Gatsby and the Ex-Colored Man Considered Together

James Weldon Johnson and F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m slowly working on a book on African American music and literature from the 1890s to about 1930, from the Ragtime era through the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson is the central figure, having been a major Ragtime songwriter and historian of Ragtime, as well as a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a novelist, poet, essayist, Civil Rights activist, and social historian. Paul Laurence Dunbar appears to be the second most important figure in the story I want to tell, even though he died in 1906, because his work is so tremendous and his influence in American culture runs so deep and broad and has been so long-lasting; he might end up dominating the first section of the book. (When Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, the actress Cicely Tyson paid tribute to her by reading a Dunbar poem; another tribute to Franklin quoted another Dunbar poem; rockabilly bands were playing a song based on yet another Dunbar poem into this century and for all I know still might be.)

I finished a draft of the first chapter this week (of a projected . . . 16?; I have pieces of several other chapters in various stages of draftiness), and I threw out an unsupported claim (remember, my audience, at that point, consisted of my eyes only) that The Great Gatsby has been a plausible candidate for the Great American Novel. After saying that, I decided to see whether it might be true, and like any curious 14-year-old, I searched on the web. Which led me to several articles as well as a whole book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, by NPR commentator and English professor Maureen Corrigan, who argues what I suspected that people were arguing: that Gatsby is the Great American Novel.

Corrigan’s book looks interesting; the Seattle Public Library has it; I look forward to reading it. The description entices. I got curious, and searched Corrigan’s name in tandem with James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which led me to this terrific essay, written by another English professor, Mary Sisney, who is African American (Corrigan is white).

The whole essay, which came out four years ago, shortly after Corrigan’s book, is worth reading, but I wanted to highlight a couple of passages.

While Corrigan, who teaches American literature, may have read Johnson’s novel, I am 99% certain that she has not taught it. I believe that a professor who has taught and studied GATSBY as long and devotedly as she has would recognize the many parallel passages if she had also taught Johnson’s book. The Johnson-Fitzgerald connection has gone largely unnoticed because the two American writers are taught in segregated canons. Fitzgerald is taught in American literature courses while Johnson is taught in courses focused on black literature.

Sisney taught the two books together, which makes a lot of sense. A short while ago I suggested replacing Gatsby with An Ex-Colored Man in my son’s high school curriculum; my friends Jake London and Devin McKinney asked, why not teach them together? If forced to advocate for one, I’d advocate for Johnson’s book rather than Fitzgerald’s, but I agree with my friends and Professor Sisney, that teaching both would make a lot of sense.

Digging into some of the same parallels that I was noting, Professor Sisney puts things more sharply than I had.

When the American literature canon and faculty are integrated, scholars can have the kind of dialogue that Fitzgerald and Johnson are having with their novels about two American dreamers trying to pass and marry a beautiful, rich white woman. The black writer said that dream could come true, not in the South, but in the North. The white writer said, “Oh, no, it can’t. Even a white man who comes to New York to try to fulfill a dream that started in the South will be smashed, killed by the cold, rich white people.”

Though Sisney criticizes Corrigan for neglecting Johnson’s novel, she appreciates Corrigan’s insights too, and fruitfully notes how we all bring our whole lives with us wherever we go, including to our reading. This passage shows the professors catching things I missed, and it makes me want to re-read Fitzgerald’s book again.

[W]e take from a book what we bring to it, and what we bring to books are not only our experiences but our race, gender, class, religion, and birthplace. I noticed the pale black man and the racial puns (MonteNEGRO, Nick is a bond man, which means slave) because I’m black. But since I am a lapsed Baptist, I never thought about Fitzgerald’s Catholicism, which lapsed Catholic Corrigan discusses. And whereas Corrigan, whose older relatives were recent immigrants, saw the immigrants following the hearse as troubling Nick almost as much as the blacks in the limousine, I saw those immigrants as whites who were dying as the blacks rose. Corrigan is fascinated by the descriptions of New York City because she grew up there while I was bothered by Nick’s claim that Daisy and Jordan were from the West. Like Daisy and Jordan, I’m from Kentucky, and I know it’s in the South because I went in back doors during my youth just as Tom claimed Gatsby did when he met Daisy.

Sisney has a book, which I want to read as well: A Redlight Woman Who Knows How to Sing the Blues: My Life in White Institutions. It appears to be as American a story as the Red, White, and Blue in the title.

Here’s Sisney’s essay:

Here’s her book:

Here’s Corrigan’s book:

Here’s my earlier post on Gatsby and The Ex-Colored Man:

Here’s Cicely Tyson reading Dunbar’s poem “When Malindy Sings” in tribute to Aretha, substituting Aretha’s name for Malindy:

Here’s another Aretha tribute that quotes another Dunbar poem, “Sympathy,” which has the famous line, “I know why the caged bird sings”:

Here’s a Gene Vincent tribute band singing a song based on Dunbar’s poem “A Negro Love Song,” in 2010:

I wrote about that “A Negro Love Song,” and how an African American singer named Hadda Brooks adapted it as an R&B song in 1952, and Gene Vincent, among others, recorded it as well:

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