On Jack Kerouac’s Centennial, Writers of Color Examine His Complicated Legacy

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A poster with a photograph of beat poet Neal Cassady and author Jack Kerouac is framed by books by Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the City Lights Bookstore. (Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

I

first met Jack Kerouac not long after my country and I split up. By that, I mean I had just moved to the United States from Colombia, where I was born and raised. I first encountered him during my first semester at Rollins College in 2012, and his work changed my artistic approach. 

After reading On the Road for the first time, I went to my college library’s archive and spent hours looking at the manuscript from The Dharma Bums, written when Kerouac was living in Central Florida, not that far from my alma mater. The novel I am currently working on had a working title directly derived from one of his quotes. The aforementioned novels and novellas, as well as others by Kerouac like The Subterraneans, Big Sur and San Francisco Blues, have included the Bay Area among their settings. And the literary scene he helped build here was one of the factors I took into consideration when I decided to make the Bay Area my home.

This Saturday, March 12, is the celebration of Kerouac’s centennial. This past Thursday, San Francisco’s City Lights, also a publisher of eight Kerouac books, celebrated this occasion with a packed online event. Other events in significant places in Kerouac’s life, like Lowell, Massachusetts—where he was born—are also planned in the coming days.

A writer of spontaneous prose, lover of jazz, idealizer of México and adopter of Zen—Kerouac is a fixture in the United States’ counterculture mythos. But his legacy comes with a lot of baggage, especially in the way he depicted African American, Latinx and Japanese people in his writing, to name a few. 

An undated portrait of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). (Getty Images)

That’s why I talked to five different creatives residing in the Bay Area about Kerouac’s complex legacy. They acknowledged all that he did for the Beat generation and literature in the U.S., but also spoke of  how many of his ideas valued aspects of non-white cultures but didn't necessarily respect all of their differences. 

Writer and journalist Roberto Lovato’s father, Ramón, worked at the Southern Pacific Railroad. He met Kerouac there during the 1950s, when Kerouac got a job at a San Francisco railyard. Lovato recounts the details in his memoir, Unforgetting, where he writes about three types of white men his dad encountered on the job. 

The first kind was “racist, who would open [union] meetings by saying ‘ladies and gentlemen—and all you colored folks, too,’” he writes in the book. The second type was more “entrenched in the struggles and fighting side by side with Black and Latino workers. They were often socialists or belonging to some other left-oriented formation,” he says. 

But Kerouac, Lovato’s father would say, was one of those who “showed verbal sympathy, but their actions showed the opposite; they viewed their fellow workers at Southern Pacific kind of as objects of liberal exoticism,” Lovato says. In our conversation, he referenced Kerouac’s “October in the Railroad Earth,” a piece of spontaneous prose where he narrates a scene from his time working as a brakeman. There, his white gaze is on full display.

“[This] behavior and attitude reflects the fetishization of the white liberal gaze that turns many of us Latinos into tropical sidekicks,” says Lovato. And that got me thinking: How much of the U.S. popular imagination of Latin America has been shaped by the perspective of people like Kerouac? 

Josiah Luis Alderete, an award-winning poet and bookstore co-owner of the Mission district’s Medicina Para Pesadillas used to work at City Lights. He first encountered Kerouac’s work when he was a teenager. 

“He was my first introduction to jazz and Buddhism, Eastern spiritual practices,” he says. When I asked him about a specific passage that speaks to Kerouac’s depictions of people of color, Alderete referenced one from The Subterraneans. He remembers Kerouac describing his protagonist’s relationship with Mardou Fox, based on his real-life love interest, the writer Alene Lee, in a way that felt wrong, like he was fetishizing her. He also reminded me of a moment from On the Road where Sal Paradise—another fictionalized version of Kerouac—“hooks up with a woman, with a Mexicana sister. When I saw it, it was like, ‘Oh, it grosses me out,’” Alderete recalls, noting his discomfort with the way Kerouac described the scene. This was “literally my first depiction of a brown person in literature,” he says.

Christian Medina Beltz, an artist who goes by Cold Medina and works at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as a senior communications manager, agreed with these criticisms. 

But he also identifies with the itinerant, nomadic characters of Kerouac’s literature. “I think I resonated with that because I kind of felt like that was part of my own life,” he says. Nowadays, he still appreciates Kerouac’s work. 

“It’s still an inspiring thing,” he says. But it makes him “cringe a little bit, you know, especially with everything that's going on with border separation and just the way that immigrants get treated in this country.”

K

erouac made an effort to learn about other cultures, but the projections and language he uses are within a white framework. A lot of beat writers mistranslated ideas, symbols and words to suit their own needs, creating a parallel literary reality. Medina Beltz says that Kerouac helped “perpetuate negative and, at the same time, romanticized racist stereotypes.” Scholarly papers, fortunately, have been written about this. 

Félix de Rosen, a landscape architect, identified himself with Kerouac’s writing especially in his teenage and early adulthood years. “I was really just a little bit lost and trying to find myself and didn’t have strong roots in any particular location,” he says. “And I think I really resonated with the story of a young man who was both making use of all his freedom, but who also was lost in that freedom.” 

De Rosen agrees that while On the Road shows us what freedom could look like, it also shows us the privilege of those who could afford that freedom. “There's a privilege of being a man,” he says. “It sounds like it can be very selfish.”

Kim Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate, agreed, and mentioned that Kerouac regards Indigenous people and women in his work as  “an intriguing curio of exoticism and mysticism.”

“Do they really take on any of the real cultural aspects of what they saw, or do they just look at a shiny symbol and go, ‘Oh, I think this means this, and I’m not going to educate myself or ask for permission?’” Shuck asks. “And then, you know, run that forward. As a person who’s done Indigenous studies in various places, I have ended up having to undo a lot of the work of that generation in a way that makes me exhausted.”

But for all of Kerouac’s shortcomings, there are good lessons to be culled from his legacy. “The guy was kind of broken in many ways. Like, he was kind of a hot mess, but that's not a judgment, actually. And that’s what I would like to rescue or contemplate,” De Rosen reflects. “We’re all broken in a way. And I think about his lifestyle—I think he had three wives, he wrote a lot of On the Road in like three weeks and he was on amphetamines most of the time.”

The street sign for Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco. (Getty Images)

Shuck learned from Kerouac, too: “There’s some little writing things [his work] taught me—the space of a breath in writing. What does the turn of the page do? How does the size of your paper that you’re working with or your screen that you’re working with affect the way you visualize your work?”

Lovato agrees. “He's a brilliant writer. Don't get me wrong,” he says. “His narratives and his techniques are extraordinarily done. But style does not substitute for solidarity.”

For Medina Beltz, Kerouac is a “really dynamic, powerful, unique voice in U.S. literature. And I will always appreciate being able to be inspired and see how his words put me on the path that I was able to walk on. But having revisited him [and his work] recently, not necessarily anymore.”

Kerouac is a complicated artist, but he’s still one of my biggest literary influences. The good thing about influences is that they provide a foundation, but one has the choice to depart from them.

“I like to think of the Beats and Kerouac in a more optimistic context,” Alderete says. “They’re here for us to use as stepping stones, to expand our literature, to expand our minds. You know, I can deal with them that way. I mean, let’s be real. They ain’t going to go away. So maybe I'll find some use of it, some beauty out of it, you know?”

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