“Hipness,” Robin James tells us, “is a practice grounded, both historically and structurally, in racism.” Worse yet: “discourses of taste and hipness produce individual bodies as white, and maintain Whiteness as a socio-political norm.” There are of course national particularities to hipsterdom—as anyone who remembers skinny pants once being derided as “European” knows well—but they do not trump the cross-pollinating transnational, transatlantic practices of casual race-building that underlay hipstory (yeah, I went there).
A hep-ster, a hip-ster, a black and tan scenester, but then again, not always: if the suffix -ster denotes belonging of some sort, then this connotes a belonging to hip, or hep. At the turn of the twentieth century the term “hep” or “hip” sneaks into the American English language, of origin officially unknown. Unknown—that’s never stopped anyone from speculating, or tracing genealogies of usage, as one does. And so there are interesting etymological lines out there.
That is what dictionaries say, but were we to wade a little further upstream, we might ponder the relation hep or hip might have to “hip hip”: before this became the cheer to which all would respond “hurrah” sometime in the late eighteenth century, “hip hip” was an interjection, what you might say to hail someone in the street or, if you were a shepherd, to your sheep as you lead them to their pen or, if you were French, to the waiter who’s been ignoring your gesticulations for the past half hour or, if you were an early nineteenth century German anti-Semite, to your fellow bigots as you rampage through the streets of Würzburg or Frankfurt assaulting Jews and burning down their houses during the 1819 “Hep Hep” riots. No one really knows why the rioters used the chant that came to name this infamy, but a longstanding, popular conspiracy theory assigns it a sort of secret meaning as a rallying cry supposedly passed on to nineteenth-century anti-Semites from crusader anti-Semites. The truth of the story matters less than what it highlights in the usages of hep/hip as a call for recognition that expects a response, whether those you call for are strangers on the street or fellow racists.
And so: Cultural appropriation wasn’t born in a day, or in twenty-first-century Brooklyn. Rather, contemporary hipsters are the latest variation on an age-old cultural tradition. The central elements of hip—clothes, attitude, music, insider knowledge—lead to the history of Atlantic slavery and to the central fact that modern culture as we know it owes a whole lot to the African diaspora.
For centuries, millions of Africans were captured to be sold into slavery in the Americas and be worked to death and abused, their labor, their bodies, stolen from them. The many slave societies that developed in the Americas had their own specificities inflected by the cultures of the colonized, American and African, and those of the colonizers from all over Europe. They were all similar in that with time they built legal, social, economic and protoscientific systems of racial discrimination meant to justify and perpetuate themselves. Laws regulated how the enslaved should work, where they could go, but also how they should be: where and how they might congregate, what language they should speak, what food they could grow, eat, sell, what musical instruments they could play, what dances they could dance, what clothes they could wear. From South America to the United States by way of the Caribbean, increasingly elaborate laws banned the playing of drums or dancing in public; from the early 1700s on, laws in the Caribbean and Louisiana specified what Black people could wear, and forbade Black women to show their hair and risk outshining white women.
The first laws to discriminate against all Black people, irrespective of their free or enslaved status, listed the specific fabrics they were allowed to wear. In order to build race, enslavers felt they also had to control fashion. Not that it worked as planned: there were always ways to follow the letter of the law and challenge it. Even as enslavers would do the bare minimum to provide clothes for the enslaved and restrict what they could procure for themselves, the latter still managed to develop unique styles and fashions from, and against, the material restrictions imposed on them. Black women turned the tignon—the headdress they were forced to wear—into an art and a secret language. They subverted the law by following it to the letter, using colorful fabric to design elaborate headdresses; in Martinique, for example, the manner of folding the madras headdress communicates information about the wearer’s love interests. Similarly, if the enslaved wore the same drab clothing in the fields, on weekends and holidays they went all out, affecting what colorful clothing they could obtain at dances and celebrations. In the face of systemic oppression, dehumanization, and enforced humiliation, messing with dress codes, subtly appropriating and reorienting material elements meant to visually represent control was a form of sub rosa resistance and imperceptible commentary, clear enough to those in the know, and dissembling enough not to warrant systematic punishment.
