The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man: James Weldon Johnson's novel of race and identity
"You are young, gifted, and Black. We must begin to tell our young, There's a world waiting for you, Yours is the quest that's just begun.--James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson
Johnson lived an extraordinary life as a writer, musician,educator, lawyer, and diplomat. Born in Jacksonville, Florida,in 1871, the son of teacher Helen Dulett and James Johnson, the head waiter at St. James Hotel, one of the early resort hotels in Jacksonville. Johnson developed his love of music and literature from his mother. His confidence to pursue a professional position was inspired by his father.
Johnson entered Atlanta University at age 16 and received his degree in 1894. Along with his brother, Rosamond, Johnson wrote numerous songs which were incorporated into Broadway hits of the day. Working with the Theodore Roosevelt campaign, as a Republican, Johnson composed campaign songs for Roosevelt. Upon his election Roosevelt appointed Johnson as American Consul to Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The election of Woodrow Wilson,a Virginia Democrat,ended Johnson's diplomatic career. No longer bound by the requirements of circumspection in the political world, Johnson became a civil rights activist and a founder of the NAACP.
Johnson was killed in a collision with a train at an unmarked crossing, headed for a speaking engagement. His death at the age of sixty seven brought a premature end to an extraordinary life.
Considering the quote from Johnson which serves as a preamble to this review, the subject matter of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
concerns the life of a man from childhood through life with the knowledge that he is Black, but with the ability to pass as a white man. His conflicted opinion on whether to live safely as a white man as opposed to acknowledging his racial identity and acting to advance his own race is the theme that runs throughout Johnson's novel. The title of the book leaves no doubt as to the protagonist's final decision. It is a decision that is riddled with guilt.
The unnamed protagonist tells his story in the first person. He does not reveal the place of his birth as there are still people living there who would readily identify him. He is the product of the illicit union of a wealthy white man and his mother her served as his father's seamstress. As his father's marriage approaches, "Father" purchases tickets for our young boy and his mother for a train trip to Savannah. He has also provided steamship tickets for a one way ticket to New York. The young boy's mother establishes a career for herself as a professional seamstress and "Father" supplements the family income with monthly checks.
Johnson published the novel anonymously in 1912. The identity of the author remained secret until the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance and Weldon was revealed as its author in 1927. Prior to that, upon its initial publication debate over whether the work was in fact an autobiography or a novel was common. Johnson's realistic portrayal of the life of his protagonist undoubtedly led to the continuing debate.
As an elementary student, our young man attends an integrated school in New York. His race is imperceptible. His friends are white. He perceives the difference with which the black students are regarded by his friends and by the teachers, as well. However, a school administrator visits the class room one day, asking all the white scholars to stand. When the protagonist stands, the administrator tells him, "No, not you, sit down." From that moment, our young student's relationships with his white friends cease and he is taunted on the way home that afternoon, hearing for the first time "Nigger," and recognizes that his life in that school has been changed forever.
We follow our growing young man back to the South to attend Atlanta University. However, his funds are stolen from his trunk. His supposed friend, a railway porter, recommends that he go to Jacksonville, where he finds work in a cigar factory, first as a stripper, then a roller, and finally achieves the coveted position of "the reader" who not only keeps the cigar makers entertained with news and other reading material, but over sees and resolves disputes between workers.
A Cigar Reader, turn of the 20th Century
A sudden close of the cigar factory leads our protagonist back to New York. It is the age of Ragtime and our man has the gift of playing it. Whites, slumming on visits to the clubs, are there for the entertainment. A millionaire retains our hero to be his private entertainer, leading to travels through Europe. Yet, our young man is conflicted and yearns to return to America, polishing his skills as a musician. His benefactor explains to him that he could pass for a white man for the rest of his life and need not return to a life of nights in the black clubs of New York. Yet, he returns.
Scott Joplin, Master of Rag-Time
The turning point in the ex-coloured man's decision to pass as a white man is his love of a beautiful young white woman. I leave it to the reader to discover the outcome of that romance and the protagonist's final thoughts on the consequences of being an ex-coloured man.
Johnson's narrative is keen, precise and instantly engaging. He transports the reader from small town Georgia to New York, Jacksonville, London and Paris with ease. His precision in portraying the unnamed protagonist's conflicts between race and identity resonate, at times with the edge of satire, and at others with heartrending pathos.
Truly, Johnson's anonymous work is the dawning of the Harlem Renaissance. Read this book. It's a solid 4.5 star read. Selected writings of James Weldon Johnson are available in a Library of America edition. Get it. For you won't be satisfied to leave Johnson after this one novel.