The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-COLORED MAN
James Weldon Johnson's only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, charts the restless movement of a light-skinned man across boundaries of race, class, and region in turn-of-the-century America. Johnson (1871–1938) began writing what would be his most famous work in 1905, at a moment marked by his own restlessness. Only five years earlier, Johnson had joined his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in New York City to write song lyrics for musical theater, leaving behind his relatively settled life in Jacksonville, Florida, as a high school principal and newspaper editor who had recently passed the state bar and was engaged to be married. The Johnsons, along with their partner Bob Cole, quickly became the most successful African American songwriting team in musical theater. But while Johnson enjoyed this success, and the influence it brought, he soon found himself craving "escape" and "a little stillness of the spirit," as he put it in his memoir, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (p. 223). He enrolled in literature classes at Columbia, began writing poetry and what would become his novel, and cultivated his connections in politics. With the help of Booker T. Washington, he was appointed U.S. consul in Venezuela (1906) and Nicaragua (1909–1913), and at the latter post, he wrote the bulk of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and saw it published, anonymously, by the small Boston house of Sherman, French and Company in 1912.
As its title suggests, The Autobiography is a first-person account of the life of a man who has disavowed his blackness, offering its readers a perspective on American race relations from one who has lived on both sides of the "color line." With its author's name withheld, the work's first reviewers generally took the claims of its preface, attributed to the publishers though probably written by Johnson himself, at face value: this was a work of sociological interest, offering the (presumed white) reader an authentic "view of the inner life of the Negro in America" (p. xl). Several black critics saw through its nonfictional guise (Jessie Fauset in The Crisis, for example, suggested it was fiction based on fact), and some southern white reviewers insisted it was fiction on the basis that a black man could never actually pass as white. Members of the black entertainment world in New York, however, variously attributed its authorship to light-skinned musicians known to be "passing" as white. Why Johnson withheld his name is not clear. Although he claims to have enjoyed the challenge of fooling his readers, he may also have chosen, along with his publishers, the genre of autobiography for its greater marketability, particularly given the degree to which his novel diverges from the more conventional realism being published by African Americans at the time.
Alfred A. Knopf reissued the novel at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in 1927, with Johnson's name finally attached, an introduction by Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), and a book jacket illustrated by Aaron Douglass. By then, the novel's success was ensured by Johnson's reputation as a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as the editor of The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), and as coeditor (with his brother) of The Books of American Negro Spirituals (1925–1926). He was also, by then, a recognized poet; God's Trombones, which would become his most famous book of poetry, was also published in 1927. While The Autobiography was now recognized as fictional, and indeed retrospectively hailed as the first major novel of the Negro Renaissance, it was still appreciated more for its sociological than literary value. Van Vechten's introduction, which made clear that Johnson and his narrator were not one and the same, remarks how it nonetheless "reads like a composite autobiography of the Negro in the United States in modern times" (p. xxxiv). While much of the narrative does read like an ethnographic essay covering many aspects of black American life, subsequent critics would be more interested in how the narrator's journey through and across the American racial landscape seems fraught with confusion, desire, regret, and bitterness. Indeed, the uneasy relationship between the unnamed narrator's detached perspective on and anxious investment in his own story makes this novel's point of view notably difficult to pin down and makes the novel a distinctly modern, and for some postmodern, narrative.
After introducing himself as someone with a "great secret," motivated by the impulse to confess as well as the perverse desire to "play with fire," the narrator begins quite conventionally with his origins (p. 3). Born in Georgia shortly after the Civil War, he recalls his white father only as an occasional, shadowy visitor to his mother's cottage, notable mainly for his shiny shoes and gold chain and watch. When his father becomes engaged to a southern white woman, the narrator and his mother are sent to live in Connecticut. To supplement the occasional checks she receives from her former lover, the narrator's mother works as a seamstress and raises her son without reference to his race. The narrator assumes he is white until a schoolteacher publicly identifies him otherwise during an informal school drill, a moment that introduces him to blackness as something mysterious and intangible, and leads him to a Du Boisian sense of "double consciousness."
Johnson's narrator, a light-skinned African American who "passes" as white, never experiences race as a stable or fixed marker of his identity. He thus embodies a modernist departure from the tragic mulattoes of nineteenth-century fiction.
It is difficult for me to analyse [sic] my feelings concerning my present position in the world. Sometimes it seems to me that I have never really been a Negro, that I have been only a privileged spectator of their inner life; at other times I feel that I have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother's people.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, p. 210.
As a teenager, the narrator seeks out books that can teach him about his "race," from Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to Frederick Douglass's slave narrative, while he also devotes himself to the study of classical piano, showing a musical talent that endears him to his father on his one and only visit to his secret family. A black classmate's graduation speech about Toussaint-Louverture awakens the narrator's ambition to become a "great coloured man, to reflect credit on the race and gain fame for myself" (p. 46), and this ambition leads him, after his mother's untimely death, back to the South to study at Atlanta University, eventually, one imagines, to embark on a career devoted to the "uplift" of the race.
