portrayal of black women differs in Kerouac’s novel compared to Jones’ memoir and as such causes a reconsideration of black femininity. Kerouac removes agency from black women. Though he refers to Sal’s black friend Walter’s wife as “the sweetest woman in the world,” he romanticizes the black wife as “never ask[ing] Walter where he’d been, what time it was, nothing”; she just “smiled and smiled” as Sal, Dean Moriarty, and Walter talk, to which “[s]he never said a word” (Kerouac 192). Not only does he romanticize the black wife, but he also hyperbolizes a black man’s life through Dean’s assertion that Walter can do whatever he wants, being a “man, and that’s his castle” (Kerouac 192). This sets up a false vision of black life, where black men can do whatever they want without their wives lashing back, removing the wives’ agency, whereas in her memoir Cohen sets up a picture that black women most definitely have agency but do not exert it in the ways Kerouac believes they would, such as pestering their spouses, but rather in the way they stand and live their lives. For Cohen, the best example of black womanhood is LeRoi Jones’ mother. Cohen depicts her as kind, understanding, and strong in the way she talks – “How nice…that the two of you have similar interests” (Jones 40) – down to her stance, which Cohen admires. LeRoi Jones’ mother stands as Hettie likes to stand, “with her hands in her pockets,” which is “the stance…of a woman who stood her ground, a woman who’d take a stand” (Jones 40). Black women, to Cohen, specifically LeRoi’s mother, are strong, independent, and unconventional: Cohen acknowledges “[her] own mother had cautioned [her] against” standing as LeRoi’s mother does (Jones 40), but Cohen turns this around to represent the strength not only in stance but also in soul that Cohen herself wants to possess and so mimics. Though Cohen is a white woman mimicking a black woman, she describes so in a tasteful, respectful way that fleshes out LeRoi’s mother as a person which includes the color of her skin but is not limited to that being a strict characteristic of only black women: it is a trait of a strong woman to stand with her hands in her pockets.
Hettie Cohen – Jones – met Jack Kerouac before she attended a reading of his due to his On the Road fame, and it is at this reading that Kerouac takes a special interest in Cohen. However, his interest peaks once he learns of her “connection” to LeRoi Jones, her black husband, which “please[s] Jack enormously – his face lit in the strangest, gleaming little grin” (Jones 70). The use of “strange” and “gleaming” as descriptors for Jack connect back to his desire to observe people involved in black culture. Here he realizes Cohen is as close as a white person can get, being married to a black man and pregnant with his child. He takes it so far as to squeeze the two of them in an “iron grip and wouldn’t let go” (Jones 71). This passage makes it evident that Kerouac wishes to get closer to black culture but still fetishizes it in that his eagerness is not in the union of an interracial couple but rather in Cohen – the white woman attached to a black man – who paid attention to Kerouac’s reading and just so happens to be pregnant with a black man’s child. Kerouac’s thoughts of Cohen depict her being with LeRoi Jones purely to rebel; though she is a rebel, she is also just really in love with LeRoi for who he is beyond the color of his skin, shown throughout her memoir.
How I Became Hettie Jones forces a reinterpretation of On the Road in the way Kerouac romanticizes black people, culture, and life. Kerouac’s desire to live on the fringes of society mirrors the situation of black people, yet Cohen shows that to think of black people as dark and different is untrue. In regards to jazz, Kerouac grants agency to the black man performer but still recognizes his art due to the color of his skin, whereas Cohen acknowledges that white society will never dub jazz as truly black art. Therefore, Kerouac will never live his life as a “white Negro” since jazz music is still dubbed white and not black. Cohen recognizes black life is hardship, but Kerouac sees their life as simpler, a way to reach art, a technique of which Cohen disapproves. Cohen’s first encounter with Keroauc has him intrigued by her only due to her connection with her black husband, LeRoi Jones. The portrayal of black women in Cohen’s memoir and Kerouac’s novel differ in the agencies these women harness – or do not – which correlates with the difference between empowering women, as Cohen shows, or women who say nothing and do only as their spouses say, as Keroauc depicts. Ultimately, this reinterpretation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road due to the contrast of Hettie Cohen/Jones’ How I Became Hettie Jones breaches controversy in the depiction of black people and the way they live their lives. It must be remembered that Kerouac writes fiction, so romanticizing “Negro” life to his personal ideals is not a stretch for him; Cohen remains much more true and respectful to black people and culture in the hardships they face and what they, like LeRoi’s mother, stand for.
Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Grove Press, 1990. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. Print.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…