...hip tells a story of black and white America, and the dance of conflict and curiosity that binds it. In a history often defined by racial clash, hip offers and alternative account of centuries of contact and emulation, of back-and-forth. This line of mutual influence, which we seldom talk about, is not a decorative fillip on the national identity but one of the central, life-giving arteries. Though the line often disappears in daily life -- through segregation, job discrimination and the racial split in any school cafeteria -- it surfaces in popular culture, where Americans collect their fantasies of what they might be. The center of American culture runs through Mark Twain and Louis Armstrong, and it is imposible to imagine either's work without both African and European roots. Born in radically different circumstances and separated by history, they have as much in common with each other as with their peers from what either might call the ancestral homeland. Both are classicists and bluesmen, masters of language, breakers of the rules that would hold them apart. What they have in common is hip.
For better and worse, hip represents a dream of America. At its best it imagines the racial fluidity of pop culture as the real America, the one we are yearning to become. As William Burroughs said, revolution in American begins in books and music, and then waits for political operatives to "implement change after the fact". At its worst, hip glosses over real division and inequity, pretending that the right argot and record collection outweigh the burden of racial history. White hipsters often use their interest in black culture to claim moral high ground, while giving nothing back...Really that high ground lies elsewhere. Hip can be a self-serving release from white liberal guilt, offering cultural reparations in place of the more substantive kind. This is white supremacy posing as appreciation. Neither of these verdicts on hip is strong enough to cancel the other out. Hip serves both functions: it is an ennobling force that covers for ignominy. Steeped in this paradox, it tells a story of synthesis in the context of separation. Its metier is ambiguity and contradiction. Its bad is often good.