The novel, however, frustrates this conventional narrative of "uplift," as it initiates the narrator's decidedly nonlinear journey into adulthood. When all of his money is stolen, the narrator abandons the idea of college and heads to Jacksonville (Johnson's home town) where he finds work in a cigar-making factory and begins to demonstrate a remarkable talent for adapting to different cultural environments. He quickly learns Spanish well enough to be hired as a "reader," keeping the Cuban cigar makers entertained with novels and newspapers, while he also gains his first real entry into what he calls "the freemasonry of the race" (p. 74) by giving piano lessons and going to church within the middle-class African American community.
When the cigar factory suddenly shuts down, however, the narrator abruptly returns north to seek work in New York, where he enters the emerging realm of "black Bohemia." Falling in with a crowd of gamblers, the narrator begins to spend time at the "Club," a gathering place for black entertainers and sports celebrities, and the place where he hears ragtime piano for the first time and thereby escapes the seduction of gambling. Impressed by the capacity of a "natural musician" (p. 101) without any formal training to produce such stirring and novel music, the narrator learns to produce his own ragtime performances of the classical repertoire. In so doing, he not only gives musical expression to his biracial identity, but he also distinguishes himself as the first to "rag the classics" and quickly becomes, he claims, "the best rag-time-player in New York" (p. 115). This section of the novel offers not only a detailed look at black Bohemia (which Johnson would echo in his cultural history, Black Manhattan ), but also an early—and oft-cited—discussion of the significance of ragtime to American music.
The narrator's next move begins when a world-weary millionaire, one of the white "slummers" at the Club, finds himself so drawn to the narrator's ragtime playing that he hires him to play for his parties and, at times, for his own private enjoyment. The millionaire eventually whisks the narrator away to Europe as his paid companion, rescuing him from an entanglement with a rich white "widow" and her vengeful—and eventually murderous—black lover. After long, culturally enlightening stays in Paris, London, and Berlin, the narrator yet again dramatically changes his course, this time at his own instigation. After hearing a German musician use one of his ragtime pieces as the basis for "classical" composition, he becomes determined to fulfill his childhood ambition to be a "great coloured man" by composing classical music based on black folk music (p. 46).
This desire takes him back to the American South, where he hopes to "catch the spirit of the Negro in his relatively primitive state" (p. 173) in the poorest and most rural communities. At a "big meeting" he experiences—and describes at length—the virtuosic performances of a black preacher and a song leader, which move him beyond expectation and, perhaps, beyond his capacity to "catch" with pen and paper. The last major turning point of the narrative soon follows: the narrator witnesses a black man being burned alive before a crowd of whites, many of them cheering at the spectacle, and feels such despair at its injustice, as well as "shame, unbearable shame" at belonging to so brutalized a people, that he completely abandons his ambitions and his "blackness." He moves back to New York to live as a white man, where he becomes in every way the image of modern American success, making his fortune in real estate and marrying a "lily white" woman with whom he has two children. He closes his narrative with the admission that, while he remains committed to keeping his children safely "white," and thus to passing, he lives with regret that he "has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage" (p. 211).
The scholarship on Johnson's novel, beginning in the late 1950s, shows a remarkable diversity of approaches and concerns, which register not only changing critical trends but also the text's central ambiguities. Three main concerns punctuate this critical history. First came the project of articulating an African American literary canon, and thus of situating Johnson's text in relation to those that preceded and succeeded it. Several early scholars focused on how the first-person narrative echoed or inverted slave narrative conventions, and they also saw it as anticipating postwar "protest" fiction such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). Much of this first wave of criticism was concerned with establishing The Autobiography's canonical value as an important link between nineteenth-and twentieth-century traditions.
In the 1970s and 1980s, with its canonical status perhaps ensured, critics began to recognize and explore the novel's "irony," both within and toward the narrator's perspective. Discussion had already emerged about the reliability or unreliability of Johnson's narrator, but scholars now tended to emphasize the narrator's moments of blindness to his own prejudices and contradictions and to lament his "failure" to fully embrace his blackness. Some cast the narrator as an anti-hero who has betrayed his race, while others read him more tragically as trapped within a racist society and ideology. Several critics took issue that to emphasize Johnson's ironic detachment from his narrator ignores the degree to which the author sympathizes with his narrator and the more ambiguous relationship between irony and tragedy in this novel.
This concern with irony sowed the seeds for more recent critical interest in the politics of "passing" in the novel. Rather than lament the narrator's failure to claim his blackness, scholars since the 1990s tend to see the narrator's movement across the color line as a particularly rich illustration of the performativity of racial identity and, indeed, of identity in general. For these critics, the novel presents a postmodern critique of, rather than a modern search for, authentic selfhood.
Finally, it should be noted that Johnson's novel has long found a place in discussions of early-twentieth-century American music, from early histories of rag-time and African American composers to more recent work on the relationship between music and constructions of race.
Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Viking Press, 1933.
Johnson, James Weldon. 1912, 1927. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. The "u" in "Coloured" was added after the first edition.
Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. New York: Knopf, 1930.
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Washington, Salim. "Of Black Bards, Known and Unknown: Music as Racial Metaphor in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." Callaloo 25, no. 1 (2002): 233–256.
Cristina L. Ruotolo