Enslavers tolerated this sartorial defiance, not necessarily aware that there, as in the United States, the extravagant dress and dances often subtly mocked enslavers. More importantly yet, as Shane and Graham White contend in their book Stylin’, the fashion sense of the enslaved was “an emphatic repudiation of their allotted social role” that “intruded…into the world of their supposed betters.” Such laws were meant to create and enforce racial separation and difference in domains of life where they were dangerously tenuous: it turned out that no matter how dedicated to discrimination white people might be, they nevertheless still found the arts of people of Africa appealing and wanted to appropriate them. Black cuisine, clothing style, music, and speech infused American white cultures, and just as quickly they traveled freely across the Atlantic. European fashion flowed into the American colonies, but colonial fashions sailed back as well, bearing unmistakable traces of the Black Caribbean styles born of coercion in the late eighteenth century.
The so-called “Creole style” of dress, for example, featured white, diaphanous dresses made of muslin, a fabric traditionally used for women’s underwear in Europe and generally considered a logical answer to the torrid climate of the tropics. Just as often, Creole style included variations on the headdresses Black women were forced to wear, but whose sophistication and class became the envy of white women. The Creole style of dress made its way to Europe and took off there in the dying days of the Ancien Régime, only to be adapted later into the neoclassical style made popular by the likes of Madame de Récamier, Thérésa Tallien, and other prominent women of the new French ruling class, most notably Joséphine de Beauharnais and her friend Fortunée Hamelin, both heiresses to wealthy families respectively from the French Caribbean colonies of Martinique and Saint-Domingue.
In the aftermath of the Terror, moderates took control of the French Republic, organizing a new government, the Directory. As they were drafting a new constitution, fearing that the Jacobins who still had plenty of popular support might try to regain power, the moderates allowed the sons of the upper middle class to organize in roving bands to harass radical Jacobins on sight in the streets of Paris. These cane-wielding goons were known as “muscadins,” after the strong perfume they were known to douse themselves in. They made sure that their ideological differences did not just smell but also showed: you could tell them by their extravagant, spilling neckerchiefs and tight, garish coats. With the Jacobins under control, the new rulers of France cracked down on muscadin street gangs, but their ideas and fashion style remained. Their successors, the “Incroyables,” affected a peculiar, possibly English-inspired accent—dropping “Rs” supposedly because the letter reminded them of the hated revolution—and further amped up clothing outlandishness, wearing their undersized riding coats unbuttoned, or bunched up so as to mimic a hunchback, their hair short on the neck and drooping long on the sides, like dog ears. They might wear a single gold loop earring, known in France as a “creole.” Like their close relatives, the British dandies, the Incroyables cultivated expertise in the trivial and claimed fashion discernment as their paramount quality, which they demonstrated, not without humor, by perpetually carrying quizzing glasses, with which to inspect whatever or whoever might need to be. Yet perhaps even more than the Incroyables, it was the most famous among their female counterparts—the Merveilleuses—who embodied Directory France’s aura of glamour, sex, and scandal mostly attached to women and their fashions.
Newspapers throughout Europe regaled their readers with anecdotes about the lusty ladies of the Directory, their scandalous dugs, their libertine behavior, and shameless love for that provocative new dance out of Austria, the waltz. They delighted in describing with great detail the increasingly more risqué outfits—all transparent materials with next to nothing underneath—women introduced at the many parties they attended, but also, sometimes, in the streets. On one occasion, as she was stepping out of a carriage on the Champs-Élysées in one of her signature tulle dresses, slit on the side all the way to her hip, arms bare and cleavage showing, Fortunée Hamelin, accompanied by an anonymous friend, found herself harassed by passers-by who soon gathered into a crowd and forced the women to flee the scene. Though all the fashionable women of the Directory adopted these new, sulfurous styles, few were so admired and stigmatized for it as Hamelin.
