James Weldon Johnson, Editorials and Essays

In 1914, James Weldon Johnson became an editor of the newspaper The New York Age, a major African-American activist origin with its roots in the nineteenth century. He would spend the next ten years writing daily editorials for the newspaper. In addition to these editorials, Johnson was an active essay writer and book editor. His work in these areas seems to fall into roughly two areas: articles about African-American cultural or artistic expressions, and articles that can best be defined as propaganda for black activists. Both of his areas of interest remain of interest, but I suspect his work on black culture will have a longer shelf-life.

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As you would expect, many of the New York Age editorials take on the political issues of the day, such as Wilson’s expansion of Jim Crow policies into Washington D.C., the production of The Birth of a Nation¸ the Great Migration, the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago, and service in World War I. As far as I can tell, most of his positions on these issues line up pretty closely with W. E. B. Du Bois. The black nationalist argument against serving in the military in World War I was rejected by both because they saw it as a way to reaffirm the importance of black America to the nation. Johnson’s criticism of Marcus Garvey is also similar. In their opinion, Garvey was a megalomaniac who undermined the struggle for social equality by fighting for separation. The Great Migration is an expression of the cultural, social, and economic strength and autonomy of black America, not a deep desire to flee the South or seek separation from America (although perhaps from the white South). There articles are interested to look at and actually provide a good summary into this strain of early twentieth century black thinking.

I would like to talk more about Johnson’s cultural logic, because it is where he seems to really shine and where he goes beyond propaganda and politics. His starting point is the fundamental creativity of black people—and it seems all non-whites. It is not just that blacks made a measurable contribution to American cultural life (the narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man lists four), suitable to be recognized and “celebrated.” Johnson argues instead for an almost Afrocentric position. In an article on “the poor white musician,” he wrote:

The truth is, the pure white race has not originated a single one of the great, fundamental intellectual achievements which have raised man in the scale of civilization. The alphabet, the art of letters, of poetry, of music, of sculpture, of painting, of the drama, of architecture; numbers, the science of mathematics, of astronomy, of philosophy, of logic, of physics, of chemistry; the use of metals and the principles of mechanics were all invented or discovered by darker and, what are, in many cases, considered inferior, races. (619)

Of course, Johnson lived in an era where racial thinking was dominant and it is forgivable that he extends the artificial concept of race to pre-modern achievements (this seems to be the major sin of Afrocentrism).

He makes the same point about contemporary black writers, writing a bold defense and celebration of Claude McKay. (“No Negro poet has sung more beautifully of his own race than McKay and no Negro poet that equaled the power with which he expresses the bitterness that so often rises in the heart of the race.” (647)) If he is defending McKay, he is certainly seeing a deeper purpose of art than mere political propaganda.

Aside from the a collection of the editorials, the Library of America anthology has seven essays and a few chapters from Black Manhattan, Johnson’s exploration of New York after the Great Migration. These were all published between 1919 and 1930. Three of them—“The Riots,” “Self-Determining Haiti,” and Lynching—America’s National Disgrace”—are best looked at as political tracts on some of the major racial issues of the period, specifically colonialism and racial violence. “The Riots” is a succinct argument for the virtue of self-defense against violence, especially when the government fails to protect people through the law. The right of self-defense then falls to the people. “The Negroes saved themselves and saved Washington by their determination not to run, but to fight—fight in defense of their lives and their homes. If the white mob had gone on unchecked—and it as only the determined effort of black men that checked it—Washington would have been another and worse East St. Louis.” (658) This is an important article for the people of Ferguson to re-read today.

“Self-Determining Haiti” is the only essay in this collection that deals directly with US colonialism in the Caribbean, which has been a long-standing question for African Americans since the days of Toussaint. Here, Johnson focuses on the 1914 US occupation. Johnson argues that while there are numerous economic and political causes of the invasion, the root of all US imperialism was racial prejudice. Important for us is the reminder of the collaboration of financial interests and racism. He writes: “And this is the people whose ‘inferiority,’ whose ‘retrogression,’ whose ‘savagery,’ is advanced as a justification for intervention—for the ruthless slaughter of three thousand of its practically defenseless songs, with the deaths of a score of our own boys for the utterly selfish exploitation of the country by American big finance, for the destruction of America’s most precious heritage—her traditional fair play, her sense of justice, her aid to the oppressed.” (687) Notice with me how his language works to fit his own position and his own advocacy within the American tradition.

Johnson’s interest in lynching is about its role in souring race relationship, more than to make an argument for a need for greater legal order. It is takes for granted that lynching is outside of the law, but the solution is not necessarily more law. In fact, there was no shortage of courts in the early twentieth century South. No one was lynched because of a court backlog. If anything lynching was a weapon of white supremacy, which was itself backed by the institutional power of states. Nevertheless, Johnson concludes that the solution to lynching is “good government,” but perhaps that means a bit more than a new anti-lynching bill.

