Being a Hipster Is Not Compatible with Being Black
Being a hipster essentially means you struggle to give your life meaning through the things you consume and the irony you employ. Being black in America means that your struggle is for life itself.
Enough time has passed since the world was at Peak Hipster for us to look back at it as a movement, or a craze, or a meme, or whatever the fuck it was and try to take stock of what it all meant, if anything. So this week we're doing exactly that in a short collection of stories.
In the weeks after 9/11, I remember having a conversation with William Harvey, the primordial Williamsburg hipster and style icon who plays bass in Lord Calverts. Harvey saw the tragedy as the death knell of irony. Even by then, ironic distance from life had already become something of a cliche in New York, maybe dating back to, I don't know, Warhol? There have been so many decades of kids (artists, writers, and painters, but still essentially kids) who tried their damnedest to live ironically, because to do so earnestly was either too stupid or to frightening.
Harvey's theory was that such an attempt requires a distance from reality that is only possible if reality cooperates by keeping its distance from you. In other words, you can only live as though everything is bullshit if only bullshit things are happening to you. This is why hipsterism, and its driving rhetorical concept, irony, is entirely reserved for people to whom nothing bad ever happens. Things that feel bad might happen. (You might not get a girl you wanted, or you might not make a soccer team when you're 13, or your parents might get divorced and your dad might move one town over and you might have to eat cereal for dinner out of plastic bowls and sleep on the couch when you go to his one bedroom apartment...) But nothing actually bad—like, really bad—happens to you.
Really bad things make the world real. If your world is devoid of global-level bad, than it is not entirely real and therefore, irony makes perfect sense to you. This is what Harvey was talking about. Standing, as he described it, in the middle of the street in Greenpoint holding two squirming toddlers, watching smoke filling the sky, knowing that multiple thousands were dying right in front of them, it occurred to him that the thing happening was so bad, so real, to so many people all at once, that it would no longer be possible for people to keep an ironic distance from reality. Thus, he predicted that Sept 11, 2001 would be the beginning of the end of the hipster.
I came into adulthood in Williamsburg and Bushwick in the 1990s. I really tried to be a hipster. I bought all the things you were supposed to: fixies, chemexes, typewriters, records, air plants, reclaimed wood, granddad sweaters, installation taxidermy art, knit blankets, accordions. All of it. I was the black dude in the game for 20 years. And the only thing I think I learned for sure is that no matter how you're dressed, to be black and to be a hipster are completely incompatible.
First of all, hipsterism was about appropriating stuff. Everything, to be precise. Your grandfather's facial hair, 70s albums, and remote neighborhoods that are still close to downtown. Whether it's in music, style, or actual land—stealing, reclaiming, re-using, settling, gentrifying, or whatever else you want to call it is at the core of hipstering. You must find something that already existed, that is completely uncool, and then you must announce that it's cool and then all your friends must come there and set up shop, and then you must walk around it like you own it. And then you've gotta find something else that was already there. And repeat.
The second key thing you must do to hipster is maintain a proper distance from reality. This is why irony was hipsterism's trusty co-pilot. You dressed like a nerd but, surprise, you were actually very cool and popular. You wore a trucker hat, but, surprise, you're actually an erudite world music connoisseur living in a five-story walk up. You had a child molester mustache but, surprise, you actually disagree with raping kids. Nothing was as it seemed. No person was real. Life was elsewhere. People were ideas. Reality was theory.
The thing about trying to do this while black, though, is that it gives you a fucking headache. While being a hipster means that you're always looking to the past for some quaint discovery to re-purpose, being black means that you look to the past and think, Damn, my ass would have been lynched. While being a hipster means that you think your parents' music is hilarious, being black means your parents' music moves you to tears because it is connected to your very own spiritual and personal struggle for humanity. While being a hipster means that nothing matters, being black means that you have a concerted movement to remind the world that your life does matter. If you're black, the rubber is always on the road. Your face is always to the Earth. But not just if you're black, but also if you're poor or if you are the victim of oppression, violence, murders, systemic destruction. If you're a refugee. If you don't have running water. If you don't have shoes. If your family is in prison. If you're a veteran. If you don't know where you're going to sleep tonight. If you might get killed for saying no. If you're struggling to live—not struggling to make meaning of life, but struggling to live, like, bottom-level Maslow shit. If, in other words, you're most people on the planet, then yeah, hipsterism was never for you. And it's not the fanciful ideas that exclude you. It's the space it takes to have them. Being a hipster means you struggle for meaning in life. Being anything else means that your struggle is for life itself.
And the thing is that everyone, even hipsters, are becoming anything else. This piece was supposed to run in November, but it got pushed back because 130 people were killed in Paris. While I was working on revisions, 20 more people were shot at a holiday party for goddamn developmentally disabled adults. And that was the second mass shooting of that day. 9/11, which was supposed to be the worst thing that could ever happen, was 15 years ago. And we still haven't stopped pretending shit doesn't matter. Since then, more women have been killed by their domestic partners than all the American soldiers who have died in the ensuing Wars on Terror. There have been more American mass shootings in 2015 than there have been days in 2015. No one even knows how many unarmed American citizens have been killed by police in the last 15 years, but here's 70 just to get you started counting. Really bad things are coming for everyone. No matter who you are.
In short, shit is real and it's getting more real for more people all the time. It's time for pretty much everyone to cut back on distance and irony and snark and ramp up on earnestness, love, anguish, passion, courage, hand-holding, heart-beating. It's time to do away with whatever part of you thinks that last sentence was stupid. It's time for Harvey's prediction to come to pass. It's time for irony to rest. And then maybe the very last thing hipsterism will appropriate form the rest of the world, before fading into darkness, will be our total refusal to treat our lives as a theoretical joke.
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