The Autobiography of an ExColored Man
Intent and Significance of Irony in “The Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man”
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson divulges aspects of passing by a “mulatto” man that no other novel had confronted before. Though most novels during the time were treated by the author in a straightforward manner, Johnson undoubtedly strays away from that to produce an intricate portrayal of a mixed-race man. The narrator’s treatment of race, being that he is able to pass as both black and white, taints colour lines through the uncertainty of his identity. As a result, Johnson forms a complex speaker who is ironic in many cases by symbolizing a meaning that he does not perceive. The theme of irony, which is broadly understood to be a gap between what seems to be true and what is actually true, runs the through the novel not only as he discusses his upbringing but also as he concludes with his adulthood. It is unknown whether Johnson, by including irony in many circumstances, has done so in order to communicate with the reader, but it can be implied that through its inclusion, a deeper significance can be extracted. Having done so being aware or unaware of his intentions, the irony of the novel symbolizes a level of racial ambiguity within the life of the narrator through his lacking of a stable identity by which the audience can understand. The narrator’s use of language, values, and personality causes the novel to be seemingly ironic and contradictory in nature, displaying a level of significance that uncovers the inner conflicts that the narrator endures.
One of the first glances of irony that is evident in the novel is displayed during the upbringing of the protagonist through his use of a negative term that perpetuates racial oppression. While in school after recognizing the academic talents that his black classmate possesses, the narrator’s first description of him was his skin being “black as night” (Johnson 9). The characteristics of his skin color, eyes, teeth, and face prompted him to address the boy by “Shiny,” a racial slur used against blacks. Considering he was just a nine year old kid in grade school, it can be interpreted that because of his adolescence, he was unable to realize and fully understand the negative connotation of the tag “Shiny” onto a black peer. Though that might be the case, the narrator deliberately continues to address his friend by “Shiny” well into his adulthood. Admiring his academic ability, he says, “Shiny” was considered without question to be the best speller, the best reader, the best penman—in a word, the best scholar, in the class” (Johnson 9). Although he recognizes his knowledge, he fails to acknowledge the harm of the term. After he learns of his African lineage from his black mother, the narrator is conflicted between his white identity that he has been raised as and his unfamiliar black identity that he is suddenly forced to acknowledge. Despite being aware of race relations regarding whites and African-Americans during the time, irony is established through his lacking ability to detach a negative term from a close black friend. Being that he knows his heritage— black heritage—his constant reaffirmation of the nickname “Shiny” is a perpetuation of racial oppression (Johnson 22). This perpetuation shows that not only is he withdrawn from the African-American emotional reaction of oppressive labels, but that he fails to acknowledge the harm behind racialized terms because they do not directly affect him. Typically, an individual belonging to the same race of another person would refrain from using racist language against them. For this reason, the narrator, a man who is half black, using a slur against another black man speaks to the betrayal that he evokes. Ironically, the fact that he is mixed-race and never ceases to address his friend by his legal name instead of a racist nickname displays the extent of carelessness that the narrator possesses. In other words, the narrator is allowing the use of racial slurs to flourish and sufficiently be used. He signifies that since he refrains from using terms of endearment for blacks, racially negative terms are acceptable to be used both loosely or intentionally. Not only is irony displayed through the protagonist’s unapologetic use of negative racial terms but it is clearly shown through his focus on the economic status of the African-American community.
From the start of his transition from the North to the South and onwards, the unnamed narrator points out the class differences within the black community reverting him back to his white identity which he strives to dismiss. Frequently mentioned in the novel as “the race question” is proven by the narrator to not be as important as the question of class. As Pisiak explains, “He is given to making broad generalizations and forming simplistic classifications, and while it appears that the narrator can classify anything, his “specialty” is people” (Pisiak, 91). In bringing attention to the customs and status of blacks, he states, “The unkempt appearance, the shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter of these people aroused in me a feeling of almost repulsion” (Johnson 40). He affirms, “The colored people may be said to be roughly divided into three classes, not so much in respect to themselves as in respect to their relations with the whites” (Johnson 55). The feeling of repulsion towards certain customs and a keen focus on the status of blacks directly displays a sense of uneasiness for blacks in general. Possibly unknowingly, Johnson’s narrator voices his interest into class prejudice as a symbol of irony. Considering his move to the south to be in touch with his black identity, his preconceived notions of the people, which he is striving to become closer with, are subtly attacked. His irony displays that he is inevitably viewing African-Americans’ status through an outsider’s lens constantly reverting to white values and responses. As he increasingly becomes associates with the upper class black community, he says, “This was my entrance into the race” (Johnson 74). Unable to understand that class does not symbolize acceptance into a race shows just how materialistic he is. This communicates to the audience that his values are somewhat skewed being that he overly admires economic status. To counter, it can be said that the narrator is so used to living in middle to upper class conditions, based off of his environment growing up, that when he encounters otherwise, he is shocked. Provided that, the fact that he analyzes and labels African-Americans in the south according to their economic status verifies that he looks down upon the manners of African Americans if they are less fortunate and embraces them if they are upper-class. His lack of transparency and acceptance transforms through his experiences in Europe to compel him to connect with his black roots and contribute in a positive manner.
