Posted by: zhiv | December 21, 2008

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson

What a great book this is.  There are political questions of course, as with any story that involves “passing,” and I don’t really know enough at this point to understand them in any real way.  But essentially, this is a brief novel with a crystal clear voice and narrative line that contains astonishing riches of character and setting.  On top of all that, it stands as an important work in the literary hoax genre, with a fascinating twist on that grouping. The “Autobiography” is a fine, extremely accessible read–by intent–, and it strikes me as a very worthwhile text to include in the study of Africa-American literature.

This seems to happen to me a lot, but I had never heard of this book.  It was very present, however, when I started looking at the African-American sections at bookstores.  There are lots of copies around and many editions of this novel, along with Johnson’s other works. The entire short novel is contained in the Norton Anthology.  So my guess is that you don’t have to go very far in African-American studies to get to Johnson, and he and this novel seem to be the next street past DuBois.  Major dude and a short but major work, and I guess that’s why they call it lifetime learning.

My own way into discussing the novel would be through character and setting, as I mentioned.  The unnamed narrator is the only child of a black mother, who has moved up to Connecticut to give birth and raise him.  His father is the young white son of an affluent Southern (Georgia?) family.  This simple configuration accomplishes two important things at the outset.  The narrator is a love child, the product of basic human attraction and intimacy, and there is none of the cruelty of domination in his conception.  Secondly, growing up in the North, he forms his identity and is educated outside of the prejudices and segregation of the South.

The early part of the novel is a careful, measured study of the formation of black identity. I wanted to discuss this in a moment and more thoroughly, but the primary fact of this novel is that it is a faux-autobiography, a novel that touches on the subject of passing that passes as an autobiography–go play with that one, cultural and literary critics and theorists!  And it did it all too successfully, as we shall see.  Johnson’s narrator first has to learn that he’s black, and what that means as he leaves childhood and gains consciousness, while his father is white and different somehow, with another family.  Johnson’s apparent goal is to make black consciousness accessible to a broad audience–that is, one that includes whites–and so the novel as a whole is an exercise in articulating the perceptions, thoughts, and opinions of a man who is both black and white, who learns to identify as black and lives in African-American culture, but in the end he slips imperceptibly into the “mainstream” white world,  and he could be anybody, any of “us.”  I suppose that this is the classic construct and equation for any novel of passing, heightened through the first-person narration.  All of this is obvious, simple, and straightforward, seemingly driven by necessity to present the most basic form of a double character.

The narrator is highly intelligent and musical, but he rejects the path of an educated northern black, and decides to go to college in the South instead of Harvard.  Thus the journey into black culture and identity explores a variety of settings, starting in the north before moving to Atlanta, Jacksonville, the rural South, and finally the sophisticated, energetic world of New York City. 

All of these settings are described in telling detail, with great clarity,and the narrator stops at times to make insightful observations on race and prejudice.  The world of NYC is one of nightclubs, gambling, and ragtime, and it’s a glimpse into an exciting, highly charged and modern American scene.  The narrator, successful as a musician, is sponsored by a rich white patron, who takes him to Europe, and thus we see a view of European culture from the perspective of black America.  The novel really does a masterful job of generating a wide-ranging world view in a remarkably concise manner.

Conflict between characters and standard novelistic story-generating devices are largely absent, seemingly negated by the faux-autobiographical form.  In this aspect the novel is liberated by its modernism and the ability to tell a new and different story in a new and different way.  It all becomes so much more interesting, obviously, when it turns out that this autobiography is not what it pretends to be.  And its publication date in 1912, at the height of the first wave of modernistic experimentation, signals a need for deeper readings of the text.

And at this point, Johnson’s own biographical story calls for consideration, and makes all of it so much more interesting. The narrator’s musicianship pervades the novel, and it’s amazing to learn that WJ was a highly successful Broadway songwriter and show-fixer, in partnership with his brother.  It’s almost as if, 20 years later, Cole Porter had written a superb anonymous novel about the gay underground in NYC.  Except that JWJ was just getting started, and he became an ambassador and the leading pioneer in the formation of the NAACP.  When the Autobiography was first published no one guessed its authorship and it slipped into complete obscurity.  Only much later, in the full flowering of the Harlem Renaissance, did Johnson claim authorship and assert its fictionality, and he had to write his own actual autobiography, Along This Way, just to make clear that Ex-Colored Man was not his own life story.  All of this makes Johnson a turn of the century historical and literary figure of the highest order: like I said, it’s the first street after DuBois, from what I can tell, but I’ll be trying to find out more as I go along.  And I’ll also mention that it’s always nice when such a figure has a great entry-level, introductory text, and this book is an especially accessible one.  It seems as if Johnson was a Jack of all trades, and a master of all of them, but he still might have spread himself too thin to be a giant.  As I said, more to come.



  1. I have never heard of JWJ but this sounds so interesting. from your description, I immediately thought of Faulkner’s Light in August which you probably know well. Did you find similarities or am I way off beam?

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