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.

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