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Hip: The History
By John Leland
Ecco ISBN: 0-06-052817-6
Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her ... You know why music was the center of our lives for such a long time? Because it was a way of allowing Africa in. - Brian Eno
Toward the end of 1619, John Rolfe, the first tobacco grower of Virginia, noted the arrival of a new import to the British colonies. Rolfe (1585-1622) is best known as the husband of Pocahontas, and it was his experiments with growing tobacco that saved the Jamestown settlement from ruin. The incoming cargo he noted on this day would change the course of tobacco and the colonies as a whole. "About the last of August," he wrote, "came a Dutch man of war that sold us twenty Negroes."
These slaves, likely looted from a Spanish ship or one of the Spanish colonies to the south, were not the first African slaves in North America. The Spanish explorers Panfilo de Narvaez, Menendéz de Avilés and Coronado had all brought slaves into what is now Florida and New Mexico. Yet the 20 Africans who were brought ashore at modern-day Hampton, Virginia, then carried upriver for sale in Jamestown, formally marked the beginning of what would be 246 years of America's "peculiar institution" of slavery. Five years after their arrival, a 1624 census of Virginia recorded the presence of 22 blacks. Before the country banned new imports in 1808, leaving still the illegal market, around 600,000 to 650,000 Africans were brought to the states in bondage; by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, there were almost 4 million slaves in the United States, out of a total population of 31 million.
A pressing question in the evolution of hip is, why here? Why did hip as we know it, and as it is emulated around the world, arise as a distinctly American phenomenon? Many of its signature elements existed among the bohemians of the Left Bank in Paris - or, for that matter, among those of Bohemia, now a part of the Czech Republic. The European capitals embraced the romance of scruff at least as early as Henri Murger's 1840s literary sketches, Scènes de la vie die bohème, or Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera based on the sketches, La Bohème. Yet it is impossible to imagine Europe producing the blues or the Beats, the Harlem Renaissance or the Factory. What distinguished the United States is both simple and, in its ramifications, maddeningly, insolubly complex. That difference is the presence of Africans, and the coexistence of two very different populations in a new country with undefined boundaries. Without the Africans, there is no hip.
To be finer about it, there is no hip without African Americans and European Americans, inventing new identities for themselves as Americans in each other's orbit. These first-generation arrivals, black and white, and their second-, third- and fourth-generation heirs, learned to be Americans together. As a self-conscious idea, America took shape across an improvised chasm of race. Some of the most passionate arguments over slavery were economic rather than moral: Adam Smith argued that it undermined the free market for labor; defenders countered that the peculiar institution was more humane than the "wage slavery" of northern factories. But on a practical level, people on both sides of the divide needed strategies for negotiating the conundrum that held them apart, interdependent but radically segregated.
These strategies are hip's formative processes. While we often think of hip as springing whole into the world in the 1920s or 1950s, its roots go back at least another century. Hipster language, stance and irony begin not in the cool poses of the modern city but on the antebellum plantation, in the interplay of these two populations. For all their difference in standing, the black and white foreigners taught each other how to talk, eat, sing, worship and celebrate, each side learning as it was being learned. Customs passed back and forth. Though history texts talk of Africans becoming Europeanized, or of Europeans stealing the blues, the ways the two populations dealt with each other were more complicated than that. Such borrowing is never indiscriminate, nor the copying exact. Like digital samplers, the borrowers pick and choose what works for them, and shape it to their own ends; the final product comments on both its origins and its manipulations.
This produced the feedback loop of hip, which centuries later gives us white kids sporting doo rags. Against the larger story of racial oppression and animosity, there was also one of creative interplay. The two populations had something to take from each other. In the decades bracketing the Civil War, when a maturing America began to stage stories about itself, it created two idioms that reflected exactly this unresolved vortex. The first is the blackface minstrel show, which surfaced in the 1820s and 1830s and is considered America's first popular culture. The second is the blues, which appeared toward the end of the century. These two forms, nurtured on American soil, are the twined root stems of hip. We live among their branches to this day.
If hip is a story of synthesis in the context of division, its origins lie in the unique structure of slavery in America, which pushed the two populations together. In the massive sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean, which accounted for the majority of the transatlantic slave trade, slaves lived in overwhelmingly black worlds. Owners ran these plantations from a distance, working their slaves to death in the tropical climes and then importing huge waves of replacements. African cultures and languages, constantly replenished by new arrivals, survived relatively undiluted, and do to this day. In North America, by contrast, until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 spurred the growth of big plantations, most farms were small and required few slaves. Owners worked the land, often without overseers between them and the slaves ...
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