What Happens if We Read Jay Gatsby as "Passing"?Roundup
tags: racism, literature, Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Alonzo Vereen is the author of Historically Black: American Icons Who Attended HBCUs.
Of all the books in the 10th-grade curriculum, the class set of The Great Gatsby was what we teachers most coveted. Short enough to cover in one quarter, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was also packed with symbolism—Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes on the billboard, the green light at the end of the dock, the cars, the music. And it was weighty enough to support multiple readings. I imagined my first year of teaching bursting with rich discussions. But to start any conversation, I had to secure the books before the other teachers got them.
I succeeded, only to be deflated: My students fought Gatsby from the beginning. The teenagers in my classroom—all children of color living in an impoverished rural community in South Florida, many of them first-generation Americans whose parents had come from Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, or Guatemala—simply did not understand a majority of the words on the page. Any appeal I made to the sheer pleasures of the text fell flat. “Surely,” I’d say with as much enthusiasm as possible, “you think this part is funny!” And I’d launch into a reading of Nick Carraway’s opening narration: “Frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.” Silence. Eventually, one brave soul would raise a hand. “What’s ‘feigned’?”
More advanced readings, I realized, would have to be tabled. I shouldn’t have been shocked. I, too, had struggled with Gatsby when I first read the book—and I had been a junior in college. Fitzgerald’s coupling of lyrical passages with a minimalist plot, full of fits and starts, proved too great a challenge for me. Like my students, I hadn’t been prepared by my public education for such a text. (One of my high-school teachers read Roots aloud to us for 45 minutes each class period—we made it through all 888 pages.) Stymied by the structure and language of Gatsby, I couldn’t get a handle on the characters either. If I hoped to pass my upper-level literature course, I needed to find a way in.
I turned to the secondary literature and found a chapter that offered an unexpected perspective on Gatsby’s race in a 2004 book titled The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination. In it, Carlyle Van Thompson, a professor of African American and American literature at Medgar Evers College, argues that Fitzgerald “guilefully characterizes Jay Gatsby as a ‘pale’ Black individual who passes for white.” I read this sentence twice, feeling like I had finally been granted license to enter the novel, to see myself in it, to make my way through the prose and develop my own interpretations. I was a 20-year-old English major, concentrating in African American literature at a historically Black college, and I still needed that permission.
In America, we are taught that canonical literature foregrounds the experiences of white people. Rarely do we question the racial identities of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s characters, or Herman Melville’s, or Willa Cather’s. If the race of an American character is not specified, we assume the character is white. This is especially true in reading older texts, but we do the same with contemporary ones. Take Celeste Ng’s best-selling 2017 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, which revolves around the lives of two American mothers. Ng, an Asian American author, makes clear that Elena Richardson, one of the mothers, is white. Ng says nothing about the race of the other, Mia Warren, leaving many readers to imagine her, too, as white. In the adaptation of the novel for the small screen, the casting of Kerry Washington, a Black woman, as Mia delivered a jolt, adding a new dimension to the series that Ng welcomed. Toni Morrison challenged our imaginative assumptions in a different way. In “Recitatif,” the only short story she wrote, her goal was to expose the binary expectations that most American readers bring to texts—and to confound them. As she revealed in her critical study Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the story was “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
Stumbling on Thompson’s analysis of The Great Gatsby was like finding a door propped open, and I rushed through with questions. What if the novel’s focus on class and ethnic tensions obscures a racial drama that readers have read right over? Early in the novel, Tom Buchanan’s eugenicist warning to “look out” or “the white race will be ... utterly submerged” is loud and clear. Thompson’s claim, by contrast, requires careful scrutiny of the text. He sets out to prove that a Black person is skillfully placed in the novel’s foreground. Preoccupied with the obvious clash between old money and new money, we just haven’t seen him, or the threat of miscegenation he represents. Fitzgerald was wrestling with the idea of America as a place of self-making, where radical reinvention is at once celebrated and feared. In doing so, according to Thompson, he struck upon the most illusory of American self-transformations—Black passing as white—revealing “how intrinsically American literature and the American Dream are racial.”
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