Carlyle Van Thompson Interview

Carlyle Van Thompson Interview


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



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 Interviews 

Carlyle Van Thompson

author of 

The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading

 in the American Literary Imagination



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.  

The 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 institution. 

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 passing.  Fugitive 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 freedom. 

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 narrative.

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 sense possible.

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 Negro.

Thompson: By yoking the concept of “double consciousness” to racial passing, I am attempting to address the complex psychological aspect of this racial masquerade.  As 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 color hegemony.

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 white individuals. 

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 played dumb.

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,  Ph.D., Associate Professor of English and Chairperson / Medgar Evers College, CUNY / 1650 Bedford Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11225  718-270-4945

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