Wednesday 7 September 2022

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson

Yes, this is a novel, albeit one that uses its fictional elements as a loose (very loose) framework on which the author hangs a travelogue, and a lot of didactic and polemical asides. The unnamed narrator is bi-racial and grows up in Connecticut with his unmarried mother and believes he's White until one day at school he's outed by a teacher. He's something of a prodigy at the piano, as well as being an excellent student, but his skin colour quickly comes to dominate his thoughts and viewpoint. After graduating from high school he sets out to find his place in America. He travels to Atlanta to go to university, but after a cruel setback he goes on to Jacksonville and lives there for over a year working as a cigar roller. After Jacksonville he tries his luck in NYC, and eventually spends time in Paris and rural Georgia. After witnessing a brutal lynching in Georgia he makes the decision to live the rest of his life as a White man, even, for a time, keeping his race a secret from the White woman he falls in love with. She rejects him initially, but then eventually marries him. It's the last time he reveals his biracialism to anyone.

This book can't really be judged as a novel since it's clear that Johnson was only using the novel form as a vehicle to deliver what is essentially a State of the (Black) Nation speech. As such, it's fascinating. Johnson was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a U.S. diplomat, became the first Black professor at NYU, and held important positions in the NAACP. Johnson's thoughts and observations on the split personality forced on Blacks are particularly interesting. As he saw it, Blacks had to struggle to be both Black and American. Racist America didn't want Blacks except under strict conditions, but Blacks wanted to be fully American in terms of rights. They were aspiring to join a club that didn't want them, and that, in his view, produced a painful split in the Black personality. The narrator, who becomes a financial success, realizes he can't be both Black and American, and chooses the latter. That's not something Johnson ever did, but he was able to see the cruel choice forced on Black America.

Although Johnson takes a mildly optimistic view of the progress Blacks will make in the future, highlighting their role in creating ragtime music which was taking the world by storm, it's sobering that so many of the hot button issues and cruel social conditions he describes are still unresolved to this day. He even takes note of, to him, the problematic and plentiful use of the n-word by what he regarded as lower-class Blacks. Interestingly, Johnson is blind to his own racism as he twice says disparaging things about Native Americans. While as a novel it barely exists, as a snapshot of the Black experience it's invaluable.