Carlyle Van Thompson
Tragic Black Buck: Racial
in the American Literary
Rudy: For your study, you chose two
white writers and two black writers. Their work is generally
grouped around the early third of the twentieth century. Should
we conclude because no female writer is in your study that the
emphasis on the “black buck” (the black phallus) in writing
is a peculiar male writer enterprise?
Thompson: The choice of two Black
writers Charles Waddell Chesnutt and James Weldon Johnson along
with two white writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner
reinforces and reinscribes the themes of miscegenation,
intraracial conflict, interracial conflict, and father-and-son
conflict—all themes that are critical to racial passing.
Indeed the literature reveals that
light-skinned Black males have an easier time with passing
because there is the issue of domesticity; Black female
characters are depicted as having stronger connections to
family. Black males
passing in American literature advances the roughed
individualism of masculinity and male subjectivity.
Furthermore, Johnson’s novel is in dialogue
with Chesnutt’s novel and Faulkner’s novel is in dialogue
with Fitzgerald’s novel.
Although my study does not address the passing of
light-skinned Black female characters, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum
Bun (1928) and Nella Larsen’s Passing
are excellent novels of racial passing.
Rudy: Could you explain what is meant
when you say one novel “is in dialogue” with another? Did
Johnson have Chestnutt’s book in mind when he wrote his own;
did Faulkner have Fitzgerald in mind?
|Thompson: For a novel to be in
dialogue (intertextuality) means that one author is speaking to
a previous author’s work.
The dialogue can be manifest in theme, character,
symbolism, or structure. For
example, in Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s novel, the brother,
John Warwick, gives his sister, Rena, a dime with a hole in it
and in James Weldon Johnson’s novel the white father gives the
light-skinned protagonist a gold piece with a hole in it.
connections between Fitzgerald and Faulkner are that both
protagonists are bootleggers and both are connected to the death
of white women, Myrtle Wilson and Joanna Burden respectively. Thus
Johnson had Chesnutt in mind and Faulkner had Fitzgerald under
the literary microscope.
Rudy: Your project seems to yoke two
disparate subjects—“passing” and the “black buck.”
We’ve heard of the “tragic mulatto” caught between
two worlds neither fully in either world. You have replaced
“mulatto” with “buck.” Was it a mechanical process by
which you came up with this notion of the “tragic black
buck,” that is, a mere substitution in terms? For your
“tragic buck” notion is novel indeed.
A native reading of passing is that it was an
acceptance of whiteness, a status quo desired, but also a subtle
(and unethical) means of acquiring all the benefits that come
from being white in American society. Though repression occurs,
the native view, however, is that passing is a weak-kneed,
self-indulgent response to white racism.
You seem rather to sympathize with the
“passer,” as one who performs a con that is admirable in its
skills of adaptability and its political undermining of white
power or the notion of white superiority?
Thus this blending in, however, seems rather
a conservative (reactionary) movement that supports and sustains
the white status quo.
Thompson: The tragic black buck
represents a paradox in that by passing for white he [the
passer] challenges the biological notion of white supremacy
while at the same time he sustains and supports the white status
quo. Implicit in the use of the word tragic is the signification
on the literary trope of the tragic mulatto.
By using the word buck, I am signifying on
the system of slavery in America where Black males were forced
to breed with Black women in order to reproduce a product (Black
children) who would also be consumed by this demonic
Further the word buck reinforces the social
economic aspects of racial passing.
Regardless of gender, economic subjectivity is central to
all novels of racial passing by Black and white writers.
Rudy: “Subjectivity” is a
technical term you use. Does it have some specialized meaning
that is necessary for your argument?
Thompson: Subjectivity within a
literary context means the type of agency or power that a
character has in his attempt to achieve his desire.
In a white supremacist culture, having light skin and
other physical features gives socioeconomic subjectivity to
those Blacks who pass for white
Rudy: Aligned with your heavy use of
psychoanalysis, you used “passing” as a kind of metaphor, as
in your assertion that Frederick Douglass’ Narrative,
is a “passing” rather than a “passage” (or exodus)
document. His 1845 Narrative,
you argue, is a passing document in the sense that it
contains elements of “masking” (disguising one’s true
status) to escape bondage (blackness) and ending in
“freedom” (whiteness). One wonders how Douglass would view
this rereading of his life.