In the next post, I will look at Johnson’s cultural writings and poetry in more depth.

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James Weldon Johnson, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1912)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was written in 1912, at a time when race relations could not have been worse in post-Civil War America. Jim Crow had been fully established throughout the South by then, lynching was commonplace, and the Chicago Race Riots would be only a few years away. As any history student knows there were two major responses to this. Booker T. Washington argued for the reduction of racial tensions through the ending of agitation for social equality, while building up the wealth and skills of the black working class. W. E. B. Du Bois wanted to fight at that moment for full social and legal equality, resting his arguments on a clear demonstration of intellectual equality. James Weldon Johnson was of the Du Bois camp. He wrote for The Crisis, edited his own newspapers in support of civil rights, and argued for social equality. At the same time, his first novel gives a third set of strategies, which were much more common and maybe—in the final analysis—more historically significant. These made up the uncountable day to day acts of resistance, interracial cooperation and community, and outright neglect of the often unwritten codes of Jim Crow. The narrator of the novel chooses one of these strategies in the end, that of “passing.” (See my posts on Charles Chesnutt for more on this.) This constituted a form of opting out. Not opting out of being black, but a refusal to accept the social laws imposed on him. That only a few could embrace this strategy does not really matter. As the novel shows there were plenty of other coping and evasion strategies.

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as most of you probably know—follows the early life of a light-skinned African-American, who was raised without even a full awareness that he was black, until a teacher made this clear to him in a classroom exercise. From there, his story reads a bit like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. The narrator is talented and eager to go to college, saving up enough money for two years of college in Atlanta. Once his money is stolen by a Pullman sleeping car porter, he gives up his plans and his narrative diverges from Washington’s. He takes a job rolling cigarettes, eventually becoming the “reader” in the factory. His job was to read the news and novels to the workers. He later moves north to get involved in the ragtime culture of the city, befriending a white “millionaire” who becomes his benefactor. After witnessing the murder of a white woman by a jealous lover in the club he was working, he goes to Europe with his benefactor. After a while he feels a type of Jim Crow relationship between the two of them and he decides to return to the United States. There he witnesses a lynching, which convinces him to being passing as white. He meets a white woman and begins a relationship. It is revealed that he is passing (apparently with a subtle use of words), but she comes to terms with it and they proceed to have a happy life together.

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As the final chapter shows, the narrator did not choose to pass because he felt ashamed of being black. He only felt that in the context of his lover discovering that he was passing, and then it was only temporary.

I felt her hand grow cold, and when I looked up she was gazing at me with a wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen. Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black and thick-featured and crimp-haired. She appeared to have comprehended what I said. [. . .] When I got into the street I felt very much as I did the night after meeting my father and sister at the opera in Paris, even a similar desperate inclination to get drunk; but my self-control was stronger. This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at being colored, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins, and wished that I were really white. (123)

The point being, it seems, is that the narrator was passing in order to simply evade the grotesque inequalities of American racism. My guess is that this was Johnson’s answer to arguments made by whites that passing was either impossible or the result of blacks feeling ashamed.

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What was most memorable to me in this novel was the rich descriptions of everyday life among the working and non-working African-American poor. In the cigar factories we see a rich cultural life carried on informally by the “readers.” The ragtime clubs and bars of New York City created spaces for interracial cooperation in seeking out pleasure. I suppose we often make too little of this as an authentic survival strategy. But as part of the rich texture of everyday life, pleasure seeking must be seen as a crucial element of the challenge to racism. These clubs may have done more to break down the barriers of racism than all the propaganda newspapers. As we see below, there were not entirely all well-meaning. Some it seems sought to profit from mocking blacks, but even so shows the integration of everyday life was possible and I think should be looked at as part of the struggle.

Beside the people I have just been describing there was at the place every night one or two parties of white people, men and women, who were out sight-seeing, or slumming. They generally came in cabs; some of them would stay only for a few minutes, while others sometimes stayed until morning. There was also another set of white people who came frequently; it was made up of variety performers and others to delineated darky characters; they came to get their imitations first hand from the Negro entertainer they saw there. There was still another set of white patrons composed of women; these were not occasional visitors, but five or six of them were regular habitues. (66)

The Pullman sleeping car porter suggests yet another survival strategy composed of committing petty crimes, in this case victimizing black travelers as they moved in great numbers between the northern cities and the South on the railroads.