While in Europe, the narrator covertly reveals he was never truly happy because he felt he owed something to the black community. He stated, “I felt leap within me pride that I was colored; and I began to form wild dreams of bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” (Johnson 32). In an effort to “help those he considered my people,” he moves from Europe back to the South and willingly witnesses a celebration and burning ceremony of a black man (Johnson 107). Immediately afterwards, he unpacks his overwhelming emotions of shame for himself, “Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with,” (Johnson 137). He expresses remorse of being associated with a race that receives such punishment instead of embracing his black identity. His self-directed response symbolizes the absence of directed anger at the white lynchers. Ultimately, he fails at helping those he considers people—blacks—because he refuses to intervene and speak out about the injustice happening against the innocent black man. The lack of intervention against the white crowd of racists directly signals he did not leave Europe for the greater good of assisting the black community in a positive manner. Irony is established in the way in which his action and reaction toward the lynching contradict his words. As Skerrett puts it, “His reaction is, ironically, not a reinforcement of his identity as a threatened and oppressed black man, but rather a reinforcement of his fear of pain and his mechanisms of escape and avoidance” (Skerrett 556). In other words, the narrator’s fears successfully overcome his longing for black identity making him incapable of responding as both a black or white person. True uncertainty about “the race question” is reinforced considering his dreams of “bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” are negated, (Johnson 32, 55). The narrators ironic view on race relations is contradictory of his inability to perform action and, as a result, his skewed personality and values are displayed through his musicality.
The importance of music, one in which the narrator uses to navigate life, is ironically overlooked and taken advantage of by him being unappreciative of negro styles of music. Music is not only literally but symbolically used as a physical and psychological scapegoat as he searches for his “true” identity. His travels through Europe and the Americas speak to his affinity for music and search for economic prosperity through his musical abilities on the piano. Throughout his plight to find his identity, he utilizes classical music, a European form of music, that is mainly attributed to whites, Negro spirituals which are closely associated with African roots, and ragtime, a mixture that includes characteristics from both styles. The narrator first gains curiosity for ragtime when he hears it being played by a German guest for the first time. He states, “I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic. “I gloated over the immense amount of material I had to work with, not only modern ragtime, but also the old slave songs—material which no one had yet touched” (Johnson 104). He signifies the phrase “not yet touched” discounts the African- Americans who in fact did touch the material by creating it themselves. In addition, through the way in which he speaks about music and his ambitions, he subconsciously notes that European music is a form of art, whereas the Negro spiritual style of music is not worthy. This irony speaks to his position on the value of musical styles. The connotation of the word material in his statement symbolizes it has no substance and is less important than classical music because it not widely accepted in European society. Bruce Barnhart feels, “The narrator sees the music that he will encounter as a form of raw material remarkable as much for its being untouched by other hands as for any intrinsic musical character” (Barnhart 556). This is not only indicative of his values of music but strongly suggests his racial status. That being the case, the way in which he views himself as white during the time ironically correlates with his statement that can be seen as devaluing Negro spirituals. Considering the race relations that correspond with classical and Negro spiritual music, his view on the African styles of music speaks to his thoughts about race in general. In his attempt to utilize a style of music with “no value,” Barnhart suggests the narrator “repeats the racial hierarchy that links dark-skinned Americans to formless materiality and lighter skinned Americans to higher principles of form and order” (Barnhart 561). Johnson’s protagonist’s view on music ironically mimics his view on inter-racial marriage and the racial hierarchy of skin complexion.