Clichés about the lascivious nature of Creoles in the torrid zones were already part of popular culture, but rumors according to which Hamelin’s mother might have been a free Black woman only exacerbated the deluge of lustful comments about her. Even as Hamelin’s reputation became too scandalous for Napoleon’s new regime, her salon became Paris’s most fashionable social circle, where Europe’s prominent artists and politicians routinely gathered. For the best of the following four decades, Hamelin remained a central figure of France’s highest social and political sphere. In case you were wondering what slut-shaming was like during the Enlightenment, Hamelin remains known as “the naughtiest person in France,” the nickname she earned in her days as the queen of Merveilleuses.
The Directory initiated a familiar pattern: European fashion tapped into fantasized and fetishized notions of Black-infused exoticism, only to deny that they influenced anything at all. In this way, Hamelin’s own life reads like a running metaphor: After Bonaparte overthrew the Directory and got himself named France’s First Consul, he had Hamelin (who had once been his lover and forever remained his loyal confidante) banned from the court, as he strove to impose a façade of respectable behavior. A year later, Bonaparte would send a massive expedition to the colonies in order to reestablish slavery, simultaneously closing continental French borders to Black people. No matter: Black cultural influence always finds a way. The Black insurgent army in Saint Domingue defeated the French and declared independence on January 1, 1804, becoming the first free Republic in the world. North of Haiti, in the United States now expanded by a third after Napoleon dumped Louisiana on rapist-in-chief Thomas Jefferson, Black people had to cope with surviving in the first white supremacist Republic in the world.
As the free Black population grew in North America and throughout the Caribbean, despite increasing legal segregation, so did cultural exchanges. Northern whites kept African Americans in distinct neighborhoods which they often had to share with poor whites. Faced with constant abuse and extreme racist violence, African Americans also found themselves the objects of intense and obsessive scrutiny. White fascination with Black style fed a stream of ethnographic accounts simultaneously marveling, ridiculing, and expressing anxiety at the sight of the Black “dandies and dandizettes” who were strutting their stuff in urban centers throughout the Americas. Whites hated it, but also couldn’t get enough: Creole songs and Caribbean-themed plays were all the rage in European capitals in the eighteenth century already, where actors such as Charles Mathews made their reputation rendering “true” interpretations of Black Americans, their speech, their singing, their dancing. Imagine a male Iggy Azalea in breeches and actual blackface telling London crowds he’s the realest. Throughout the cities of the Eastern seaboard, white performers, songwriters, and writers mocked and emulated Black festivals, celebrations, and balls. By the time American entertainer T. D. Rice figured he could stomp around New York stages in blackface doing his own impressions of Black speech and dance as a character he named Jim Crow, the ingredients in this cake recipe had been around a while. Look at the cake, copy it, slap some icing on it (make it Black), sell it as the real thing: you’re a baker now.
And so blackface minstrelsy took the country by storm, and also Great Britain, and on through Europe. Let’s say it again for the kids in the back: the pattern of fascination, scorn, and shameless pilfering that structures minstrelsy is the basis on which American popular culture rose, and I don’t mean just the United States: Rice echoed Mathews and eighteenth-century English comedies set in the Caribbean; plays featuring Creole songs and dances were performed on French stages, and Caribbean basin sounds and style were all the rage in nineteenth-century France as well, where half a century before jazz was even a thing, New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk moved to make a living coating Black music he’d heard growing up in European frosting. This was late-1840s Paris, and the art scene belonged to the bohemian. Ancestor to the hipster if there ever was one, the bohemian was an idle young man who chose eccentricity over conformity and art over convention. Whether or not he actually did make art as the bourgeois might understand, the bohemian turned anything he did into art. That could be writing, sure, painting, why not, making music, possibly, but it could just as well be talking shit, dressing fancy, or acting cool. Bohemians’ scorn for, and dedicated opposition to, the pillars of bourgeois society—family, work, virtue, good taste, common sense—their cult of pleasure, art, frivolity set standards of behavior that underlie what we expect of artists and hangers-on to this day.
