The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
Currently, for my History of the African-American Novel class, I’m reading Nella Larsen’s Passing, which I read in high school and quite liked. (It’s so interesting to revisit books, especially given such a shift in consciousness.) But Passing is a very well-known novel; I was much more fascinated by the texts I’d never heard of on our syllabus, like Clotel, or the President’s Daughter and Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted and, of course, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, whose title, for no particular reason, puts me in mind of The Invisible Man. (There’s also Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which we talked about but did not read.) Classes like these are hugely important, especially when it comes to uncovering and analyzing texts that might fade away or otherwise not occur to some people.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’s protagonist is never named. After having spent his life passing as white, our protagonist pens his memoirs, starting with his upbringing in the North, where he had no idea of his racial status until an incident at school. After the death of his benevolent mother, the protagonist heads South for college, but, when misfortune hits him, he sets out for Jacksonville, Florida, where he makes a life for himself working at a cigar plant. But when that shuts down, he heads to New York, where he finds himself as a highly sought after piano player. After witnessing a murder, the protagonist escapes to Europe with his benefactor, and it’s there that he decides to return to the American South and study traditional black music.
Okay, I try my best to make those summaries punchy, but it’s hard in the case of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. On the surface, it’s a very straight forward story about a black man who can pass for white making his way through life and concluding with the death of his wife and birth of his children. That’s hard to punch up. The real meat of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man lies in the deep irony of the work—the protagonist, who identifies himself as “an ex-colored man” in the title of his autobiography, is, in fact, deeply racist and self-loathing.
Our professor for the class is one of my very favorites (he was one of the faculty on our Ireland trip, and he took me to a pharmacy when I thought my head was going to explode in Galway), and his approach to analyzing the novel focuses on how the novel is the antithesis of a novel about a spiritual awakening. Where a novel about a spiritual awakening would be filled with moments of spiritual awakening culminating in the ultimate epiphany, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is filled with the protagonist’s failures to identify with, defend, or otherwise be an African-American, and his epiphany is a failure to either intervene or even react properly to a lynching. Over and over again, the protagonist fails, but what’s most haunting is how the end of the novel implies that he’ll pass on this cycle of failure to his children—just as his mother never told him he was black, I seriously doubt the protagonist will tell his children their status.
However, for all that irony, there are sharp insights on race. Towards the end of the novel, after the lynching, the protagonist declares he’ll grow a mustache and move back to New York, letting people identify him as whatever they want. (Of course, given his physical appearance, they’ll tend towards white.) The protagonist’s liminal status allows him a particular vantage point onto race relations, despite his failures, racism, and self-hatred. While the novel was published anonymously in 1912, it was republished in 1927 with James Weldon Johnson’s name; Johnson was hugely active in the Harlem Renaissance, even if this novel, written and published while Johnson was working in Nicaragua, falls outside most definitions of the Harlem Renaissance’s time-frame (1919-1930s). Some elements of the novel have grounding in Johnson’s own life—his study of traditional black music and his experiences in Jacksonville, for instance—but woe betide the reader who reads this novel too literally. (I can’t imagine anyone could; I mean, this novel literally ends with the idea that it’s only natural to want your children to be lighter-skinned, so they have opportunities! You know, instead of dismantling the system that discriminates on a color basis. Yurgh.)
Bottom line: Woe betide the reader who reads The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man too literally; the meat of this novel lies in its irony, with a deeply racist and self-loathing protagonist. Historically significant.