The narrator’s stance on interracial relationships in the novel is contradictory of his own relationship signaling a subconsciousness discontent with his own family. While in “the club,” the narrator says, “I shall never forget how hard it was for me to get over my feelings of surprise, perhaps more than surprise, at seeing her with her black companion; somehow I never exactly enjoyed the sight” (Johnson 79). He hints to the audience that he does not particularly care for interracial relationships between blacks and whites. The novel’s conclusion states otherwise; it is later shown that he later contradicts himself by him not only entering a relationship with a white woman, but by marrying her and having children. Considering the historical and cultural context, it would not be likely that a member of a race would be against endogamy. As Fleming puts it, “Not even the constrained understatement can conceal the fact that his reaction is that of a white man” (Fleming 92). Ironically, him starting a family with a white woman and voicing discontent about intermarriage shows that he would ultimately be against his own marriage, taking his mixed-race subjectivity into account. The level of irony that the narrator signals throughout the novel highlights the extent of his racial uncertainty along with his values.
The racial ambiguity of Johnson’s unnamed narrator lends the novel to an ironic state to suggest that the contradictions between his black and whites selves becomes his identity. A paradox is formed as he navigates and views society from black and white lenses at different times all at his discretion. The extent of his view upon the world highlights the level of racial ambiguity and struggle for identity that the narrator possesses. The complexity of playing a “practical joke on society” and concluding with selling his “birthright for a mess of pottage” communicates the intricate situation that the narrator struggles with, (Johnson 1, 154). His vacillation between identities and responses directly contributes to the way in which his statements create meanings he does not perceive but the audience understands. Because of this, the only thing the audience can judge the narrator on is what he symbolizes therefore transforming his racial identity into an individualistic identity. O’Sullivan proposes that the “narrator is continually gazing into a distorting mirror, “unable to be either black or white, constantly seeing the white self from a black perspective and the black self from a white perspective,” (O’Sullivan 94). The fact that he recognizes racism when it affects him directly, but perpetuates many of its myths and stereotypes himself without realizing it illustrates the level of irony that racial ambiguity can create. Thus, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man can be interpreted as “The Autobiography of an Ex-Racialized Man” that is formed from a man whose identity becomes neither black nor white, but his language, values, and personality.
Johnson’s representation of the unnamed narrator’s emotional insight into a mixed-race man is monumental. His ability to portray life through irony rather than through traditional literature techniques reveals the importance of analyzing a novel in its entirety. Through the ways in which he reveals greater dimension of the narrator’s life uncovering his psychological layers, he offers a rather complex nature to the concept of passing. He deconstructs the notion of “sameness” between all blacks and whites. Thus he proves through the protagonist that no such thing as the “ideal concept of a Negro” exists and race is a made up concept that confines people to a group based on characteristics and values. For this reason, his authorship and literary style’s inspiration on others has given way to the expanded variety of the “black experience” depicted in African-American literature. Despite changes in traditional African-American styles of literature, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man holds a meaningful place for the reader who hopes to be enlightened on the psychological aspects of passing.
Johnson, James W. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Penguin Group, 1990.
Andrade, Heather Russell. “Revising Critical Judgments of ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.’” African American Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 2006, pp. 257–270. www.jstor.org/stable/40033714.
This article focuses on “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” by James Weldon Johnson and his ability to mask its genre. Considering it is the first fictional text written by an African American to do so, it is monumental. Heather Russel Andrade considers the socio-historical circumstances the frame Johnson’s act of writing conflict with the narrator.
Babu, Dinesh. “The Theme of “Passing” in the Novels of James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen.” IJIMS, vol 1, no.4, 2014, pp. 53-58. http://www.ijims.com
In “The Theme of “Passing” in the Novels of James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen,” Dinesh Babu dissects the depiction of the experience of a fair-skinned person of some colored background who successfully passes into white society. She attempts to look at and compare and contrast two African American novels which deal with the theme of passing by both a man and woman. It displays how the two novels reject the standards of color division rules that accept a position within society as predetermined based on not only race, but gender.
Barnhart, Bruce. “Chronopolitics and Race, Rag-Time and Symphonic Time in ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.’” African American Review, vol. 40, no. 3, 2006, pp. 551–569. www.jstor.org/stable/40027389.
“Chronopolitics and Race, Rag-Time and Symphonic Time in ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” is about the implications of music as classical, negro-spiritual, and ragtime. In his criticism, Bruce Barnhart attempts to expose a key part of the narrator’s movement from his childhood with his black mother to his adulthood. He discusses the constructs of each form of music and how and why the narrator utilizes them.
Brooks, Neil. “On Becoming an Ex-Man: Postmodern Irony and the Extinguishing of Certainties in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” College Literature, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 17–29. www.jstor.org/stable/25112206.
Criticism of James Weldon Johnson’s, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” has strongly held the position of uncertainty within the unnamed narrator, but its stance on racial issues proves of equal importance. In this piece, Neil Brooks examines the issue of passing for white not only being black, but being a black male. The concept of passing and its socio-economic ramifications are discussed and linked to the narrative, which is seen as irony from Brooks’ “On Becoming an Ex-Man: Postmodern Irony and the Extinguishing of Certainties in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.”