One more part of this book is important for anarchists to consider. It is easy to see in the porter’s actions reason to mistrust each other and see the difficulty of solidarity, but the gambling halls that the narrator visited early in the story paint another picture, that of a sort of baseline communism. When the narrator won, the social pressure to share his winnings was overwhelming. By the end of the night he had little of winnings left. Most had been given out in the forms of drinks or covering others bets. While it seems he was taken advantage of by a room full of his peers, another analysis of this could be that you see the customers at the gambling den forming a collective socializing both profits and losses. In that system no one (except maybe the gambling hall) will come out rich, everyone will get an enjoyable evening and no one will entirely lose their shirt.

In my final judgment, I will say that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still about the nature of the decision to being passing—a common theme in Harlem Renaissance literature—but it is also paints a rich picture of social life among the excluded.

Charles Brockden Brown: “Edgar Huntly” (1799)

The third work by Charles Brockden Brown that I will look at is Edgar Huntly, published in the same year as the massive Arthur Mervyn. As in Arthur Mervyn and the earlier work Wieland, Brown is interested in defining an American culture as opposed to Europe. Edgar Huntly is different in that while the previous two works looked to the corrupting influences of the Old World and the city, this work considered the American frontier as a space of alternatives. We are not left to sympathize with the frontier entirely, since it is as bizarre, violent, and corrupting as the European-style city, but it is clearly an American gothic in the “wilderness.” With Edgar Huntly, Brown achieved a clear independence from the European gothic. Brown clearly states this as his goal in the preface to the novel.

America has opened new views to the naturalist and politician, but has seldome furnished themes to the moral painter. That new springs of action, and new motives to curiosity should operate; that the field of investigation, opened to us by our own country, should differ essentially from those which exist in Europe, may be readily conceived. The sources of amusement to the fancy and instruction to the heart, that are peculiar to ourselves, are equally numerous and inexhaustible. It is the purpose of this work to profit by some of these sources; to exhibit a series of adventures, growing out of the condition of our country, and connected with one of the most common and most wonderful disease or affections of the human frame. (641)

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The novel begins with Edgar Huntly recovering from the death of his friend Waldegrave. At the same time he sees a man digging a grave in the woods, while sleepwalking. He eventually confronts this man—who turns out to be the red herring villain of the story Clithero (of course a foreigner)—about his actions. Clithero tells the story about how he killed an vile man in Ireland who tried to rob him before moving to America. So he is a murderer but not of Waldegrave. After sleepwalking himself (an affliction Huntly is not aware he has yet), he wakes up deep in the forest. The wilderness seems to drive him to a murderous rampage of his own, climaxing in the liberation of a white woman captured by the local Indians. In the process of freeing her, he kills several Indians, crossing clearly into the boundary of savagery. At one point he meets Clithero who retreated to the forest after confessing his past crimes to Huntly. He also descends into savagery, but retains some degree of human solidarity seen in the aid he gives to Huntly. In the end, sacrifice and benevolence and solidarity help the characters survive what is a truly horrific situation.

Much in this work is familiar to readers of Brown’s other novels: the mysterious and possibly malevolent stranger, a lost past, a woman’s virtue under threat, and locals saturated with the feeling of the uncanny. What is very new is that the forest is the site of so much of the action. For Brown, it is also a space of dangerous liberty, crystalized with stories of Indian violence, but also of whites going native. At one point, the wilderness seems to change someone into a beast.

My eye was not caught by movements which appeared like those of a beast. In different circumstances, I should have instantly supposed it to be a wolf, or panther, or bear. Now my suspicions were alive on a different account, and my startled fancy figured to itself nothing by an human adversary. . . . He moved upon all fours, and presently came near enough to be distinguished. His disfigured limbs, pendants from his ears and nose, and his shorn locks, were indubitable indications of a savage.” (814)

The titular character’s encounter with an Indian woman named Queen Mab is to me particularly memorable. She is described as fully of nature, and therefore a symbolic danger to the Edgar Huntly (she is too old to pose much a danger, she is presented as part of the uncanny wilderness and does help Indians commit violence against whites), but she is also entirely free holding domino only over animals and being servant of no one.

Her only companions were three dogs, of the Indian or wolf species. These animals differed in nothing from their kinsmen of the forest, but in their attachment and obedience to their mistress. She governed them with absolute sway: they were her servants and protectors, and attended her person or guarded her threshold, agreeably to her directions. She fed them with corn and they supplied her and themselves with meat, by hunting squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits. (821)

The significant of Queen Mab cannot be overstated. Brown ended the novel with how Queen Mab “defied her oppressors” by aiding Indian raiders.

