Aldwin Aguilar

My teacher keeps on insisting that Jay Gatsby is black. Is he?

To answer questions about The Great Gatsby, please sign up.
Chrissa I don't think so. There is this scene in chapter 6, and they're in the hotel, (Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Nick) and Tom says "... and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white."
Whereupon Jordan says: "We're all white here."
Elin No. At this time period, it would have been a big deal. If Fitzgerald had intended for Jay Gatsby to be black, he would have made it clear, and it would have featured prominently in the book.

Certainly Tom would have referenced it in his rage against Gatsby - Tom has already identified as racist, and would have at least alluded to this prejudice in his diatribe. As it was, he only talked about Gatsby's shady dealings.

You can read into hyper-subtle subtext if you want, but in reality it just doesn't add up and is not convincing when you read the book without making any assumptions, and just go with how Fitzgerald portrays it.

PS - I can understand a teacher suggesting that alternative point of view, but *insisting* that Gatsby is black is just tunnel vision. He or she shouldn't insist on anything, just open up various ideas and ways of analysing the text.
Christine This is going to be long, cause I wrote a paper on what ethnicity is Gatsby.

If he is black, he is probably biracial, being black and white. He is passing-it occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. Aka he would have to be so close to looking white that there would have been no true hint of his ancestry or if people suspect, he could excuse tanning. There are the african americans you do see in the limo being driven while a white guy drives them which could show Gatsby being a passing man is now high in society, but again, there is so much symbolism in the story (there is so much symbolism in the story you could write a book on all the symbolism in this story and it would be probably longer than The Great Gatsby itself), you could argue for many ethnicities that Gatsby could be.

Look at race relations at the time, look into Fitzgerald letters to get a hint of the whole situation. At the time only those with nordic/german ancestors (or those that fit the Nordic white anglo saxon protestant type) were consider the most superior, the whole Nazi ideology didn't start with Hitler, it was around before he was (reason why many top elite businessman in the US actually threw money at him in show of support in the beginning).

Now between 1880s-1930s pseudoscience academics came up with terms to break down white people intro different groups as to try to prove who was racially better. There are debates was this as a result of immigration or was it already there and immigration was the spark that ignited it. Who knows? Personally I think its the later given race relations & history throughout the world, just me though.

Madison Grant & Lothrop Stoddard (which btw Fitzgerald basically does mention, but changes a few letters- this is ballsy because he basically critiqued the guy in the book & the same company that published Stoddard's book, published The Great Gatsby), these two were believers of this idea & many elite believed it as well. Now beside Nodric (blonde, hair, blue eyes, good build, german archetype,etc). There were Mediterranean whites (greek, Italian- black hair, tanner skin, but white nose & features) & Alpine Whites (Eastern Europe-Brown/black hair, lighter skin). Even among the pseudoscience community at the time there were debates as to which of these two were 2nd or 3rd place.

With all the research I did, I still think he would have been mixed, IMO would have been more likely he would have some mediterranean descent in him and maybe some german as well (given his original born name Gatz does come off as german). Now, because they talk about the horrors of mixing race in the story, it is highly possible (like I would say 99%) he has some "nordic" in him. It is unlikely he has blonde hair like Daisy. Look to chapter 6 for this

"It was indirectly due to Cody that Gatsby drank so little. Sometimes in the course of gay parties women used to rub champagne into his hair; for himself he formed the habit of letting liquor alone."

For those that don't know champagne was used as a beauty diy treatment at the time to keep the blonde shiny & stand out. Them rubbing his hair with champagne were them trying to figure out if he had some blonde in him, something he wouldn't want to be reminded of.

As for skin color look to chapter three

"His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face."

Keep in mind even "mixing" with other white people, not of nordic descent would have been frowned upon or even cause alienation for people from rich/elite families. So for Gatsby to be mixed, high up in society, and trying to pass as being nordic white would have been an issue. If Black descent, even bigger, racial hierarchy.

If you are interested in reading the bizarre mindset by the two pseudoscience authors I mentioned, I would get a beer or a glass of whine. I remember when first reading it for my research paper and I was amazed. Not in a good way mind you.