Dexl, Carmen. “Ambiguity and the Ethics of Reading Race and Lynching in James W. Johnson’s the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912).” COPAS: Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 10 (2009): (no pagination). Print.
In this essay, Carmen Dexl argues that the James Weldon Johnson’s novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” portrayals of uncertainty within the unnamed narrator symbolizes contradiction towards the concept of race. Using assertions from Geoffrey Galt Harpham and John Guillory, “Ambiguity and the Ethics of Reading race and Lynching” discuss the ethics of reading and analyzing race and lynching in Johnson’s piece.
Fleming, Robert E. “Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 4, no. 4, 1970, pp. 120–124. www.jstor.org/stable/3041390.
“Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” by Robert E. Fleming explores the overaching concepts that make up the meaning of the novel. Focusing in on the theme of passing, self-identity, and amibguity, Fleming proposes various sections of the book that assert the themes. He concludes James Weldon Johnson strategically chose to position certain issues more than others to shine light on common issues of that time.
Fleming, Robert E. “Irony as a Key to Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” American Literature, vol. 43, no. 1, 1971, pp. 83–96. www.jstor.org/stable/2924481.
Like many other critical overviews of critical race theorists, Robert E. Fleming in his “Irony as a Key to Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” asserts irony used by the author to characterize the unnamed narrator. He believes the narrator is ironic therefore contradicting his actions and statements in earlier sections of the novel. Using references from other theorists, Fleming concludes without attention to the irony symbolized throughout the novel, an accurate reading of the narrator is distorted.
Pfeiffer, Kathleen. “Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” African American Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 1996, pp. 403–419. www.jstor.org/stable/3042533.
In this criticism, Kathleen Pfeiffer argues that the unnamed narrator created by James Weldon Johnson is a complete paradox of race and color. She affirms that because he is legally black and visibly white. She views the ex-colored man as a person who values individualism being that at one moment, he is on a quest to neither claim the black or white race. At the same time, she highlights the ways in which he is undisciplined and strives to improvise in various situations. With knowledge of individualism, success, and American identity within the novel, the audience is allowed a more complex insight into the book.
Pisiak, Roxanna. “Irony and Subversion in James Weldon Johnson’s ‘the Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man’.” Studies in American Fiction. 21.1 (1993). Print.
The uncertainty of color lines and the way race is constructed is formed through the use of language are the major themes in James Weldon Johnson’s work, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Pisiak argues the narrator holds the opinion that separation of races is a fact of life, but his actions and reactions from his surrounding peers subverts the notion in the reader. She asserts that language is therefore used to distort culture that to attempts to label people “black” or “white.”
Skerrett, Joseph T. “Irony and Symbolic Action in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” American Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 5, 1980, pp. 540–558. www.jstor.org/stable/2712412.
Joseph T. Skerret attempts in his criticism, “Irony and Symbolic Action in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” to highlight the irony that the unnamed narrator portrays. Often contradicting himself between his actions and sayings, Skerret not only recognizes his faults, but displays the significance. Drawing from other critical race theorists, Skerret concludes the narrator’s treatment of the unnamed narrator is essentially ironic.
Devastation Through Segregation
Devastation through Segregation
Did you know that the state of Mississippi did not officially abolish slavery until February 7th, 2013? Although slaves have not worked the fields of Mississippi since the Civil War ended, evidence of racial prejudice has far from disappeared. On a recent trip to Greenwood, Mississippi, Nikole Hannah-Jones witnesses this ongoing prejudice and writes: “the Delta can be devastating.” This devastation is addressed by two novels: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, The Help, is about the life of African-American maids working for white families. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man tells the story of a half-black man who is torn between fitting into white society and showing pride in his African heritage. In each novel, the authors prove to the reader that “the Delta can be devastating” through the tales of their minor characters.
First and foremost, the Delta is devastating for Yule May, a black maid working for Hilly Holbrook. Yule May is just seventy-five dollars short of sending both of her sons to college, but Hilly refuses to lend her the money. She is stuck because as a mother, she loves both of her sons equally and needs to provide the same opportunities for the both of them. In a letter to Skeeter, she writes, “For ten years, my husband and I have saved our money to send them to Tougaloo College, but as hard as we worked, we still didn’t have enough for both” (Stockett 293). Out of desperation, she resorts to stealing and pawns one of Hilly’s old rings. When Hilly realizes this, Yule May is immediately sent to jail and most of her savings are lost to the court fine. Thus, Yule May is condemned by the Delta due to the lack of opportunities for people of her race.