You may not be surprised to find out that at a time when Black presence in Paris was fairly minimal, Black people were disproportionately represented among the bearded ranks of la Bohème. France was developing its own peculiar rapport to American Blackness and its own brand of erasure as well: though the bohémien is part of France’s cultural clout in and outside the country, there is virtually nothing left of the Caribbean bohemians in popular memory. If poet Charles Baudelaire is the first name to come up when you think of these circles, you may then also know of “Black Venus” Jeanne Duval, the Caribbean actress who was his partner and muse for many turbulent years, but chances are that you know her by the slanderous, condescending, sexist accounts reserved for her by generations of Baudelaire scholars—a racially ambiguous slut-muse in the lineage of Hamelin. Most French people have never heard of the likes of the Caribbean Eugène Chapus, Melvil-Bloncourt, or the Louisianian Victor Séjour, stalwarts of the scene.
Yet it so happens that according to all parties involved, the quintessential bohémien was a free Black man from Guadeloupe by the name of Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont. His friends and acquaintances undeniably admired him, his dandyish style, his nonchalant attitude, and impeccable wit—but they just as clearly saw these wonderfully decadent aspects as intrinsically related to his blackness. Anglemont was the absolute bohemian, the bohemian naturalized, because his exoticism made him an outsider, the perfect challenger to French bourgeois values in that his opposition literally showed on his skin. White bohemians, then, had in him a model to emulate that they could never quite attain. The pattern set by bohemians was that of praising a vision of the noble savage as one to emulate and perfect. Paradoxically, Anglemont was celebrated for his dedication to art and artifice—style—in the same movement that these qualities were presented as natural to him. By this token, then, the mere fact that this behavior supposedly did not come naturally to white bohemians, their having to work at it, made them more sophisticated bohemians.
Maybe this kind of praise made Anglemont snicker: most of what we know of him is secondhand, conveyed by friends and acquaintances who, as much as they liked him, seemingly never found out for sure how much of what he told them was made up or real. At least they had some notion that Anglemont was talking shit. But then, he was also talking shit without having to fear the repercussions the enslaved would have had to face on the island where he was born, or in any other slave society in the Americas. Those who had to talk shit more subtly developed, for instance, the cakewalk: a dance birthed in the mid-nineteenth-century US by the enslaved, it parodied the stilted ballroom dances enslavers were fond of. Said enslavers found these shenanigans so entertaining they took to awarding cakes to the best dancers—hence the name. Taste the irony and consider the existential meaning of “being hip” in circumstances where smarts and wit could end your life. This tradition and art of creative irony you may know in many different forms as signifyin’: saying one thing in the language of the oppressor while meaning another.
Enslavers regularly unleashed brutality for much less than mockery: why risk so much for so little as momentary, secret satisfaction? I don’t pretend to understand it fully, but then I also think we all get it: the power in small acts of agency is how we keep going, how we nourish our souls. Poking fun at enslavers in these ways, the enslaved literally ate their cake (the one they won at the dance, remember) and might have it again the following week, with a little more flash, a little more bounce and, more importantly, while making sure the knowledge remained secret enough to at least keep enslavers guessing. To be hep, if the word had existed then, might have meant to be in on the joke, aware that it even was one, when enslavers looking down on them thought they had it all figured out. All groups of the African diaspora around the Americas developed similar small acts of cultural sabotage, and ways for obfuscating them, allowing irony to pass for simple-mindedness, and yet coding it all in secret languages and signs accessible only to what future NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson would call the “freemasonry of the race”: those who know, enslaved or not and soon no longer really enslaved, but still subjected to the same blanket oppression and continuing to make ever-changing lemonade from an endless deluge of lemons. Black American cool thus rests in no small part on the communal knowledge that this life in the heart of whiteness is a dangerous game with ever-changing rules. Signifyin’ can be seen as a series of calls and responses, check-ins, of sorts, hailings, where every subtle joke or nod asks someone else: Get it? Hip?
Excerpted from Decolonize Hipsters, out this month from OR Books.