For a book considered to be the pinnacle of literary representation for the Jazz Age, the The Great Gatsby mentions African Americans once:
“As we crossed Blackwell’s Island, a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.”
Jenna Bond writes about this noticeably lacking black population in The Great Gatsby in this article; she mentions how significant this absence is in stories from the Roaring ’20s, especially considering the Harlem Renaissance and its cultural influence. We’ve branded the 1920s the Jazz Age, named after a form of music with uniquely African American roots, but there’s almost no representation of the back population in canonical early 20th-century culture.
“But that was just the reality of the situation during that time,” you might say with a shrug. “Minorities were marginalized. It’s not great, but that’s history.”
Well, Imaginary Nonchalant 1920s Cultural Scholar, what if we changed the way we narrate history, adjusted the lens through which we examine it? Let me direct you to Atane Ofiaja, a Nigerian writer and photographer living in New York. He wrote on his Tumblr about the pervasive systemic appropriation of black music and dancing in the first half of the twentieth century. The Charleston, one of the flappers’ most famous dances, was lifted from the Juba, a dance with West African roots that was secretly performed in the American South. Moreover, according to Ofiaja:
With regards to the flappers, apart from Josephine Baker, they also liberally borrowed from black vaudeville performers. They would copy dance moves from black performers, and then introduce it as their own. Many dances attributed to whites are from black vaudeville performers who were forced to perform on the chitlin’ circuit because of segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Josephine Baker,by the way, left the U.S. for Europe because, according to her, “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens… but I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
It’s called the Jazz Age, yet the original jazz musicians and dancers become footnotes or French citizens because of race.
With this in mind, when I sat down to list the pieces of literature included in my Jazz Age January collection, first on the list was “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” by Zora Neale Hurston. Sure, it’s an essay instead of a book, but since Hurston’s birthday was Tuesday (and commemorated by Ye Honorable Google), and because the essay was published in 1928, I decided that it was an apt choice.
“Colored Me” may be an essay, but it’s not stuffy, boring, nor difficult to read. It’s actually quite fun because Hurston’s got wit; her words are dripping-in-sass funny.
Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.
Aside from the humor, the essay is also an incredibly meaningful look at race (gender, too–remember, black women are doubly marginalized). Hurston understands her blackness as part of a much larger relational construct; in other words, after having grown up in an all-black town, she is not aware of her skin color until she enters the society of the white majority. Her blackness is entirely dependent on others’ whiteness.
So Hurston recognizes the political construct of race, but she isn’t content to simply point it out. She also turns the power dynamics of this difference on its head.
Sometimes it is the other way around… when I sit in the drafty basement that is The New World Cabaret with a white person, my color comes.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched [the white man]. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.
In The New World Cabaret, a popular night club in Harlem in the 1920s, the white man becomes the minority while Hurston is a part of the majority. By flipping this relationship, Hurston plays with racial differences that seem locked into place, but that have really been dictated by those in power, those who benefit from racism.
In fact, Hurston doesn’t just reverse the construct. At one point, she rejects it all together.
The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.
The eternal feminine, huh? Bow down.