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.


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.


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.


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.

Charlest Chesnutt, “The House Behind the Cedars” and “The Marrow of Tradition”

“As a matter of fact, substantially all of my writings, with the exception of The Conjure Woman, have dealt with the problems of people of mixed blood, which, while in the main the same as those of the true Negro, are in some instances and in some respects much more complex and difficult of treatment, in fiction as in life.” (910-911)  The Library of American collection of Charles Chesnutt’s writings ends with his essay “Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem”, which considered the black literary scene in American in the later 19th century and is semi-autobiographical (Chesnutt being one of the first generation of black writers after the war – and the first to seriously explore the short story).  I through this quote up, in part to justify my comparatively terse treatment of Chesnutt’s work.  In truth, I am behind on my schedule, but I am not sure I would have much more to stay if I spread this out over two posts.  So, here I will consider Chesnutt’s two major novels The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition.  They look at the dilemma of the color line the personal level (House Behind the Cedars) and the institutional (The Marrow of Tradition).


The first novel tells the story of a young biracial woman, who goes with his brother to a new city in order to “pass” as whites.  While there, her brother, a promising lawyer, moves into the various circles of society.  Eventually, the young woman, Rena, meets a white man who courts her.  They fall in love and set to marry.  This engagement, if not the feelings the suitor has for Rena, falls apart when Rena’s secret is exposed.  Complicating Rena’s life are the pressures of her family and community that hope she will marry a locally influential “widower” (he was indeed abusive).  Her cousin and best friend, Frank, secretly loves her as well.  In a rather too sentimental ending, Rena collapses from the pressures of her disastrous love life and soon dies, ending the novel.  The novel does do a nice job of discussing the difficulty of passing – in respect to one’s hometown and culture.  Locally, Rena’s family had marriage plans for her.  In order to pass as white she would have had to abandon forever the society of her birth.  Her failure to turn her back on tradition (understandable to be sure) is what exposes her secret.  Chesnutt reminds us that the color line is as much a product of education as of color.  Other biracial characters cannot “pass” due to their education.  When Rena’s white suitor breaks off the engagement, he tells Rena’s brother that he “shall never be able to think of you as other than a white man,” largely due to his education and success (369).  This makes the color line ridiculous and suggests there was a deeper line of culture that intersected at certain points the line of tradition.

I found The Marrow of Tradition, a bit more thematically interesting mostly because it deals with the institutions of racial oppression.  It seems to me, that any struggle for liberty must take on institutionalized power.  No matter of personal growth is adequate.  (Even Rena’s suitor evolved in his views on the color line, but this did little to avert tragedy.  The marriage was institutionally impossible.)   The Marrow of Tradition is set in the context of the efforts to institutionalize white supremacy in disfranchisement laws.  It is set in Wellington (based on Wilmington North Carolina). To aid this efforts to institutionalize racism, one of the novel’s major characters Major Carteret uses his newspaper to ferment racial hatred.   His own family has close ties to the local black community, through the history of slavery, employment, and his wife’s father who remarried a black woman and gave birth to some biracial children.  These connections complicate the plot in interesting ways.  We are constantly reminded that there are not two separate communities in Wellington, but rather one integrated society rife with internal contradictions.  However, Carteret’s racism is on display throughout the novel.  When his son requires surgery for a throat obstruction, he calls in a Pennsylvania doctor, who brings with him a young black doctor, Miller, who is returning to his hometown anyway.  Carteret does not allow the black doctor to perform the surgery.  Miller’s wife, Janet, is actually Mrs. Carteret’s half-sister through their father.  Later in the novel, an older white woman Polly Ochitree is killed by Tom Delamere, over gambling debts.  He successfully frames Sandy, a long-time black servant of the Delamere family.  A lynching of Sandy is narrowly averted by the intervention of the patriarch of the Delamere family, who seems to be a man of integrity, even as his family profited from racial oppression.  His defense of Sandy is rooted in white privileged and a belief that “his servants” raised by his family could never commit a crime as vile as murder.

A lynching adverted, the novel continues with the efforts of Carteret to implement white supremacy by using the media to stir up racial hostilities.  These efforts reach their climax in a race riot that leaves several blacks dead, including Miller’s child. As the novel ends, Carteret’s child is again stricken ill and requires surgery.  Miller first refuses to treat him.  Only with Mrs. Carteret convinced her half-sister, does Dr. Miller treat the child.

Chesnutt describes the theme of the novel as the power of tradition.  He believed that only by confronting tradition could the problem of the color line be resolved.  “Tradition made the white people masters, rulers, who absorbed all the power, the wealth, the honors of the community and jealously guarded this monopoly, with white they claimed to be divinely endowed, by denying to those who were not of their cast the opportunity to acquire any of these desirable things.  Tradition, on the other hand, made the Negro a slave, an underling, existing by favor and not by right, his place the lowest in the social scale, to which, by the same divine warrant, he was hopelessly confined.  The old order has passed away, by these opinions, deeply implanted in the consciousness of two races, still persist, and The Marrow of Tradition seeks to show the efforts of the people of a later generation to adjust themselves in this traditional atmosphere to the altered conditions of a new era.” (872)  Yet, when reading the novel, I am struck by how difficult racial supremacy was to maintain.  Given this tradition, Carteret still had to apply violence, the media, economic oppression, legal injustices, and even a lynch mob to implement his vision of racial supremacy.  This is not to say that tradition is not powerful, but it alone cannot maintain chains.

