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David Starkey: ‘white negroes’ are nothing new

Historian David Starkey’s contention on Newsnight last Friday that ‘whites have become black’ has already attained such infamy that there is little point in heaping further obloquy upon his ugly little racist person.

But what really made me laugh when I watched the footage was his seeming unawareness of the well-documented fact that for many decades now, hundreds of thousands of cool white kids of all classes have secretly wished they were just that little bit less caucasian.

Half a century ago, the UK music scene threw up an explosion of spotty youths who had not travelled far beyond the Thames Estuary, yet were nevertheless determined to pay musical and lyrical homage to the Mississippi Delta. Had that not happened, British pop music might never have evolved far beyond Matt Monro.

Starkey is exactly the right age to have been into the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things. So what happened there, then? Did he spend the entirety of the swinging sixties cooped up in student digs listening to Wagner or something?

Full disclosure: while I have sadly never been a dispossessed sharecropper, I am nevertheless a huge blues fan, and Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King and Jimmy Reed have provided the soundtrack to most of my life. If anyone ever told me that my guitar playing sounded black, I’d be truly made up.

While rap is the genre of choice for a generation other than my own, I cannot see anything qualitatively different between my own tastes here and more recent white attempts at keepin’ it ghetto fabulous in the Home Counties.

After all, a certain type of white guy has long vicariously identified with black America. Even back in the 1920s – well before Starkey was even born – Jewish jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow declared himself a ‘voluntary negro’, in recognition of where the cool beats were coming from.

The phenomenon was analysed as long ago as 1957, when Norman Mailer published his famous essay ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’ in the leftist magazine Dissent. You can read it onlinehere.

Mailer’s thesis – drawing on Marxist and Freudian themes – was that hipster subculture represented a rejection of the conformism of McCarthyite America, through the adoption of black fashion, ebonics, sexual promiscuity, reefer, and of course black music. Interestingly, he categorised such behaviour as psychopathic.

While I am way too old to qualify as cool any more, my enduring love affair with the blues was enough to see me take a pilgrimage to the Deep South and Mid West earlier this year.  I spent night after night hanging out in Mississippi juke joints and blues clubs in some of Chicago’s less salubrious neighbourhoods.

Among the more endearing conversations I had was with the proprietor of F Jones Corner, a club attempting to bring back the blues to its historic base in Farish Street, Jackson. If you are ever in town, you really have to check the place out.

So, I asked, what was a white boy doing running a blues club in the middle of a crack-devastated wasteland? With a smile on his face, he countered that he wasn’t really a white boy, he was ‘a little on the wigga side of things’. Put like that, he speaks for me, too.

The problem with the term he chose to employ is its obvious pejorative connotations, not least in the part of the world where he uttered it. A generation ago, a joke like that could quite literally have seen him lynched. But its strikes me that following the success in reclaiming ‘queer’ and ‘slut’, there is no reason for us wiggas to be ashamed of what we are. Sorry about that, Mr Starkey.

4 Comments

  1. Simon D says:

    So what happened there, then? Did he spend the entirety of the swinging sixties cooped up in student digs listening to Wagner or something?

    I’m afraid so:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/bf45ecc9

  2. George Flynn says:

    I think David Starkey is brill & like me just because I’m patriotic dosent mean I’m racist !
    So let’s all grow up a bit .

  3. John Reid says:

    Well said george

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