“To America” — James Weldon Johnson

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The dwarfing, warping, distorting influence (From James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man)

Since I have grown older I have often gone back and tried to analyze the change that came into my life after that fateful day in school. There did come a radical change, and, young as I was, I felt fully conscious of it, though I did not fully comprehend it. Like my first spanking, it is one of the few incidents in my life that I can remember clearly. In the life of everyone there is a limited number of unhappy experiences which are not written upon the memory, but stamped there with a die; and in long years after, they can be called up in detail, and every emotion that was stirred by them can be lived through anew; these are the tragedies of life. We may grow to include some of them among the trivial incidents of childhood—a broken toy, a promise made to us which was not kept, a harsh, heart-piercing word—but these, too, as well as the bitter experiences and disappointments of mature years, are the tragedies of life.

And so I have often lived through that hour, that day, that week, in which was wrought the miracle of my transition from one world into another; for I did indeed pass into another world. From that time I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until I finally realized in it a great, tangible fact.

And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every colored man in the United States. He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man. It is wonderful to me that the race has progressed so broadly as it has, since most of its thought and all of its activity must run through the narrow neck of this one funnel.

And it is this, too, which makes the colored people of this country, in reality, a mystery to the whites. It is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a colored man really thinks; because, generally, with the latter an additional and different light must be brought to bear on what he thinks; and his thoughts are often influenced by considerations so delicate and subtle that it would be impossible for him to confess or explain them to one of the opposite race. This gives to every colored man, in proportion to his intellectuality, a sort of dual personality; there is one phase of him which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race. I have often watched with interest and sometimes with amazement even ignorant colored men under cover of broad grins and minstrel antics maintain this dualism in the presence of white men.

I believe it to be a fact that the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.

From Ch. 2 of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. First published anonymously in 1912, and later reissued in 1927 under Johnson’s (now famous) name, Autobiography is an under-read classic, a fascinating and complex condensation of racism, colorism, and class in early twentieth-century America. Johnson was born on this day in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Life” — James Weldon Johnson

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Chapter X of James Weldon Johnson’s Masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Among the first of my fellow-passengers of whom I took any particular notice was a tall, broad-shouldered, almost gigantic, colored man. His dark-brown face was clean-shaven; he was well-dressed and bore a decidedly distinguished air. In fact, if he was not handsome, he at least compelled admiration for his fine physical proportions. He attracted general attention as he strode the deck in a sort of majestic loneliness. I became curious to know who he was and determined to strike up an acquaintance with him at the first opportune moment. The chance came a day or two later. He was sitting in the smoking-room, with a cigar, which had gone out, in his mouth, reading a novel. I sat down beside him and, offering him a fresh cigar, said: “You don’t mind my telling you something unpleasant, do you?” He looked at me with a smile, accepted the proffered cigar, and replied in a voice which comported perfectly with his size and appearance: “I think my curiosity overcomes any objections I might have.” “Well,” I said, “have you noticed that the man who sat at your right in the saloon during the first meal has not sat there since?” He frowned slightly without answering my question. “Well,” I continued, “he asked the steward to remove him; and not only that, he attempted to persuade a number of the passengers to protest against your presence in the dining-saloon.” The big man at my side took a long draw from his cigar, threw his head back, and slowly blew a great cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. Then turning to me he said: “Do you know, I don’t object to anyone’s having prejudices so long as those prejudices don’t interfere with my personal liberty. Now, the man you are speaking of had a perfect right to change his seat if I in any way interfered with his appetite or his digestion. I should have no reason to complain if he removed to the farthest corner of the saloon, or even if he got off the ship; but when his prejudice attempts to move me one foot, one inch, out of the place where I am comfortably located, then I object.” On the word “object” he brought his great fist down on the table in front of us with such a crash that everyone in the room turned to look. We both covered up the slight embarrassment with a laugh and strolled out on the deck.

We walked the deck for an hour or more, discussing different phases of the Negro question. In referring to the race I used the personal pronoun “we”; my companion made no comment about it, nor evinced any surprise, except to raise his eyebrows slightly the first time he caught the significance of the word. He was the broadest-minded colored man I have ever talked with on the Negro question. He even went so far as to sympathize with and offer excuses for some white Southern points of view. I asked him what were his main reasons for being so hopeful. He replied: “In spite of all that is written, said, and done, this great, big, incontrovertible fact stands out—the Negro is progressing, and that disproves all the arguments in the world that he is incapable of progress. I was born in slavery, and at emancipation was set adrift a ragged, penniless bit of humanity. I have seen the Negro in every grade, and I know what I am talking about. Our detractors point to the increase of crime as evidence against us; certainly we have progressed in crime as in other things; what less could be expected? And yet, in this respect, we are far from the point which has been reached by the more highly civilized white race. As we continue to progress, crime among us will gradually lose much of its brutal, vulgar, I might say healthy, aspect, and become more delicate, refined, and subtle. Then it will be less shocking and noticeable, although more dangerous to society.” Then dropping his tone of irony, he continued with some show of eloquence: “But, above all, when I am discouraged and disheartened, I have this to fall back on: if there is a principle of right in the world, which finally prevails, and I believe that there is; if there is a merciful but justice-loving God in heaven, and I believe that there is, we shall win; for we have right on our side, while those who oppose us can defend themselves by nothing in the moral law, nor even by anything in the enlightened thought of the present age.” Continue reading “Chapter X of James Weldon Johnson’s Masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”

“Voluptas” — James Weldon Johnson

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Book Shelves #23, 6.03.2012

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Book shelves series #23, twenty-third Sunday of 2012

Okay. So, a bit later than usual getting this in. It’s the daughter’s birthday and I’m recovering from a Saturday party and I’ve been out in the garden other day and some other excuses.

Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor—and then some books that seem misshelved. Calvino used to hang out with Umberto Eco but that shelf got too crowded. The John Barth should be with the other John Barth books, but they’re all mass market paperbacks in shabby condition.

I like the cover of the Breece D’J Pancake collection:

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Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales is this secret awesome book that almost no one has read. It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog and the review is so woefully short that I’ll just cut and paste it below:

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In a sublime synthesis of traditional folklore and imagistic surrealism, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales questions the normative spaces occupied by bodies. Deriving from animist tradition, her characters exist in an impossible multiplicity of spaces, being at once animals and plants, humans and gods. Cabrera’s characters endure trials of biological identity and social co-existence, and through these problems they internalize authority, evince taboos, and create a social code. Cabrera’s trickster characters provoke, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the symbolic order of this code. In “Bregantino Bregantín,” a story that recalls Freud’s primal horde theory, as well as the work of more contemporary theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler,  narcissist Bull kills all the males of his kingdom and takes all the women for himself.  The sadistic titular turtle of “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” uses the power of his dead friend’s antlers to shame, torment, and torture the other animals of his community. And in the magical realism of “Los Compadres,” Capinche seeks to put the horns on his best friend Evaristo by sleeping with his wife–a transgression that ends in necrophilia. This union of sex and death, creation and destruction is the norm in Cabrera’s green and fecund world; the trickster’s displacements of order invariably result in reanimation, transformation, and regeneration—the drawing, stepping-over, and re-drawing of boundaries.