Thompson: By drawing on the Narrative by Frederick Douglass, I seek to emphasize that there were
many Black male and female slaves who were engaged in racial
slave bills are replete with announcements that escaped slaves
might be attempting to pass themselves off as white individuals.
Being able to speak languages other than English along
with the theft of the master’s clothing allowed many
light-skinned Black individuals to secure and sustain their
The example of William and Ellen Craft in
their narrative Running A
Thousand Miles to Freedom represents a supreme depiction of
the sophistication of Black individuals seeking freedom.
As a light-skinned Black female slave, Ellen Craft
changed her race, gender, and class.
Ellen became a white slave master going North in the
company of his slave (her husband).
They escaped on a railroad train and eventually made
their way to Canada.
Rudy: But Douglass did not pass for
white, did he? If he “passed” he passed simply as a man, a
sailor. In using “passing” as a metaphor, doesn’t your
approach undermine the historicity of the phenomena of passing?
Thompson: In writing and thinking
about literature and some historical incidents, there are the
literal aspects and the metaphorical aspects.
Frederick Douglass did not literally pass for white, but
he did symbolically pass for white because he was dressed in
white sailor’s clothes. Like
William and Ellen Craft, Frederick Douglass used similar devices
to ensure his freedom. Moving from slavery to freedom represents a passing
The other important aspect of Douglass is his
long relationship with a white woman while married to a Black
woman and his eventual marriage to a white woman. Douglass a
product of miscegenation turns the white master narrative of
racial hegemony on its head.
Rudy: When you say passing
“represented the boldest challenge to the legal and extralegal
systems of oppression,” I assume you mean in the narrowest
You suggest that this psychological
phenomenon is a kind of artistic play (or artful
intellectualism) and that at its best epitomizes Du Bois’
notion of “double consciousness.”
Was willful deception (an aggressive act)
ever a central aspect of what Du Bois was trying to get at?
Though Du Bois was light-skinned like Douglass, your
reading of double-consciousness and passing yoked together in a
vital relationship seems far beyond the usual life of the freed
Thompson: By yoking the concept of
“double consciousness” to racial passing, I am attempting to
address the complex psychological aspect of this racial
Nathan Huggins sagaciously argues in Revelations: American
History, American Myths (1995) racial passing has “psychic
penalties” because Black individuals have to deny their
family, their friends, and their culture.
Hence there is an aggressive denial being made by the
individual passing for white.
For example, in Langston Hughes' story
“Passing” in The Ways
of White Folks the main character, Jack, who desires to
marry a white woman, states that he will deny his children if
they are born Black. He
will declare that his white wife has had sexual relations with a
Black man. Of course, unknown to his white wife he will be
right; however, he represents that Black man.
Thus this story explicates the intense
psychological dilemma of this man who passes his Black mother on
the street and does not speak to her because he is with his
white girlfriend of German ancestry who thinks that
“darkies” are so delightful when they dance.
Rudy: Like historian Wilson
J. Moses, I think that the dialectical notion of
“double-consciousness” erected by the young Du Bois has been
overrated as symbolic of the complexity of black or human
consciousness. Though a useful propaganda tool, it's a rather an
oversimplified view of consciousness or even of black
consciousness. What seems darkly complex (complicated) in your
examples is the unethical reconciling that goes on to sustain
the mask, the masquerade, a process undermining what is gained
by such imaginative adaptations.
Thompson: W. E. B. Du Bois represents
the most prolific intellectual that America has ever produced
and his theory of double consciousness will remain a fundamental
rubric when it comes to the psychological duality of Black
people in a white supremacist culture.
Rudy: Du Bois was indeed a complex and
complexing man, despite his double consciousness.
But this class of “black buck” (with a
great range of individual ability) is so minute. Most blacks
lack the physical opportunity to "pass," what
significance should the mulatto buck have for us not passable
and for those who on ethical grounds choose not to pass? Or are
you suggesting that we all "pass" whether "passable,"
choice or no choice, but some of us are rather better at
"passing" than others?
