Race and Social Identity in On the Road and The Reivers
Whether around a group of friends or among total strangers, many people feel compelled to act in certain ways to please those around them; this part of our identity is labeled conveniently as social identity. A social identity can sometimes be very close to one's personal identity, but the differences between the two is caused by social pressures and obligations, and the extent to which it differs is based on many factors such as race, heritage, age, etc. Specifically, the pressures on minorities in a predominantly white society may cause them to behave in certain ways. Also, examining these pressures may help us further see the reasons for this behavior. Both The Reivers and On The Road are commentaries on how this social identity develops, and both novels state their stance on what role race should play in determining social identity quite clearly.
In On The Road, Jack Kerouac tries to sidestep the issue of racial interaction throughout by leaving out any conflicts therein. In doing so, Kerouac implies that race has little or nothing to do with social identity. The only substantial interactions either Dean or Sal have with members of another race are when Sal goes to the Denver ghetto to look for his friends and when Dean and Sal go to jazz bars in San Francisco. When Kerouac talks about the black people that Sal sees or interacts with, skin color is used only descriptively, and is never a social issue for Sal.
When Sal and Dean are in the jazz bars of San Francisco, the issue of race comes up very superficially; that is, race is used only as a method of description throughout the night. When they first enter the jazz bars, Sal sees "a bunch of colored men... whooping it up" and a "big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn't give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs" (Kerouac 197). Even though Sal and Dean are in a predominantly black part of town, and in predominantly black establishments throughout the night, they never once face any sort of tension due to race. When Dean and Sal actually interact with the black tenorman, they seem to do it with great ease, i.e., when Dean invites him out the car, the tenorman exclaims "Yes! ain't nothin I like better than good kicks !" (Kerouac 199). Suddenly the whole issue of race in social interaction becomes superfluous, in fact, race seems to be more of an issue for Kerouac in his description of the setting than a social issue.
Sal's only true exploration of his race comes when he is Denver looking for his friends, and after not having found them, does a hard day's work. As Sal walks through a Denver ghetto, he describes his feelings of loneliness and despair about his identity:
I walked...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 me was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness,...