Furthermore, Mae Mobley is ultimately a victim of her mother, Elizabeth Leefolt’s ignorance and neglect. Elizabeth is repulsed by Mae Mobley’s lack of aesthetics, so she rarely plays with or cleans up after her. From an early age, Mae Mobley is raised by her black maid, Aibileen, and witnesses the discrimination towards her (such as when Miss Leefolt decides to build her a separate bathroom). In spite of this, Aibileen teaches Mae Mobley to have morals and self-worth, as shown through the motto “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” (Stockett 521). Therefore, firing Aibileen becomes the most destructive decision Elizabeth has made for her daughter. As Aibileen is leaving, Mae Mobley wonders, “Why? Why don’t you want to see me anymore? Are you going to take care of another little girl?” (Stockett 520). Mae Mobley feels the devastation of a loved one leaving her, but she will not see the true devastation– the loss of a role model– until much later. Therefore, the Delta devastates Mae Mobley by depriving her of Aibileen.
Last but not least, James Weldon Johnson’s devastation is brought upon him by his supposed benefactor, a Pullman car porter. Whilst getting ready to attend the University of Atlanta, his school money and tie are stolen. As he can no longer afford to attend school, the porter kindly loans him money and suggests that he move to Jacksonville to find work. Later, Johnson recognizes the porter wearing his stolen tie. When Johnson realizes that his “friend” was the one who steals all of his money, he says “My astonishment and the ironical humor of the situation drove everything else out of my mind” (Johnson 39). It is also ironic that the porter steals from a member of his own race. In this instance, it is devastating that the man who helps Johnson up at his lowest point is also the one who put him there. Therefore, the Delta is devastating for Johnson because his “friend” takes advantage of him.
Overall, the tragic fates that the minor characters represent in these two novels prove that “the Delta is Devastating.” Ironically, devastation is not only caused by the racial barrier, but also members of ones’ own race. Yule May is punished for being different due to the oppression of her race. Mae Mobley is punished because of her own mother’s ignorance. Johnson is a victim of his black “friend” because the porter looks down upon his own race. Even today, humans are punished for being different, and for being the same.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Berkley Books, 2009.
The Whitening of Souls: A Note on Shame, Internal Monologues, and White Hegemony
The Whitening of Souls: A Note on Shame, Internal Monologues, and White Hegemony
In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the unnamed protagonist lives his life walking the line between white and black. He is a man who can choose to be a person of color, or can “pass” as a white man, and as is evident by the title, he chooses the life of a white man. But even while he is grappling with the idea of choosing a race, he is naturally inclined to elevate white people and subtly discriminate against black people. These events take place in his inner monologue despite him knowing internally that he himself is black. While this could be seen as betrayal of one’s race, the text substantiates the reality that the hegemony of the white population is so pervasive that it alters even the standards and feelings of the black community within themselves. The narrator’s feelings are only a refection of his world.
Even as a child, the narrator falls into patterns of discrimination against other black children. He recounts siding with the white children naturally in elementary school, and one event where he “ran after [the black children] pelting them with stones” (10). Finding out he himself is black is a moment of considerable distress for him, a realization that he clearly remembers for the rest of his life. Upon coming to this conclusion he knows he cannot continue to associate with the white cliques, but also refuses to associate with the black children at this time. He acquires a tendency to disassociate with people of color astonishingly early in life. Later in life too, he continues to put down people of color in more subtle ways. In the Club, the romantic interest of the white widow who frequents the location is referred to as the “bad man”, and a “surly, black despot” (89) without him being known personally.
When our narrator travels to the South, even the people that he grows fond of are described in a condescendingly patronizing manner, like the churchgoers and speakers he encounters during the multi-day religious event he stumbles upon. Finally, when he encounters the murder of a man through burning, his emotional response is not empathy or even horror. He describes instead a “great wave of humiliation and shame” (137). This life-altering event actually makes him feel embarrassed to be a black man, someone belonging to a race “that could be so dealt with” (137). For him to understand that a murder had just happened without consequence or reproach was for him to recognize a seeming inferiority in blackness, and it is at this point that he chooses to discard it.
