Few race markers in Beat authorship have attracted greater attention, and on occasion controversy, than those met with in “Howl” (1956), Ginsberg's visionary poem-epic, and On the Road (1957), Kerouac's totemic life chronicle. As Ginsberg writes: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” And as Kerouac's Sal Paradise muses:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me … I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned.
Despite such vivid and potentially problematic moments across the best-known canon of Beat authorship, to include the companion writing of William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, race has tended to get underplayed as a contributing feature. If Howl and Other Poems, along with Kaddish (1961), bespeaks Jewish Ginsberg, or On The Road, and more explicitly The Subterraneans (1958) and Pic (published postumously in 1971), summon Kerouac's interracial as well as sexual and jazz interests, they have understandably won greater reckoning for their overall plies of dissent. But, if indeed race does not hold preemptive sway in canonical Beat culture and writing, it can hardly be said not to have come into imaginative view, whether out front or in a variety of local seams and threads.
Any map dealing with the Beats and race needs to steer carefully between text and context, both the connections and the gaps. Of necessity there arise conceptual issues. In Beat, as in other cultural practice, is race – or raciality as it has sometimes been termed – to be differentiated from ethnicity, the former with its often troubling connection to supremacist genetics and the latter usually construed more in terms of performed identity?