Carlyle V. Thompson
Assistant professor of American and African literature Medgar Evers
Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's opulent playboy hero, was a black man. Fitzgerald litters his novel with signifiers that suggest Gatsby to be black, although he "passes" as white. In The Great Gatsby, he is frequently described as "pale", as is his car: "It was a rich cream colour, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous lengthI" Yellow is a great signifier in Afro-American discourse to suggest miscegenation and racial passing. Here, Fitzgerald is also playing with the symbolic status of the car and with stereotypical images of blackness. Why does he do this? Why are there so many clues?
I have looked at similar themes of miscegenation and racial tension in works of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, William Faulkner and others. Gatsby has 40 acres: 40 acres and a mule are traditionally given to ex-slaves; he is associated with New Orleans and "black" jazz music; he trims his hair everyday - suggestive of negroid hair.
Fitzgerald was writing in the jazz age, a time of eugenics and the rise of white supremacy. He had already written on the threat of "the negroid that creeps northwards". Fitzgerald's racial anxieties shape the novel. A book popular in Fitzgerald's time, The Rise of the Coloured Empires, is cited by one of the novel's characters, Tom Buchanan, early on. The novel then explores (traditionally) the search for the American dream.
There is one open discussion of race in the novel, where Tom insinuates Gatsby is a "black" individual, but Jordan defends him saying: "We're all white here." Jordan, however, is known as a liar: another hint.
Importantly Gatsby is identified as a "bootlegger" and no one comes to his funeral. Bootlegger means counterfeit, and here Fitzgerald implies that Gatsby was racially counterfeit. The narrative constantly whispers the presence of blackness. In my paper, "The Tragic Black 'Buck': Jay Gatsby's 'Passing' in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby", I wanted to make people read a favourite book as they had never read it before.
My audience was sceptical at first but they have been reviewing the evidence. A CNN "quick vote" poll showed that 15 per cent of voters agreed with me that Gatsby was black.
I would like to see Denzel Washington or Laurence Fishburn, not Robert Redford, playing Jay Gatsby and dancing with Daisy.
* Interview by Helen Davies