Conversely, the narrator also elevates the white people he meets, perhaps subconsciously, and shows marked preference for them compared to people of his own race. The millionaire is a very prominent example and evidence of the narrator’s tremendous respect and love for him can be seen all over the midsection of the book. However, his exaltation takes its most articulate and poignant form in the way the narrator describes women. Chronologically, he sees first the woman in the theater, calling her “so young, so fair, so ethereal” (98), a description almost fitting for a goddess. When we realize her father is also the narrator’s father, and this girl is his half-sister, it is finally implied that this woman without doubt is white. The narrator’s penchant for glorifying the white woman does not stop there. When he meets his future wife, he enters a series of internal comments that deify her as well, and equate her whiteness to purity, loveliness, and goodness. He says of her, “She was as white as a lily, and she was dressed in white. Indeed, she seemed to me the most dazzlingly white thing I had ever seen” (144). These women are equated to celestial beings of benevolence with words like ‘ethereal’ and ‘dazzling’ in a way that no black woman is ever described in this work. In fact, no black woman is given a description in this work any more articulate than being defined as ‘rather pretty’ or ‘quite charming’. The effect his wife has on the narrator finalizes his prejudice. Her love is a “love which melted away [his] cynicism and whitened [his] sullied soul” (147). The positive ways this woman affects the narrator’s life being described as the symbolic whitening of his soul solidifies the fact that the narrator, even as a black man, sees people of color as inherently less ‘good’.
So, what does this all mean? As a person of color, the narrator lacks the power possessed by the white population that could turn his prejudice into discrimination. In fact, this piece presents a balance of cultural, economic and social power so tipped in favor of white people that the narrator’s prejudice could be attributed to white hegemony too. The narrator explains it quite clearly himself through the issue of marriage, and how people of color who are wealthy or well educated tend to marry people lighter in complexion to themselves. “The United States puts a greater premium on color, or, better, lack of color, than upon anything else in the world”, he writes, continuing “It is this tremendous pressure which the sentiment of the country exerts that is operating on the race” (113). Just like when W.E.B. Dubois’s double-consciousness, the narrator here can perceive that the way communities of people of color act are being forcibly molded under tremendous pressure by white power. In circumstances like in the world of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, it is predictable that people with darker complexions would be looked upon as lesser, and white people exalted, even by people of color. For people of color, the lighter the complexion of their partner, and therefore of their children, the higher a chance they have at economic, cultural and social success. The narrator’s complicated desire for whiteness and shame over being a person of color comes not from his own faults as a character but from the fact that he is up to his eyeballs in internalized white hegemony. He wants to feel human and to feel fulfilled, talented, and accepted, just like every other person does, but in his world these things are defined or augmented by one’s level of whiteness. Thus, the narrator’s feelings, though real and biased, are the result of immersive white power rather than actual independent prejudice.
“A Privileged Spectator:” Music and Its Role in the Narrator’s Life in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the narrator presents the story of his life as a black man passing as white, and the different stages he progresses through while doing so. In both his life and the lives of many black Americans during the time of our narrator’s life, and to the present day, music plays an integral part in defining identity and culture. The narrator’s personal experience with music reflects a greater cultural experience shared by the black American community, and is sometimes the central element of his own life. By understanding the narrator’s experience with music, we can connect it to a broader experience of culture and status that Johnson comments on via the narrator.Early in his life, the narrator discovers he has a proficiency in music, playing the piano in his home and joining various groups and ensembles early in his life (25-27). His musicianship also allowed him venues socially to spend time with people he may not have otherwise, beginning with his love interest in grade school. He remarks on his youthful love, saying “Perhaps the reader has already guessed why I was so willing and anxious to play the accompaniment to this violin solo; if not – the violinist was a girl of seventeen or eighteen… and who had moved me to a degree which now I can hardly think as possible” (29). As a medium to accompany the girl both musically and physically in person, the narrator’s talents and interests in music early on establish him as someone who may have the potential to make connections unavailable to others, which will prove momentous in guiding his life in due time.Given that the narrator’s talents are unique enough to distinguish him from the rest of the general population, he is able to eventually find a place playing the piano in establishments that are understood to be similar to modern day bars. In fact, the narrator becomes acclaimed as something of a legend in New York City, having earned the reputation of “the best rag-time-player in New York” (115). He says, “By mastering rag-time I gained the title of professor. I was known as ‘the professor’ as long as I remained in that world. Then, too I gained the means of earning a rather fair livelihood” (115) [emphasis mine]. In saying he has earned a fair livelihood, as well as the dignified title of “professor,” the narrator equates playing music – particularly ragtime music – as something sophisticated, intelligent, and respectable, as opposed to a job like cigar making. The narrator’s experience playing music in bars is clearly something positive, given the title he has earned and the respect he is given. Johnson’s portrayal of the black musician is that of someone in an honorable profession working to support him/herself. He contrasts this sharply with the nature of other men in these establishments who seem to do little more than bum around and gamble with money they do not have (94-96). Our narrator has just come off of a gambling binge, spending