James Weldon Johnson — Part II

In 1912, James Weldon Johnson anonymously published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. It was later republished under Johnson’s name in 1927, at the acme of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man strikes me as a thoroughly postmodern move. This fictional novel is presented as the true life story of a talented man who chooses to “pass” as white so that he might have greater–or at least equal–access to opportunity in America. Autobiography is a fictional novel “passing” as another genre, autobiography. This mirroring wasn’t intended as just a fancy rhetorical device–it was a subversive, incendiary gesture on JWJ’s part, meant to question the mores of white America. In fact, after it’s initial publication, several reviews were written suggesting that the book was a hoax, the premise of these reviews being that a black man could never pass as a white man–let alone marry a white woman and become a landowner of some importance.

Ultimately, the voice in Autobiography problematizes all easy readings. The ex-colored man is a bona fide narcissist with an almost preternatural ability to succeed at everything he attempts–except of course when he is thwarted by racist social norms. The reader seems most encouraged to sympathize with the narrator at these times, when the ex-colored man’s natural and cultivated abilities are confronted or ousted by the dominant system. At other times, the narrator condescends working class blacks he terms “inferior”; he also frequently wishes to sanitize “primitive” forms of black art, such as spirituals and ragtime music, by recasting them in a classical, canonical mode. The ex-colored man clearly feels frustration that the acumen of his genius is constantly delimited by his color, but this frustration sometimes seems aimed at his fellow blacks.

All of this makes for a challenging but brisk and enjoyable read. Paired with JWJ’s real autobiography, Along This Way, a savvy reader can come up with all kinds of ironic, postmodern readings. Or straightforward readings. Or whatever. Read it yourself.

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