Now in his letters to his editor/publisher though even Fitzgerald stated he never could figure out what Gatsby looked like. To sum it up, he couldn't get a grasp of his appearance, so his appearance has and can be left up to interpretation itself. This annoyed editors & publishers because they like how descriptive he was of the other characters like tom buchanan( which btw he is always shown as having dark hair in many movie interpretations when in fact he should be blonder than gatsby. Think maybe Chris Hemsoworth , he was supposed to come across as strong, big, and beautiful).

To answer your question, "Is he black though?"

I would have to say, it is possible, but no one really knows for sure, for the author didn't know. Now, for your teacher to say that he is without a doubt, is very wrong of him/her to do so. Imposing their own interpretation on the students. My professor would be appalled ( she told us like day one she is african american, Caribbean (i'm pretty sure on that one) , & Irish descent) and she did her best to tell us what were her opinions and what were facts in the story. It is up to you to decide and at the end of the day Fitzgerald was trying to make a point in talking about race. Trying to figure out what Fitzgerald was saying on race IMO is more important than what did Gatsby look like.
Logan What? How does that even make sense?
- He's the popular millionaire during the 20s
- People claim he's the second cousin to the Kaiser (German)
- Claims to be from San Fransisco
- Young white lady from Kentucky doesn't shy away from him

Why ignore the obvious in favor of the incredibly subtle?
Karen Your teacher is not very smart then, is she? This was 1925, and if she reads the book again, she will find that the time period of the story would be very inconsistent for Gatsby to be black. Also, there is no indication what so ever in the story that he would be. If there was, I would be the first to acknowledge it- it's my favorite book, I've read it three times.
Cherrae People in these comments are thinking of blackness in modern terms. Nobody is saying he was Samuel L. Jackson Black, or even Barak Obama Black, but could he have been Wentworth Miller or Rebecca Hall or Pete Wentz black? Maybe. Back then you couldn't be White with some mixed ancestry. If you had ONE DROP of black blood, you were Black. Period. There are plenty of books written about the concept of PASSING for white, Mark Twain's Puddin Head Wilson, Fanny Hurst's Imitation of Life, Even Eliza In Uncle Tom's Cabin was very nearly white. I can't believe that Fitzgerald would bring up race and miscegenation and eugenics so much in Gatsby for no reason. Gatsby and possibly Jordan are Passing for Nordic White. Is Gatsby black? Maybe, (with deeply tanned skin and hair he cuts every day) but he could also be Jewish, or Mediterranean, or some other that would feel the need to hide his heritage in order to Pass for the ideal at the time version of Whiteness.
Joshua Smith What I think your teacher was trying to say was that for Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby represents a mode of racial indeterminacy that threatens to violate not only the immediate community of East Egg but also the very concept of Americanism itself. What most disturbs Tom, and clearly troubles Nick, is not just the fact that Gatsby is a mystery but more that he signals the ‘vanishing’ of whiteness into indeterminacy, and thus disturbs the whole economic, discursive and institutional structure of power supporting the social distinctions and hierarchies in The Great Gatsby. Tom is therefore not so much threatened by his social ambition but rather Gatz/Gatsby’s immigrant portending “intermarriage between black and white”. Gatsby’s obscenity for Tom lies in the challenge he poses to sexual and racial norms. It is not that he is Black, but that he represents the change in the times in which if people like him, poor and scandalous, can achieve such heights in upper-class American society then who says a person of black heritage cannot? I think this is what Fitzgerald and your teacher were trying to explore.
Edward W. Your teacher is the one that needs to go back to school.
Christie As stated by Emma, there was a well done article alluding to that written last year. Mostly focused on the 'other' in his bloodline. So he may not have been Black, but he could have been something else (like Eastern European) or Mediterranean (maybe Italian or Gallic back down the line), which could account for the skin tone.

