Was ‘The Great Gatsby’ Black?

New book argues that race is central to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel

Jesse Williams
Getty Images

“The Great Gatsby” is peppered with clues suggesting that central character Jay Gatsby is not who he seems, and Janet Savage argues in her new book that he was hiding more than readers realized.

She says in “Jay Gatsby: A Black Man in Whiteface,” that F. Scott Fitzgerald offered subtle clues that Gatsby was passing as white in 1920’s America.

“I am ready for the hate” that might come from some readers, said Savage, a former in-house Hollywood studio lawyer.

Like “Gatsby,” Savage’s self-published book is short. But it is packed with her evidence that Gatsby is trying to pass as white.

One of the most compelling clues cited by Savage is Fitzgerald’s first title for the book, “Trimalchio in West Egg.” Trimalchio was a character in “The Satyricon,” a Roman comedy/satire who was a former slave who earned his freedom and wealth from his former master, and threw lavish parties. Similarly, Gatsby, came close to inheriting money from his rich employer, threw lush parties. And according to  Savage’s theory, he is the descendant of slaves.

Another clue is that Gatsby has 40 acres of land, a possible reference to the post-Civil War unfulfilled order by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman to give former slaves 40 acres of land confiscated from Confederate landowners.

Savage also notes that Gatsby also has “tanned skin” and short-cropped hair — possibly to hide his natural hair — and dances to jazz, music invented by African-Americans. He drives a yellow car, a possible reference to a “high yellow” skin tone. He also has a World War I military record that might have put him in the 92nd all-Black battalion.

Also telling, Savage says, is the very first chapter — when Gatsby is not in the room — in which Tom Buchanan spouts racist theories and cites a white supremacy book, “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” warning that “civilization is going to pieces” because “the white race” could be “utterly submerged” due to “intermarriage between black and white.”

His wife and Gatsby soon turn out to be in love — which would be all the more dramatic if Gatsby is African-American.

Savage is even more in love with the book now that she’s found evidence to support her theory. “I thought it was a perfect book and now I think it is a more perfect book,” she says.

Savage credits Carlyle Van Thompson, dean and professor at Medgar Evers College at City University of New York, with writing the seminal scholarly work on the possibility of a black Gatsby: 2004’s “The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination.”

But she says she discovered more clues for her work and wanted to take the theory more mainstream with an easy-to-read, short book.

Actors Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio have played Gatsby, but if she were casting him, Savage might choose Jesse Williams, she said. Or she might suggest an unknown actor whose race would not be immediately apparent.

She said the younger the reader, the more likely they are to accept her theory. “I expected that,” she said.