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot

Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories”


Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line challenged the hard boundaries of race and class that shaped post-war America.  He also shows that the longer we look at the absurdity of the “color line,” the more quickly it looks both ridiculous and brutal.  This progressive realization of the brutality of race is suggested in the structure of the stories.  The first story (“The Wife of His Youth”) is a rather nice tale of a slave who ran away, received an education, and after the war reached an elite station – even gaining membership in the “Blue Veins,” a society of elite blacks, many of whom were biracial.  To escape slavery, this man had to leave his wife.  During a party, this man recognizes his former wife – a very dark-skinned woman – and tells their story for the audience of elitist, skin-tone-conscious blacks.  The final story in the collection, “The Web of Circumstance,” examines the same color line, reflected now in unequal applications of the legal system, by showing how a man’s life is destroyed by an unfair prosecution.  In the end he is indiscriminately shot by his former boss, seeing him now only as “a desperate-looking negro, clad in filthy rags, and carrying in his hand a murderous bludgeon.” (266)  And while the main character is strangely fated via the web of circumstances, we cannot escape the formal and informal applications of power at every step of the way (the courts, prisons, racial privileged, and property law) that explain his outcome.  I am reminded of David Simon’s use of the concept of fate in The Wire, where post-industrial institutions control our lives and define out path.   Chesnutt is not shy about his argument, which he presents in the final page. “Some times, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years.  God speed the day, and let not the shining threat of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!” (266) We can, perhaps, forgive Chesnutt’s passivity at the end.  In the face of such domineering structures of power, what was possible?  We now know, it took sustained struggle.


The rest of the stories hover between this brutality and pessimism and the more sentimental, but they all remind us how blurry the color line was, even under slavery and in the harsh legal separation of Jim Crow.  Sometimes this blurring is caused by history, as in “The Sheriff’s Children,” about a sheriff who struggles to keep a black man safe from a Klan-like mob while he await’s trial.  We learn at the end that the prisoner is his own son.  As a slave owner, he impregnated one of his slaves and then sold her and her child to a speculator.  Othertime it is blurred by the prejudices of biracial and middle class blacks.  In “A Matter of Principle,” a rich member of the Blue Vein Society, Cicero Clayton, was excited by the prospect of a marriage between his daughter and a Congressman.  When Clayton goes to meet the suitor at the train station he mistook him for a someone else and rejected the meeting because he was too dark.  “If the Congressman had turned out to be brown, even dark brown, with fairly good hair, thought he might not have desired him as a son-in-law, yet he could have welcomed him as a guest.  But even this softening of the blow was denied him, for the man in the waiting-room was palpably, aggressively black, with pronounced African features and woolly hair, without apparently a single drop of redeeming white blood.” (160-161)  This honest internal monologue is contrasted with Clayton’s public proclamations, calling for the “Brotherhood of Man.”  In “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” a mulatto man leaves his wife (since his slave marriage was not legitimated after the war), goes north to pass as white.  He marries a white woman, but eventually returns to his original wife and community finding a greater degree of acceptance there.  Nevertheless, passing for Uncle Wellington was easy.  Chesnutt often reminds us how flexible the line was.

I am conflicted about this.  On the one hand it is important to remember how we can take on new identities and take actions that blur the lines that divide us.  In these stories it is almost always unsatisfying.  This freedom often comes at great cost.  For Uncle Wellington it meant the disruption of his community and family and the betrayal of his wife.  More importantly, “passing’ was only possible for some.  If it is our physical characteristics, our bank account, our job, or gender that define our identity, crossing the line is more difficult and requires more destruction in its wake.  Thus, without the destruction of race as a category, these acts can only be solitary, individual revolutions.

One story in this collection does suggest a bit more agency and is set in the days of slavery.  “The Passing of Grandison” tells the story of a slaveowner’s son who tries to free one of his father’s slaves by taking him to the North and then Canada, giving him plenty of chances to run away.  He seems to remain loyal, throughout, much to the frustration of the young man.  Finally, Grandison, the slave, is left behind in Canada.  He returns to the plantation.  What seems at first glance to be evidence of irrational loyalty to a slave master turns out to be an elaborate ruse, when Grandison leaves for Canada a few weeks later with his entire family.  His true loyalty was to his family, who he did not want to leave behind.

These fascinating and satisfying tales provide both the tragedy of racism and Jim Crow but also reveal the potential for transgression in the wake of institutionalized slavery.


Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Conjure Woman”

Later 19th century fiction from or about the South could be categorized as post-apocalyptic.  The war was not merely a traumatic defeat.  It also ushered in a radical transformation of society.  Reconstruction, as Du Bois points out, was a revolutionary act, led by black people, mostly former slaves.  In a matter of months, former slaves created themselves a political culture, social structure, economy, and culture in direct opposition to slavery.  Now, it does not take a historian to mention that many of these gains were taken away by whites as they reestablished their political dominance; nevertheless, the Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed the world that existed.  A world that for most people in the South was natural and enduring.  Change, even slight, was unthinkable.  The destruction of the slave society was impossible.  Predictions of the end of slavery, before 1860, could only be described as apocalyptic and therefore something to fear and resist (at least for most of those in the mid-century cultural industry and white power structure).

19th Century Apocalypse

19th Century Apocalypse

My point is that what was unthinkable in 1855 was real ten years later.  The culture, society, economy, and politics of slavery were abolished.  Visions of the end of capitalism often take the same apocalyptic tone.   Either we end up with a collapse of civilization (The Walking Dead), a totalitarian state (1984), or silly utopianism (Star Trek).  In any case, the end of capitalism is unthinkable.  (I am not the first to make this point – see Mark Fisher http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jw9dyGEVYUA)By calling the literature of the later 19th century South, post-apocalyptic, I hope to encourage our readers to be a little less fearful of the end of capitalism.  After its end, we will likely find many challenges but I doubt it will mean any Mayan zombies (or whatever that was supposed to be about).

The next volume of the Library of America that I will cover in this series in a collection of Charles W. Chesnutt’s writings.  Chesnutt was born a Northern.  Both of his parents were free blacks from North Carolina.  They returned to North Carolina – with eight-year-old Charles – in 1866 to take part in the efforts to create new communities in the old South.  They were part of the great revolution of Reconstruction.  Chesnutt’s father helped create Howard school, ran for public office, and opened a grocery store.  Chesnutt quickly entered into academic life and eventually became a school principle in Fayetteville A.M.E. Zion Church.  Chesnutt was a child of the apocalypse that ended the slavery society.  He shows us that we should not fear the end of the way things are.  The exploited rarely do.


The Conjure Woman was published in 1899.  It is a short collection of seven stories, covering less than a 100 pages.  The plot is about a white Northern (of some means) who comes South for his wife’s health.  He starts a farm, taking advantage of the cheap land and cheap labor in the post-war South.  Each story contains within it a story told by “Uncle Julius,” a former slave who works on the land and becomes the narrator’s laborer.  He provides amusement for the narrator, who enjoys his stories of the South under slavery.  He also seeks practical advice from Julius, who is an expert in local conditions.  When the interests of the narrator and Julius conflict, however, Julius uses his story-telling to manipulate his boss.  By telling stories of conjuring, Julius attempts to convince his boss to change his course of action.  This scheme sometimes works.  The narrator is often condescending and does not often take the stories seriously – suggesting the permanence of racism, held even by Northern whites.  In the first story, for instance, the narrator is discussing growing a vineyard.  Julius objects, providing a complex story about how the vineyard is “goophered.”  Julius is not blindly superstition.  As the narrator always discovers, his stories are meant to protect his interests.  The grapevine supplied some income to Julius.  In “Po’ Sandy,” Julius tells of a man who allows himself to be turned into a tree to avoid being sold (his previous wife was sold to another plantation).  He is, unfortunately, chopped down and turned into a schoolhouse.  Julius uses to this story to prevent the schoolhouse from being turn into the narrator’s new kitchen.  In fact, Julius wants the schoolhouse to house his schismatic congregation.  We could be impressed with Julius’ ability to tell tales, use those stories to challenge his employers schemes, we are frustrated by the unequal relationship between the two.

The Conjure Woman provides plenty of local flavor.  Julius’ dialog (most of the stories are his words) is written in Southern black dialect.  The superstitions and folklore of Southern blacks held some influence on Northern audiences.  The narrator is a reflection of these Northern audiences, curious of their defeated brothers.  There is something almost colonial about this “gaze.”  The slave south was a different country.  Even in 1900, the sectional divides in the nation remained strong.  But the South was militarily defeated, occupied, and reformed.  For decades it continued under the economic influence of the North (again reflected in the narrator, a wealthy Northerner).  Part of our discomfort with this story comes from the seemingly abusive relationship between the narrator and Julius.  The narrator humors Julius, is amused by him, but ultimately does not him seriously if he poses a threat to the profitability of the farm of his plans for its development.


Another part of the story we should point out is that the land the narrator purchased, is, for Julius, his home and the source of his income.  Most of the narrator’s plans to develop the land were direct threats to Julius’ independent livelihood.  All of this makes the narrator’s pretense and humor toward Julius more disgusting.  As equals, the narrator could have learned from Julius about a topic of some interest to him.  Julius is instead trying to defend is autonomy from his employer, so that relationship is corrupted and embittered.  It is a familiar situation for those in colonial relationships: unfortunate, and unnecessary.