I don't see how it could be inconsistent for him to be Black. There were many people of African decent that would and did 'pass' during this time, and even before. I even have some ancestors in my bloodline that could have been mistaken for White, right down to hair texture. Though this is probably not true in his case, it's not completely implausible.
Peter Swanson Your teacher is a moron.
Norman No. Jay Gatsby is not black. And, by the way, neither are Tom, Nick, Daisy, Jordan, McKee, or any of the other characters mentioned by name.
Jasmeena Webb I think that Jordan is mixed race, due to the fact that she has powered over a ‘tanned hand’, she seems uncomfortable the first time that Tom makes a racist comment and then proceeds to insist that she is white the second time that Tom makes a racist comment.
Aurora No, he's an immigrant from Europe tho and that's why the "purity" of the race is a matter vastly discussed in the novel. Daisy is a perfect example of a classical Southern girl, which is why she's 'meant' to marry someone like Tom and not like Gatsby.
Lori How sad that a teacher would make such a comment. The entire introduction to Tom, Daisy, and Jordan describes their racist views. *See Chrissa and Elin comments also*
Endless His Skin is just Tanned under Sunlight. Your teacher is making a mistake, Tom is just trying to humiliate Gatsby for darkened skin since Tom is the greatest Racist character in the Novel.
John Burt I think it's possible that Fitzgerald either intended to reveal that Gatsby was passing and then backed away in the final edit.

Alternatively, perhaps it was an Easter egg . . . ?
Jake Your teacher needs to stop with theatrics and just read the book as it actually is. Less unsupported imaginational reading into things and more supported logical analysis. Sounds like your teacher wants to play politics with a classic. Although Fitzgerald was one to write stories that were about classes and inequalities.
Starling Larkwhisk Hi Aldwin - I suspect your teacher does not mean this literally, or, if your teacher does mean it literally, then s/he has been confused by some of the scholarship written on Gatsby. I'm a university teacher, and I've read plenty of scholarship that talks about how Gatsby is "symbolically" black/aligned with black people and other marginalized groups - for instance there's an article by Meredith Goldsmith that talks about how there are analogies between his efforts to pass himself off as a man of "breeding" and stories of racial "passing." But certainly nothing in the novel says he "is" black or even that he is Jewish (which some have inferred from his association with Meyer Wolfshiem and/or from his name being Gatz originally, which is ambiguously European). In Tom's mind, Gatsby's audacity as "pretender" and the breakdown of the establishment the idea of him winning Daisy represents is *Analogous* to intermarriage between the races, not an example of it. There's also the key encounter when Gatsby and Nick drive past a limo with black passengers and a white chauffeur, where Nick himself draws an analogy between this inversion of traditional racial hierarchies and the fact of Gatsby's rise ("Anything can happen... Even Gatsby." So in short, I think your teacher is either speaking metaphorically or, if literally, that s/he has misunderstood the scholarship or taken the analogies too literally. Which is not to say that the novel categorically excludes the possibility your teacher suggests... as others' answers have noted.
Anna Gatsby is white in the book, yes, but the question feels a bit disingenuous. Is your teacher legitimately saying 'Jay Gatsby is black' or are they drawing a parallel between the characterization of Jay Gatsby and race relations both then and now, and how those would affect the book? Or perhaps raising the issue of a possible biracial element that goes unmentioned? Or even bringing Gatsby closer to today and how his story might relate to notions present in black narratives?

