The Tragic Black Buck

Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination, Second Edition

by Carlyle Thompson (Author)
©2020 Textbook XXIV, 232 Pages


The new edition of The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination offers a fresh perspective on this trail blazing scholarship, and the singular importance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as a challenge to the racial hegemony of biological white supremacy. Fitzgerald convincinglyand boldly shows how racial passing by light-skinned Black individuals becomes the most fascinating literary trope associated with democracy and the enduring desire for the American Dream.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface to the First Edition
  • Preface to the Second Edition
  • 1 Introduction: Black Bucks Being as White as They Wanna Be
  • 2 “The Circular Ruins” of Passing
  • 3 The Improvisational and Faustian Performance in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
  • 4 The Tragic Black Buck
  • 5 Joe Christmas, a Black Buck with Attitude
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


This project of racial masquerade and misrepresentation comes out of my graduate studies at Columbia University and my work with the distinguished literary scholar Robert G. O’Meally, who taught his first graduate course on racial passing at Columbia University. His enduring support has been critical.

While I was at Medgar Evers College, this project was strongly advanced in the CUNY Faculty Publications Program with the important feedback and suggestions of Nora Eisenburg, Linda Grasso, Katie Hogan, Frederick De Naples, and Cheryl Fish. I would also like to acknowledge the enduring support of my CUNY colleagues and friends George Cunningham and James L. de Jongh. Also, thanks go to James L. de Jongh and the IRADAC/CAAN Conference for their support on Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars. Linda Susan Jackson, a superb teacher, poet, collaborator, and colleague at Medgar Evers College, has been especially helpful to this project and is a person who is always there for spiritual support, humor, and intellectual engagement. My talented students at Medgar Evers College patiently listened to my provocative ideas and unknowingly offered me the challenge to expand and explode the traditional boundaries of literary analysis; I am grateful to have the opportunity to teach at a progressive institution whose namesake epitomizes an enduring challenge to the market-driven, narcissistic, hedonistic, and hegemonic dogma of world←vii | viii→wide white supremacist culture. One particular critically engaging black student, Lisa Allen, was especially helpful in my consideration and analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Reinforcing the concept that teaching is an act of reciprocity, Allen by her challenges pushed me to look deeper into the novel. The tremendous academic success of other knowledgeable MEC students like James Worley, Kevin Brown, Oladapo Yeku, Andrea Sears, and Melissa Jackson speaks to the nontraditional intellectual possibilities that can happen only at Medgar Evers College. These students are reading, writing, and critically thinking themselves into subjectivity in a manner that does not reinforce and reinscribe the pathology of white supremacy, gender objectification, or class and color hegemony. I am extremely grateful to Patricia Lespiansse for her intellectual feedback and technical assistance. F. Leon Wilson, a long-time friend and comrade, has always been there for me with his superb technical assistance and his intellectual tenacity.

Special thanks and gratitude go to Haki R. Madhubuti, the Distinguished Professor of Chicago State University; Edison O. Jackson, president of Medgar Evers College; and Michael Eric Dyson, of the University of Pennsylvania—all truly revolutionary intellectuals who without reservation have supported my intellectual development. I am also extremely thankful to Bernado Pace, of Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY), and James West, of the University of Pennsylvania, for their support for my work on The Great Gatsby. With my life partner and friend Cynthia D. Pullen-Thompson by my side, this project was made more rich and abundant than I could have conceived; I am grateful for her enduring love and support. As intellectual friends from the City University of New York—Center for Worker Education, Carolyn Lewis, Sophronia Fuller, and Jannie Johnson inspire me to continue to grow and to share a vision of libratory intellectualism.

Preface to the First Edition

This project examines the too often paradoxical phenomenon in American literature of light-skinned black male individuals who pass for white; these adventurous men can be viewed as black “bucks.” Focusing on four novels of the first third of the twentieth century, I argue that black individuals who assume a white identity represent a paradox in that passing for white represents a challenge to the hedonistic and hegemonic ideology of biological white supremacy. Yet, some black individuals who pass for white also represent the denial of blackness in terms of their family, their history, and their culture. I examine the issues of race, gender, class, and law in the literature of passing involving the tropes of historical and theoretical miscegenation, mimicry, and masquerade. Dynamics of skin color, hair texture, physical features, and language are equally critical to my examination. These dynamics suggest how interracial conflict produces, perpetuates, and propagates intraracial conflict. The narratives of passing examined here are Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932); these writers explore racial passing as a masquerade.

These four novels about black men who assume a white identity dramatically reveal that the too often tragic and comic performance of passing occurs ←ix | x→not because of self-hatred but because of America’s racist society and the need for socioeconomic survival and subjectivity. The literature of passing enduringly suggests the larger issues of national identity formation and class subjectivity in America. To be a true American (too often meaning white) inherently means to pass, to attain the socioeconomic privileges associated with whiteness. Too often, light-skinned black individuals who pass for white and who challenge the laws and the extralegal sanctions against miscegenation and the philosophy of white supremacy become tragically and comically characterized as outsiders who have the illusion of inclusion.

Preface to the Second Edition

A tragedy need not have blood and death; it’s enough that it all be filled with the majestic sadness that is the pleasure of tragedy.


Tragically in America, the lives of Black males regardless of skin color have always been in a paradoxical paradigm of desire and death associated with the American Dream. It has been a little over fifteen years since the initial publication of my first scholarly book, The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination (2004) and the most controversial literary explication in terms of the signature chapter discussing and analyzing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sanguine characterizations of his iconic protagonist, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1925). Also, in a scant six years, it will be the one-hundredth year anniversary of the classic depiction in the literature of the enduring desire for the American Dream, The Great Gatsby, the seminal chapter of this book. My argument here is that Fitzgerald consistently characterizes Jay Gatsby as a light-skinned Black individual passing as white. My scholarly book focuses on the critical issues of race, class, and color associated with racial passing and racial deception by light-skinned African Americans during the first third of the twentieth century. Here in this preface to the second edition of The Tragic Black Buck, I provide the background, the process, and the impact on this seminal work that has gone through numerous printings. Indeed, ←xi | xii→this is a wonderful opportunity to look back to access what the future will be for scholarly work that connects to the core values of American democracy and the American Dream. While I do not focus on them, the other three writers (Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and William Faulkner’s Light in August) are truly amazing and their novels discussed here reflect their absolute genius. Like Jay Gatsby, these light-skinned protagonists—John Warwick, the Ex-Colored Man, and Joe Christmas—all challenge the racial essentialism of whiteness.


XXIV, 232
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
race america ethic Black American racism afroamerican
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXIV, 232 pp.

Biographical notes

Carlyle Thompson (Author)

Carlyle Van Thompson is Professor of African American Literature and American Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University. Thompson is the former Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Education at Medgar Evers College and former Series Editor at Peter Lang Publishers Inc. As the author of three scholarly books, sixteen edited books, and numerous scholarly articles on Richard Wright, Nella Larsen, Ernest J. Gaines, Abner Louima, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Thompson’s current scholarship focuses on the challenges of young Black males in academia. Thompson lives in New York City.


Title: The Tragic Black Buck
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258 pages