Nelson, Floyd G. “Harlem ‘Negro Capital of the Nation’.” Plaindealer, 3 Feb. 1935.
In Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, there are few instances where the influence of African American culture is truly appreciated. Written during the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby has a setting embedded in the vibrant and growing African American culture of New York, yet Fitzgerald seems to ignore this obvious social group in his novel. This was an era of growth for many African Americans. The popularity of jazz allowed many black musicians to gain wealth and fame that was previously reserved for whites only. Yet, despite this shift in social mobility, Fitzgerald still seems to mock his African American characters in an inadvertent showing of his subliminal racism.
An African American publication in Kansas City seems to highlight this social mobility. The author, Nelson, wrote about an African American actor’s guild benefit which attracted black and white actors alike and raised “more than six thousand dollars” (Nelson 4). This intermingling of both black and white entertainers shows the progressing desegregation of society, especially in New York. The article also noted that “Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford are now booked for the RKO vaudeville theatres,” highlighting the increasing popularity black entertainers had on the larger culture as a whole (Nelson 4). In addition to noting where black entertainers where playing, Nelson also noted how much they were making. He wrote that “Marian Anderson paid income tax on three hundred smackers last year” (Nelson 4). By noting both the places where black entertainers performed and how much they made, Nelson is showing the rise of African Americans in mainstream culture. A reader who wrote to Nelson even noted, “It is really interesting- about our famous band leaders, their origin, our songwriters and women singers, etc…” (Nelson 4). This comment is especially fascinating because it shows that the social mobility of African American entertainers was noted not only by white people who accepted them, but it was also noted by African Americans within the culture as well. The Jazz Age gave social mobility to African Americans. Many black musicians and other entertainers were able to “fit it” with other members of the industry due to the popularity of their music.
Keeping in mind the prevalence of black entertainers in society, Fitzgerald’s depiction of the African American community as a whole is not only a departure from the norm, but it is neglecting to show the progress of the community in mainstream society. His characterization of the black community shows readers his subconscious racism. Fitzgerald’s most cited depiction of the African American community is when Nick and Jay are crossing the bridge into New York. As the main characters race across the bridge they cross paths with a limousine driven by a white chauffeur. In the car “sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl” (Fitzgerald 69). In the novel, Nick laughs “as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry” (Fitzgerald 69). Fitzgerald’s depiction is telling because it highlights the fact that he did not see African Americans as equals. The language he uses reinforces that the men are “bucks,” or merely animals. Furthermore he sees the wealth of the black community as a challenge to white wealth when he uses the word “rivalry”. Instead of viewing the black community as equal, he distances himself from them by saying they are a challenge to the prosperity of the white community.
Additionally, black entertainers are notably absent from Gatsby’s parties. This is seen as a departure from the norm, especially considering it was the Jazz Age in New York. Fitzgerald’s strategic omission of black entertainers from Gatsby’s parties not only signifies his subliminal racism, but it also signifies his desire to omit the African American community from this narrative of American prosperity. Since Gatsby is seen as a symbol of the American Dream, by omitting black entertainers from the story, Fitzgerald is telling the audience the American Dream is only effective if you are white and lack any racial ambiguity. This fact is highlighted in the fact that James Gatz — a much more ethnically ambiguous name — changes his name to Jay Gatsby in order to prevail in the working world. The fact that Fitzgerald believes the American Dream is only pertinent to the white community completely goes against the cultural norms of a changing America.
Fitzgerald’s dismissal of the black community in The Great Gatsby shows the struggle that wealthy black people faced during the Jazz Age. Even during a period in American history that is marked by African American culture, Fitzgerald demands the reader view them as separate and unequal. His ignorance of the changing times and upward social mobility of the black community mars a great American literary classic with one of America’s greatest mistakes: racism.