Thompson: To be an American means to
pass because this culture requires that everyone gives something
up if they want economic subjectivity.
For the Black people this sojourn is made
more difficult because of the enduring nature of white
supremacy, but for the light-skinned individual there are
special privileges because of skin color.
This individual maybe able to assume a white identity or
just profit from the fact that America has racial hegemony and
Rudy: Is your “tragic [mulatto]
black buck” a kind of Signifying Monkey—a kind of
model for contemporary black manhood? Does such an
intellectual modeling pose dangerous problems, i.e., over-emphasizing
individual achievement at the expense of the needs and
perspective of the larger group?
Thompson: The tragic aspect of passing
does involve the issues of individual subjectivity as opposed to
the subjectivity of the group.
Passing is a lonely journey that cuts the individual off
from his family, his friends and his culture.
As Clare Redfield states in Nella Larsen’s
novel Passing, her
life is terrible lonely pale existence and she seeks to embrace
the vitality of Black life.
When she is found to be passing by her white husband, she
experiences a tragic death as she falls or is pushed out of a
window into a snow laden ground.
It would be difficult to view these four male
characters as models for today’s society: John Warwick in The
House Behind the Cedars disappears. The nameless protagonist
in The Autobiography of
Ex-Coloured Man bemoans the fact that he has sold his
birthright for a mess of pottage. Jay Gatsby in The
Great Gatsby is shot and killed for a accident that was not
his faulty. And Joe Christmas in Light
in August bleeds to death after he is castrated.
The more modern passing figures Clarence
Thomas and Colin Powell seem to represent the Signifying Monkey
character that resists any progressive Black movement as they
embrace the white phallus.
Rudy: There seems to be a
resistance movement among black youth against “acting [or
becoming] white,” and all that that entails. Aren't they
carrying on a tradition?
Thompson: Considering the issue of
some Blacks using the term “acting white” to denounce other
Black individuals, this represents a rather pathetic defense
mechanism that reinforces and reinscribes white supremacy. To be
educated and to think critically is not the sole purview of
Reginald Jones of the Beatrice Group did not
view himself as acting white as he made his journey to the top
of the business world in America.
This issue of representation is central to my
audacious analysis of Jay Gatsby as a light-skinned Black male
passing as white. Some
will think that Gatsby as a Black man is impossible because of
his tremendous wealth and because of his romantic mission to win
Daisy Buchanan back from the white supremacist, Tom Buchanan.
Wealthy and romance do not have race or
gender attached to these categories.
Rudy: “Acting white” seems a
sound critical statement about social behavior in a racist
society. It is has the same quality of the tradition criticism
called “putting on airs.” I find it of curious interest that
so many status quo individuals have come down on the juvenile
use of the term when they know these same kids have an
extraordinary respect for intelligence. They don't like to be
You conclude, nevertheless, “It would be
reductive and ineffectual to contemplate the phenomenon of
passing for white as positive or negative.” Traditionally,
however, black people have condemned and often pitied those who
have “passed” and shunned this practice, not because of its
complexity, but because of the personal and ethical costs.
It still remains unclear to me what is gained
by the masquerading you have extolled.
Thompson: My critical objective is not
simply to extol the masquerade in American literature but to
offer an analysis of what these four light-skinned individuals
have done in light of the enduring nature of America’s white
supremacist culture that continues to dehumanize, debase, and
disenfranchise Black people. Whether we agree with passing or
not the literature strongly suggests that passing by race,
gender, or class represents one way to achieve the American
Dream and some individuals will forsake family, friends, and
culture to achieve their desires.
* * *
Carlyle Van Thompson is Associate
Professor of African American and American Literature at Medgar
Evers College, the City University of New York. He received his
Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia
University. Dr. Thompson is the chairperson of the Department of
Languages, Literature, and Philosophy. He has published
scholarly articles on the works of Toni Morrison, Ernest J.
Gaines, Nella Larsen, and Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Thompson is
also the editor of the
Eating the Black Body: Miscegenation As Sexual Consumption in
African American Literature And Culture
published by Peter Lang.
Carlyle Van Thompson,
Professor of English and Chairperson / Medgar Evers College,
CUNY / 1650 Bedford Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11225
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update 20 June 2012