some amount of time as a full-time craps player. By transitioning to music as his primary mode of income, he is not only abandoning chance in his pursuit for money, but also personally channeling his talents and interests toward something society can see as respectable. That the music is ragtime – something seen as a great form of music during this time – only elevates him further and establishes the black musician, or the black player of ragtime, as a great man. The ragtime music itself bears great importance, as it deviates from old-school classical music and demonstrates a newfound originality that the black community claims as its own. Thus, its masters are revered, as explained, for having provided this phenomenon to the community.It is interesting, then, to comment on what happens next in the narrator’s life. Following the request of a white millionaire to play at a function, the narrator becomes something of a personal pianist for him, playing in his own home and at various functions for a long period of time. He even travels with the millionaire to Europe at one point for many months. This raises a question: If the narrator is so respected in his own racial community for having played so well, why does he choose to play privately for a rich white man and eventually flee the continent (and his music) with him? As Johnson depicts in the shooting scene, there is actually little the narrator can do but leave, and eventually, pass as white. The violence in that moment is indicative of the very lifestyle our narrator is not involved in – he is not a violent, sexually-charged, or otherwise indecent man. These events manifest themselves as a “horrible nightmare” (124) for the narrator. In leaving New York and his public music career behind, the narrator makes a conscious decision to abandon his status and lifestyle to re-evaluate his own goals, perhaps investigating them anew in Europe. What does happen eventually, after months in Europe and moments away from a second major international excursion, is the decision the narrator makes to return to the United States as an ambassador to his race – that is, the black race. He says, “But I must own that I also felt stirred by an unselfish desire to voice all the joys and sorrows, the hopes and ambitions, of the American Negro, in classical music form” (148). The narrator means he wishes to play again, this time as a declared representative of his black race. In doing so he establishes that he will return to the United States to use music as a medium to communicate significant ideas about black American culture. The millionaire at one point offers him the opportunity to remain in Europe and study under some of the greatest teachers in the world (144), which would make more sense if the narrator was focused solely on music. Yet, he is not: he is, and has been, focused on music as something more than just music itself. Ultimately, though, he cannot follow through with this. When the narrator has a chilling firsthand experience with lynching, he has to make the decision to pass as white for the rest of his life, which he later contemplates on in the conclusion of the novel, saying “sometimes it seems to me that I have never really been a Negro, that I have been only a privileged spectator of their inner life; at other times I feel that I have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother’s people” (210). All of these sentiments the narrator expresses can be directly connected to an experience he had with music earlier in his life. He may feel like a deserter for having literally deserted New York for Europe in the face of the violent incident, leaving his music (and position as “professor”) behind. He may only feel like a spectator because while in these bars and clubs, playing for the black community, he could never truly connect with it like others – he did not look the part or play the part and grew up “white,” only to have “black”-ness and its perils apparently thrust upon him. Throughout his life, music acted as a portal for the narrator into the black community, to hold the position of the “privileged spectator” perhaps, and to involve himself in situations he otherwise would have never encountered. The role of music in the narrator’s life mirrors the role of music as a social tool for the black community in general as evidenced by the events in the novel. The narrator’s music playing in clubs, as well as the music-centric cakewalk he encounters, are events that literally bring people together in a positive atmosphere. His intention in Europe is to return to the United States and use his talents to speak on behalf of the “black man” and to do great things on behalf of his race because he understands that there is a social bonding mechanism that music contains, particularly with ragtime, as it is a style “owned” by the African American community. Johnson’s commentary is then that music can be a social tool for change, of course evidenced by his real-life authoring of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At every opportunity, he paints music and its performers in a positive light, and as performing an important task, as evidenced by the narrator’s comments. It does not matter if it is for a rich millionaire or a club; the musician, particularly the black musician performing ragtime, demonstrates a particular air of importance and meaning (as evidenced by the narrator’s admiration from his peers and the millionaire alike).Although music for the narrator ultimately does not become his life’s work, its role is particularly important in guiding him through some of the most important stages of his life, particularly in his youth and in the time leading up to the millionaire and his decision to return to the United States. Beyond its role as an important factor in the narrator’s life, its position in the novel is realistic and acts as a commentary that Johnson makes on the importance of music in the community as a tool for unification and as an object of inspiration at times as well. It does not matter if the narrator is merely a “privileged spectator;” his involvement and performance throughout his life open paths for him he would otherwise have not had, and this would be true for any person. It is particularly “color blind” in this case, or even black-oriented, as the position the narrator holds as a black-identified (not passing) performer of ragtime only bolsters his credibility amongst his peers, playing culturally significant music. This performance and, although unfulfilled, his desire to return and use the music to tell the story of the struggle of African Americans, display the immense importance of music to enact social change and to play a role both societally and individually for those involved.
