John Brown had a sick beard

Grégory Pierrot’s searing analysis of the deep roots of white supremacy and black exploitation in hipster culture. He also offers a way out of this.

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

The images coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia in summer 2017 offer a study in contrast. On the steps of Thomas Jefferson’s university, white men in khakis and undercuts assemble, lit in the August humidity by the soft glow of their absurd prop: garden store tiki torches. Cut to the next day: a car rams through a street full of protesters, captured on shaky cell phone footage in the stark light of day. Rightwing provocateur Richard Spencer’s staged performance had staked its claim: the polo shirts and khakis, the haircut (the undercut, high and tight, the “fashy”— literary scholar Grégory Pierrot has all the names for it in his book Decolonize Hipsters) were a clear statement of political affinity with white ethnonationalism. The injury and death that followed, if not outrightly choreographed, were scripted in the annals of fascism.

The undercut and the long beard had reached something close to ubiquity in the mid-2010s. It was everywhere. In the wake of Charlottesville, it became clear: the cut was compromised. Hipsters had to reckon with the fascist association of their tufted top. But as Pierrot argues in Decolonize Hipsters, his searing analysis of the deep roots of white supremacy and Black exploitation in modern culture, it was already compromised.

Decolonize Hipsters is a handbook, a playbook really, and in it Pierrot breaks down what the hipster has been at since at least the eighteenth century: colonization, extraction, appropriation, gentrification. It is a book that teaches the reader to look at modern culture anew—not through the quizzing glasses of the French Directory or the clear plastic frames of our present day—but through the practice of Black critique. Follow Pierrot and you will see that the “fashy” foretold Trump’s rise—the signs were there long before Charlottesville.

The beauty and the force of Decolonize Hipsters is the way Pierrot folds and unfolds the pleats of historical moments to tell a story of race in the Atlantic world. Hipsterdom has deep roots in colonization, Black cultural appropriation, and white supremacy. It is fitting that Pierrot’s book kicks off the series Decolonize That! Handbooks for the Revolutionary Overthrow of Embedded Colonial Ideas, edited by Bhakti Shringarpure. Coloniality is embedded in hipsterdom: the fascination with, scorn for, and theft of Black culture is inextricably tied to the Atlantic slave trade. “Cultural appropriation wasn’t born in a day, or in twenty-first-century Brooklyn,” Pierrot reminds us. And so he takes the reader on a tour of the past: from the late 18th-century European fashions of Creole dress, the mid-19th-century Parisian bohemian, to US American cakewalks, minstrel shows, jazz, blues, bebop, and on through Picasso, Portland, The Gap, indie rock, beards, Williamsburg, and the Kardashians.

Pierrot’s journey through hipsterdom’s history of Black cultural appropriation does not merely chart its evolution, he exposes its methods, too. Hipsterdom remains predicated on “exploiting Blackness—including Black critiques of whiteness—like a bottomless mine.” For Pierrot, Black cool was born out of the threat of violence and the crafting of tools for survival: “the communal knowledge that this life in the heart of whiteness is a dangerous game with ever-changing rules.” This secret knowledge, these subversive tools were incredibly attractive to white outsiders who came to “discover” and explain them for a wider white audience. Their finder’s fee was the cool they could now claim as their own, as the hipster is wont to do: “the original cool peeled and reconstructed by immediate witnesses to the broader circles of the white public” (see also “Columbusing,”; “capitalism”).

The genius of this book is not just in Pierrot’s analysis but in his delivery of it. His mode is decidedly unironic and snark-free. This point deserves emphasis because at first blush a reader might confuse Pierrot’s penchant for humorous nicknames and biting satire with snark (see: “pillowcase scouts”; “rapist-in-chief”— but which one? Read to find out!; “the orange love child of Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis”; “Nappo Number Three,” etc.). Make no mistake: there is no mocking irreverence here, and Pierrot is dead serious. He trades in facts and history—the book is an uncompromising ledger that shows the hipster, and white culture more broadly, deep in the red.

This doesn’t mean the book is not hilarious because it is! Pierrot’s humor is the kind that refuses to soft pedal for anyone’s comfort. He reveals this kind of accommodation to be part of the problem in the first place: the hipster’s recourse to snark and irony is an insidious dodge. “Irony,” Pierrot reveals, “allows one to eat one’s cake and forever have some left (or, arguably, right). The rebellious stance characteristic of hip and avant-garde can either translate into political action or at least discourse, or remain something short of that, snark without critique. Stay there long enough and you’ll have snark for snark’s sake (say that real fast many times), an outlook that demands that anything serious always be taken down a notch.” To great effect, Pierrot punctuates the seriousness of his subject—white supremacy, extraction, colonization, fascism—with the hipster refrain: “Don’t you have a sense of humor?”; “Jokes, ya know? It was ironic.” Hipster irony won’t fly in 2021—it can’t fly—not after Trump, not after Charlottesville. The haircut is compromised. The beard, too.

Pierrot’s accounting of the consequences of hipsterdom on present day politics is damning. The cult of individuality and commitment to burnishing one’s quirkiness is exposed for what it is: depoliticization, consumerism, complicity. Hipsterdom is “a lure, a diversion: it was a glaring instance in a mass movement of depoliticization whose very avowed scorn for politics made the bed for our fascist present.”

In the end, though, Pierrot offers a path forward—the possibility of breaking the cycle of colonization, appropriation, and theft. He brings a genuine spirit of hopefulness imbued with a generosity that cannot but feel a bit heartbreaking. No spoilers here (ok one: it’s not not capitalism), but Pierrot posits a way to take all of that hipster energy spent cool hunting and channel it into something meaningful. It involves another, better white man associated with Virginia: John Brown, whose memory and legacy Pierrot suggests is the one US American culture should be mining and appropriating.

As it turns out, Brown also had a sick beard, so maybe there is hope after all.



Further Reading