I began On the Road with the complete understanding that Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical “novel” is about a white man’s geographical and developmental journey. I understood that the setting of the novel is the 40s— a time when traveling meant something very different from people who look like me. For Kerouac, or his alter ego, Sal, jumping on Route 66 in the mid-40s is a symbol of adventure and freedom—for searching for himself through experiences with “mad” people, such as his habitual co-pilot Dean, the alter ego for real-life beatnik, Neal Cassidy. Despite my background information of the novel, throughout my reading experience, I couldn’t help but think that if I, or anyone who looked like me, jumped on the road in the mid-40s, it probably would have been out of dire necessity—physical safety and/or financial needs. Someone who looked like me would not have been able to hitchhike freely, pick up hitchhikers, or even stop for a trip to the loo in many towns, the way Sal and his roaddogs do so mindlessly. But, alas, On the Road is not about a Negro woman’s journey across the American countryside in the mid-40s (though, that would make for an important account), and the fact that I cannot easily place myself into this story is not problematic.
White people get to tell their story too.
What has been surprising during my reading experience, however, is the amount of brown and Black co-stars who do show up on Sal’s journey to enlightenment. Silly me, for thinking I was reading a white man’s story—what American tale of personal fulfillment would be complete without the occasional tryst with the brown woman, or soulful experience with the Negro musician? The novel hasn’t been compared to Huckleberry Finn for nothin’!
For all Kerouac fans, I think he would “dig” my cheekiness, and to be fair, I’ve enjoyed much of my reading experience.Kerouac’s eccentric characters, and exploration of the American landscape is romantic, and when it’s not at the expense of a brown or Black person’s experience, even thrilling. His erratic writing style creates urgency for his reader to drop their book, stand on the nearest corner, stick out their thumb, and see where fate takes them. Aside from Kerouac’s entrancing narrative, however, I am most curious about his brown and Black encounters, and their necessity to his story’s progression. What would Kerouac’s story be like without his obsession with Jazz (read Black) culture, or his fantasy of living amongst “the Mexicans”? Aside from Keroacs’ obsession with Dean, it is his fascination with non-white folks that moves, and even ends his story.
On the back of my Penguin edition of the book, it states On the Road is “The novel that defined a generation,” and I don’t think there’s a better way to describe the book’s impact. Between intersecting Sal’s journey with his pseudo-relationship with the Mexican “girl,” Terry, his eventual road trip leading to Mexico, or “Mehico,” as he emphatically puts it , and his nights out with wild Negro musicians in San Francisco and Chicago, Keroac’s novel created the requirements for the white American journey:
1. Be slightly privileged, and white-minded, at the very least.
2. Find an inner-struggle
3. Seek self through Black and brown folks.
4. Leave brown and Black folks in the dust of your journey.
5. Continue your journey; seek “stability;” and find joy in the stories you tell about your white American journeys.
I know, I know… I’m being harsh on poor, Kerouac’s narrative. But, really, I’m just as selfish as he, or Sal, is, and am concerned about where I, and people who look like me, fit into these narratives. Whether a fictionalized or authentic geographical/spiritual journey, the brown and/or Black rendezvous have become staple for the white American quest– Eat, Pray, Love is another obvious example of the white person finding personal ecstasy at the expense of people of color. As readers/viewers absorb such narratives, I can’t help but wonder…What happens to the brown and Black people who get fetishized for the sake of the white (wo)man’s journey? What happens to “Mexican Terry” or “wild” musicians, once their exciting quality wears out–when do we get to hear their story, and when does it get listened to? What does it look like when the fetishized community reclaims agency, and explores a journey of their own— is it considered worth reading about? If so, when do I get to read it, and then get to watch it in the theaters?