When looked at as part of Brown’s entire work, Americans are left in a rather uncomfortable position. Certainly the European influence, whether framed in family history, wealth, and urban society, is dangerous and a source of the uncanny. At the same time, the American wilderness is a dangerous and mysterious other taking American freedoms to their radical and dangerous limit. America must overcome both of these with virtue and benevolence. But is this not a very dangerous place to rest a people’s cultural heritage?

Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

He knew how to value the thoughts of other people, but he could not part with the privilege of observing and thinking for himself. He wanted business which would suffer at least nine tenths of his attention to go free. If it afforded agreeable employment that that part of his attention which it applied to its own use, so much the better; but if it did not, he should not repine. He should be content with a life whose pleasures were to its pains as nine are to one. He had tried the trade of a copyist, and in circumstances more favourable than it was likely he should ever again have opportunity of trying it, and he had found that it did not fulfil the requisite conditions. Whereas the trade of plowman was friendly to health, liberty, and pleasure. (238)

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I have just noticed, looking at the dates of Charles Brockden Brown’s major works, that he published his three most well-known works—the three collected in the Library of America anthology—within two years. One of these, Arthur Mervyn, is a complex and elaborate tale that alone would have made Brown part of the American canon of literature. It comes quite close to make Brown the American William Godwin. Like Wieland, Arthur Mervyn takes on the “contrast” (to borrow from Royall Tyler’s play exposing the division between European/urban society and America/rural, republican, virtuous. In Wieland the ominous urban civilization is imported from Europe through characters. In Arthur Mervyn the city is looked at as a dark corner of American civilization. It is almost as if the cancer hinted at in the earlier work had taken root in America.

What struck me most of all when reading the first half of Arthur Mervyn was how psychological traumatic the protagonist’s wanderings between these two worlds was. He was really thrust into a world where there was no solid foundation to his life. His searching for work brought him into a position where he was completely alienated from what he was doing—forging documents as it turns out. Much of the anxiety and dark suggestion of the story is rooted in the bizarre relationship between the boss and the employee, starting from the arbitrary way he was hired to the ambiguous nature of the wealth he is producing. To be specific, one common theme in the story is rooted in the profession of forgery and counterfeiting money, which both appears to have real wealth, but certainly does not. So, what we have in this novel is a curious exploration of the nature of urban capitalism to disturb our comfortable categories. In the background of all of this is an ominous yellow fever epidemic that hits everyone regardless of class and status, yet another ambiguity of urban civilization. Long before Philip K. Dick mastered this theme, Brown laid it out with amazing clarity.

The novel tracks the adventures of Arthur Mervyn as he arrives destitute in the city. He begs for some money only to be hired by a strange man with an unclear profession. At first, Mervyn is not even clear on what he is to do. He knows only that he has a job. (How common is this feeling in late industrial society?) He discovers that the man—Welbeck—is a quite odious character all around. He makes his living by counterfeiting and forging documents. Welbeck apparently dies in a boating accident and Mervyn eventually gets sick with yellow fever when trying to transport Wallace, a man who robbed him earlier in the novel, to a farm for recuperation. Wallace tries to apologize for his earlier wrongs against Mervyn. The protagonist returns to Welbeck’s mansion. He begins to consider what to do with the money he got from Welbeck, who he thinks is dead. He decides whether to put it to public use or give it to Clemenza—a woman Welbeck claimed was his daughter, but whom Welbeck seduced and impregnated. Welbeck appears, apparently having faked his own death. When confronted on the money, Welbeck claims they are forged, so Mervyn burns them. This horrifies Welbeck, who confesses that they were real. He only claimed they were forged to get Mervyn to hand them over. All of this story is told in flashback to a Dr. Stevens, who had saved his life after Welbeck in anger turned out on the streets to die on the streets.

There is a hint in the first part of the novel of solutions to these disruptions. One that Arthur Meryvn is constantly struggling for is a return to the more stable life of the countryside. A braver response comes to him in the context of the yellow fever epidemic.

It is vain to hope to escape the malady by which my mother and my brothers have died. We are a race, whose existence some inherent property has limited to the short space of twenty years. We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to perish by consumption. Why then should I scruple to lay fown my life in the cause of virtue and humanity? It is better to die, in consciousness of having offered an heroic sacrifice; to die by a speedy stroke, than by the perverseness of nature, in ignominious inactivity, and lingering agonics. (351)

It seems to me that this is a suggestion that we should work in the terrible world we live in, and not incessantly seek escape to some idyllic paradise that may in actuality be a figment of our imagination. The disease of yellow fever, like the urban capitalist civilization, will spread regardless of our will. As it was for Caleb Williams (William Godwin), escape is not an option. Goodwill and solidarity, however, do offer a form of solidity in a liquid world.

Next time I will look at the rest of the novel.