"NO ONE IS MORE DANGEROUS than he who imagines himself pure in heart," writes James Baldwin in "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," "for his purity, by definition, is unassailable." Baldwin's essay is a response to his friend Norman Mailer's "The White Negro," in which Mailer describes the birth of the "hipster," a.k.a. the (white) "American existentialist," who learns the ropes of living in desperate times from those who have had that desperate living covered for centuries. Mailer's hipster, Baldwin argues, is dangerous and insidious because he believes himself so hip, so down, that he's unable to see his own connection to how power works in society. He sees his purity of heart as the soap that can scrub the stain of power from his hands.
These essays — from 1957 and 1961, respectively — open Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay's anthology White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. The editors chose to begin with Mailer and Baldwin, in part, to exemplify what they term as one of the racial "tendencies" in the history of punk: the I'll-leave-my-privilege-at-the-doorstep posture that's been adopted by white punk or proto-punk musicians from Patti Smith to the nineties Chicago hardcore band Racetraitor. But Baldwin's notion of "purity of heart" speaks, I think, to more than this one problematic tendency in punk. Punk as a belief system has historically assumed — demanded — some form of idealistic loyalty from its adherents. The terms of that purity vary by context, from the explicit rigidity of Straight Edge or White Power punks to a less clearly defined but no less consuming call in the punk scene at large to view it as a utopic, radically political alternative to the mainstream (where gratuitous mention of things like race, gender, and class only serve to distract from the unifying Pure Punkness of it all).
Especially for young kids first getting into the scene, punk purity is a powerful draw. I remember, as a disaffected teen, my sense was that everything sucked so completely that whatever could save me from the suckiness must feel, at least, as totalizing. The same teenage tendency to view the world as a monolithic either/or that turned me on to college radio and 7" records also made The Fountainhead my favorite book when I was 16. When we find out as punkish adults about the ghastliness of Ayn Rand's politics, it's easy enough to disavow our teen dalliances with Objectivism. But what do we do about punk when we realize that that purity to which we were so drawn was, in fact, homogenizing, exclusionary? That's the question, I realize, of a white punkish adult, as I am, and as are the editors of White Riot. For punks of color, that realization may have clouded the promise of punk from the beginning.
For a punk-turned-academic (or "punkademic," to borrow a term from a recent article in the Boston Globe), one way to begin to address that question — What do I do when I begin to see punk as contested territory? — is to make punk the object of your study, in order not only to uncover and analyze its history but also to begin to frame it in a way that eschews the either/or of its foundational ethos. To put it another way, books like White Riot are attempting to alter the way the punk scene sees itself. Duncombe and Tremblay present a commendably diverse array of source material: seminal cultural studies texts by Dick Hebdige, Roger Sabin, and ...