Was Jay Gatsby Black?

By on October 13, 2015
Features

By Sam Draut–

In 2013 arguably the greatest American novel, “The Great Gatsby,” made a come back on the big screen. Perhaps most talked about in the film was not Oscar-less Leonardo DiCaprio leading as Jay Gatsby, but the hip-hop soundtrack accompanying the timeless tale of old money.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” gave the traditionally reggae band of “Irie Sol,” inspiration for a unique cross generational sound. They blended literature and music known as “lit hop,” to create their five track album “Dred Scott Fitzgerald.”

Co-leader of the band and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joel Pace was excited at the opportunity for the unique experience.

“Since hip hop and reggae are famous for sampling jazz, we thought why not sample some classic literature,” Pace said. “It was an incredible experience for us because what we didn’t know at the time that lit hop is an established genre. We wanted to bring history back to life, what we did not know is that there is this great tradition called lit hop.”

The album takes Bernice, a former character in Fitzgerald’s short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair, through a journey in the Jazz Age.

The attraction to creating an album based around the novel felt natural to the Eau Claire, Wisconsin and St. Paul, Minnesota natives.

Fitzgerald began drafting the Great Gatsby in St. Paul and also had a short story based around a woman living in Eau Claire.

With a geographical tie to the great American author, the band sold out the 1920s themed Commodore Hotel in St. Paul on Fitzgerald’s birthday.

Fitzgerald began drafting the Great Gatsby at the Commodore Hotel nine decades ago, so the album with tracks named “Dancehall Daisy” and “Reggae Gatsby” fit seamlessly into the evening.

While the novel left mysterious and decade-long silences, especially around the protagonist Jay Gatsby, Irie Sol added volume to the unanswered questions.

“We thought based on the approach of reading the novel, what if we took some of the silences in the novel and filled them in,” Pace said.

With traces of jazz, hip-hop and reggae, “Dred Scott Fitzgerald” helps to bring back another topic within the literature community.

Dr. Carlyle V. Thompson, a Dean & Professor at Medgar Evers College at the University of New York sparked a discussion on the ethnicity of the infamous character Jay Gatsby in 2000:

Was Jay Gatsby black?

Thompson’s theory holds firm with the novel based in and around the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Though Harlem is not mentioned once in the novel, the music emanating from the period is what the novel is built around.

“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,” Thompson wrote in his analysis in 2000. “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?”

“The way Fitzgerald phrases his sentences, the way they build on each other like a jazz solo. It has a huge influence of the Harlem Renaissance on the style of the novel,” Pace said. “Equally, jazz has syncopation where there is silence, and then the beat comes late and the sense of time in the novel, the way Gatsby arrives late and his absence speaks volumes. The absence of Harlem, the absence of Gatsby and the way time runs ragged like ragtime music in the novel speaks to the influence of black culture and Harlem.”

Fitzgerald purposefully left out a large portion of details about his main character to add intrigue and interest for the readers. The ambiguity of Gatsby and subtle contextual references help to aid Thompson’s belief.

In the novel, narrator Nick Caraway and Gatsby pass by a white chauffeur driving a limousine with two African American men and an African American woman. This reverse of repression alludes to Fitzgerald’s belief in racial equality that he realized while traveling to New York City and Europe during the Jazz Age. The possibility of Gatsby’s race is left for the reader to decide.

“The uncertainty of Jay Gatsby also applies to himself,” Pace said. “Carlyle V. Thompson’s theory that Jay Gatsby’s ethnicity is indeterminate and the possibility that he is an African American man that passes for white is there.”

Whether the individual reader decides on the ethnicity of Gatsby or not, the importance of multiculturalism in the album Dred Scott Fitzgerald is signified throughout.

“The unique thing about jazz music is that in its origins, jazz music built a bridge between two races that were apart,” Pace said. “The power that music and literature has is worth studying, celebrating and using, this bridge that we can walk across to greater unity.”

 

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