The indefinite status accorded James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) is, to a great extent, attributable to its standing as the first “fictional” text written by an African American that deliberately masks its genre. The confessional frame is a guise, self-consciously employed by Johnson to authenticate the main character’s story, strategically to give the text the appearance of an autobiography. From the onset, the narrative co-mingles genres; like its racially hybrid narrator, the text itself is a kind of narrative message.
Moreover, Johnson represents a fictional anti-hero, a black man who chooses to “pass” for a white man who need not negotiate the hardships of race relations in America. As a consequence, The Autobiography is a thematic departure from its autobiographical predecessors, Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery” (1901) and W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903). It also departs from traditional narrative representations of “passing” such as those found in the late 19th-century novels of Frances Harper and Charles Chesnutt.
Still, Johnson was a publicly acclaimed “race man. ” The intrigue of his formal variations is that he knowingly wrote such hybrid “anathema” in the highly charged racial climate of a rabidly Jim Crow era. The narrative line of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, then, as a result of what might be considered the work’s contending forces, operates along several discursive lines, including a “false” fictional representation of the narrator, Johnson’s own political reflections and theories and signifying riffs on conventions from the book’s literary ancestors.
Themes such as black uplift, racial pride, and social responsibility–borrowed from antedating black autobiographical and fictional works–clash with the ideological position that the narrator must espouse to justify his own politically charged identity choices. The Autobiography’s manifold positions create a writerly tension that is inherent and identifiable in the text, a tension that serves, finally, to undermine the integrity of the first-person narrative voice.
Clearly, Johnson’s ability to conjure and craft his anti-heroic protagonist is thwarted by historical circumstances surrounding his writing and by his own political sensibilities. The socio-historical circumstances framing Johnson’s act of writing, principally the struggle for black enfranchisement, plainly conflict with the narrator’s portraiture. Although conventions of form would seem predisposed to a close subjective connection between the author and the narrator, the narrative occasion of Johnson’s endeavor is such that the views upheld by the narrator are often radically divergent from those of his creator.
Johnson, then, is writing out of what Houston A. Baker, Jr. , in Turning South Again (2001), has termed “a tight place”: “‘Tight places’ are constituted by the necessity to articulate from a position that combines specters of humiliation (slavery), multiple subjects and signifiers, figurative obligations of race in America (to speak ‘Negro’ or for “Negroes”), and patent sex and gender implications.
At the center of Baker’s theoretical formulations is the notion that the black male subject at the turn into the twentieth century is always already “framed” in relation to the dominant white social structure and thus affirms, subverts, or at least navigates through a social arrangement marked by “domination and defeat,” the white public’s “network of opinions and desires,” and “the always undecided cultural compromises of occupancy and desire: Who moves? Who doesn’t? still, the early 20th-century textual black subject is also located within what Claudia Tate describes as a firmly entrenched “black male heroic liberation dialogue,” the contours of which shape another kind of “tight space,” one in which there tacitly exist “agreed upon” rules governing black male subjectivity and its literary representation within the black public sphere. We might say, then, that Johnson writes out of a doubly determined “tight space. ” The aforementioned withstanding, it is curious that Johnson would embark upon the narrative experiment that is The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in such a vexed environment.
Why did he engage such risky genre crossing business at precisely what the black historian Rayford Logan calls the lowest point of Jim Crow racism in America? Passing for White, Passing for Man, the impetus fueling Johnson’s narrative experiment seems clearer if one summons to view the African American male writerly tradition. In his own autobiography “Along This Way”, Johnson maintains that he expected that the title The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man would immediately reveal the work’s ironic inflections and unspoken relationship to prevailing discourses on black male subjectivity.
He writes: “When I chose the title, it was without the slightest doubt that its meaning would be perfectly clear to anyone”. Although Johnson’s ironic title borders on satire, the discursive subversion marked by satire is meaningless without a clear contextualization of the black male literary enterprise upon which satire would, as it were, “signify. ” The scholar William Andrews has provided the most astute account available of this enterprise.
He asserts that “in the African American novel, at the turn into the twentieth century, the leading characters almost always have a choice between self-interest and self-sacrifice in the name of uplifting the race. Generally, the choice is in favor of the latter”. Johnson’s text reverses the norms of the dilemma described by Andrews. His narrator chooses self-interest. As such, while other works reveal the hero’s growing racial awareness, Johnson’s Autobiography plots the anti-hero’s movement toward racial disengagement. In brief, Johnson’s representation of the first-person narrator invokes the myth of the heroic black male–then inverts it.
Within the context of an already established African American male protest tradition that links the proud display of masculinity with the struggle for racial justice, Johnson’s narrator invites criticism as a “failed” race man and a failed man, for he has chosen to “pass”–a choice that symbolizes synonymous rejection of both social equality and masculine pride. To locate The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man vis-a-vis the thematic and formal expectations framing its production, it is useful to elaborate Tate’s formulation of the black heroic liberation discursive project.
Even before Du Bois theorized the emasculation of black men as an ease of slavery, speaking as he did of the “red stain of “bastardy,” and the twin evils of segregation and poverty, Frederick Douglass had already discursively connected racial oppression and black emasculation. His famous statement, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man”, at once fore-grounded both the emasculating character of slavery and its reversal.
Douglass’s assertion of physical strength and defiance in which he throttles the slave breaker Covey, the man to whom he has been hired out to be “broken,” “revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood”. Black “manhood” is reconstituted by way of physical encounter, transmuting Douglass from a “slave in fact” to a “slave in form alone. ” Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk later yokes “masculinity” and “racial responsibility,” placing these constructs in dialectical relation to material acquisition and rugged individualism. Du Bois, speaking directly against Booker T.
Washingtonian strategies for social change, says: “If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of our education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools … this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life”. 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.