Gatsby isn't, by the book, black, but it feel like there was more happening here.
Sunny It's entirely possible that he is Black but white-passing.
There are a lot of knee-jerk comments here from white people who don't seem to realize that's a thing.
David Nope. When minor characters are Negroes or Jews, Fitzgerald takes notice. He wouldn't leave something like this unmentioned.
Carlo Fortunato That's pretty much impossible. He was a World War I officer, and served in the same regiment as Nick Carraway. Although some blacks served in World War I, they were completely segregated.
LegendatyToast7 Thant doesn't even make remote sense given the time period. This is the 1920's therefore, as unfortunate as it was, Gatsby could not have been a successful millionaire at the time, and if he somehow was it would certainly have been pointed out by Nick for being different. Tom is a humongous racist also and he, if I remember correctly had some degree of respect for Gatsby, not much, until he was given reason to despise him. If that wasn't enough he claims to be related to the German Kaiser, who was obviously a white man, and at the time, if a black person and a white person got together that would be incredibly scandalous, even more so than cheating, but it's not even hinted at so they are not a multi-racial couple.
Lobstergirl If he is black, there are things in the book that suddenly make sense now.
Gemma There was an article online I saw that made a case for Gatsby being black it was quite well thought out so you might want to find it.
Penny Oh, my goodness. Gatsby deals with Black people in his business and gets his hair cut every day? Very imaginative, but not anything that Fitzgerald actually wrote in the novel. Gatsby was from North Dakota and his family was Lutheran (his burial is presided over by a Lutheran minister). His real name is Gatz. His parents were farmers. All these factors point to his ethnicity being German, at least in part. And the color of his skin is likely due to a suntan, since that was a mark of the elite in that time-- it showed that you weren't working in an office or factory all day. The one thing that I do question is how he would have acquired the tan since he does seem to be always conducting business. Black, though? No, there is no evidence in the book that he is Black.
Filaristil Nope. Tom wouldn't have even thought about going to Gatsby's party if he were black.
Zack Oliver I assume you've already graduated from wherever this was, but nope. There's no concrete textual evidence for that theory. So perhaps your teacher was trying to get some of you to read closely enough that they could start a meaningful discussion about the book. It's hard to get high schoolers to go beyond sparknotes because they're so busy with all the other homework, sports, and a social life. If I taught english, I'd definitely stick to short stories, novellas, and poetry. Maybe one or two long novels spaces throughout the year.
Adam This possibility is interesting to think about once you have read the book a couple too many times. (I also like to wonder about about how gay was Nick?) Of course Jay Gatsby is deliberately shrouded in mystery and wild rumors chase him all over. However early on Nick covers his backstory from North Dakota to the southern banks of Lake Superior (that's Duluth, northern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Even now that area is mostly northern European blonde people with very few blacks at all. Also when Henry Gatz shows up his color and ancestry are not mentioned while other minor characters are usually described in fairly stark racial/nationalistic terms. So the case is still open, but that would be a glaring omission on Fitzgerald's part. Thus far this makes it improbable but not impossible that he is black. Then near the end Tom Buchanan also digs into Gatsby's past and proceeds to air his dirty laundry with his usual ham handed gusto. Now Tom is a horribly crude man and like so many of his type he is a deeply racist man in a sharply racist time. How would Tom not mention Gatsby's racial make-up? The book is love story with much to say about underlying class distinctions but I don't think Fitzgerald was ready to take that kind of stance head on. Still fun to think about the possibility and talk it over, no?
Aimee Johnson I know it was 5 years ago but do you know why they thought this? Like others said, he was definitely white, but it's an interesting thought.
LB It never occurred to me to even think he was black. First, as other posters noted, there is a phrase in the book, "We're all white here"; secondly, Tom and others, including Daisy, wouldn't have made acquaintance with him if he was, it was the 1920s, the society was segregated then. Thirdly, he was in an army camp and made an officer. Historically, the army was segregated as well. It was segregated even in WW2. So for him to be in the army, he would've been in an all-black unit, and it's said in the text that he and other officers visited Daisy's house. All black officers visiting Daisy's house? It's strange to me that a teacher could say such a thing, more so to insist on it. He/she didn't read the book closely enough or didn't make historic connections.
Trilby O'Farrell No, but Jordan Baker might be.
DuckGuy
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
Theo Chungath No Gatsby is not black for the simplistic reason Fitzgerald lived primarily in France. Gatsby was supposed to represent him in many respects in this story. Fitzgerald would not write his lead character as an African and not make it a prominent aspect of the novel. Throughout the story it describes Gatsby as a young man in America with Daisy, this also supports the fact he's almost undoubtedly American white.
Courtney Is your teacher Mrs. Chen at Mira Costa?
Jailene There are professors who have written about this and it has been brought up before. I wouldn't be quick to give a definite answer seeing that it is never clearly stated. Analysts have used evidence from the novel to support their claims about him being black.
Rob No, but he deals with black people in his business. Therefore he is viewed as one of them hence the racist remarks made by Tom.
Jethro Tull As others have pointed out, much of the dialogue would not make sense if this were true. It's interesting that your teacher insists on this interpretation, though. It inspires another question altogether: why would someone need a character to be from another social group, or at least to have an identity that is vastly different from the one likely intended by the author?
Janet Glad to hear this. It is my contention that that will be the way this is read in the next 5 to7 years.
Image for The Great Gatsby
Rate this book
Clear rating

About Goodreads Q&A

Ask and answer questions about books!

You can pose questions to the Goodreads community with Reader Q&A, or ask your favorite author a question with Ask the Author.

See Featured Authors Answering Questions

Learn more