The Power of Music in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
The Power of Music in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man In Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the narrator is able to marry the two halves of his musical identity in a way that he is unable to do with his racial identity. Whether it is the black and white keys of the piano, classical vs. popular music, or high art vs. low art, dichotomous musical relationships co-exist harmoniously in the novel. This is evidenced by the narrator’s successful performance of his “ragtime transcription of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March” (118). Ragtime music is rooted in African rhythms while Mendelssohn’s piece comes from classical European traditions, and the narrator’s successful combination of both black and white music earns him a “round of generous applause” (119). The power of art, and more specifically, the power of music are evidenced by the narrator’s musical talent and success. Johnson uses music to create a world that sees past one’s race, ethnicity, class, and gender. As readers, we are deeply in tune with the narrator’s musical endeavors; it is the kind of outlet he finds from “all the little tragedies of [his] life” (3). As stated by the millionaire friend, “Music is a universal art; anybody’s music belongs to everybody; you can’t limit it to race or country” (144). The idealization of art and music provides relief from the novel’s melodramatic tendencies and the tragic mullatta-like aspects it contains. Music is more than a commentary on the narrator’s life; rather, it is the glue that holds together the fragments of his shattered identity. The narrator’s musical identity presents an interesting juxtaposition to his racial identity. During his musical training, he chooses not to be “hampered” by notes and tries to “reproduce the required sounds without the slightest recourse to the written characters” (9). The ease in which the narrator can manipulate music to cater to his tastes is evidenced by the way he “involuntarily clos[es] Chopin’s 13th nocturne with [a] major triad” (209) and forces accelerandos and rubatos into a piece as he sees fit. The ex-colored man chooses to “break” the rules when it comes to music but chooses to “follow” the rules when he feels that his racial identity is being compromised. With music, the narrator never feels like he has to choose between being white and black. He is often “lost to all other thoughts in the delights of music and love” and unconsciously plays with strong musical feeling and fervor (37). These unconscious thoughts often oppose the narrator’s intense consciousness on his physiognomy, being the “ivory whiteness of [his] skin, the beauty of [his] mouth, or “the size and liquid darkness in [his] eyes” (17). The simplicity of constructing a musical identity versus the complexity of constructing a racial one is apparent in Johnson’s novel, where the author uses music to transcend one’s identity and further magnify music’s potency. The ex-colored man attempts to cross many lines both literally and metaphorically, but only through music can he successfully break through boundaries. Since music gives the narrator the potential to complete his identity, it is important to examine the point at which he chooses to abandon his roots in the first place. The lynching scene is a pivotal moment in the novel; not only does it cause the narrator to deny his black heritage but it also leads him to completely abandon his musical aspirations. In this scene, Johnson portrays the “cruel and ludicrous” (190) actions of the Southern whites, but more importantly, he illustrates the dehumanization of blacks, who were “treated worse than animals” (191). This lynching scene is the ultimate turning point of the novel and transforms the narrator from hopeful to cynical. Society acknowledges and embraces musical hybridity during this violent episode, the public quickly draws the line between the narrator’s dual identity. The narrator is torn between his love for black music and the convenience of being a white man. The narrator’s constant failure can be frustrating to contemporary readers, but it is important to remember that there was no society that embraced both black and white the way there is today. In the novel, society forces the narrator to be either black or white, something music never does.The novel contains several melodramatic episodes, and the narrator’s abandonment of his musical aspirations conveniently makes his life more tragic. By the end of the novel, music becomes “tangible remnants of “a vanished dream, a dead ambition, and a sacrificed talent” (211). It becomes nothing more than a distant memory that the narrator can idealize through his memories. But despite the tragic outcome of his life, the ex-colored man’s musical intuitions never leave him. Even by the end of the novel, it still provides the man with a promise of hope. This is evidenced in the scene with the white woman, as the narrator manipulates Chopin’s 13th nocturne by ending it on a major triad instead of a minor triad. The narrator re-writes the ending of the piece with a happy sounding chord in hopes of washing away the sadness that has occurred in his life. The original end of Chopin’s piece sounded menacing in a minor key, inspiring a darker mood. This proves that for the narrator, music provides the means for hope, as he states how the “few years of [his] married life were supremely happy” (209). Music offers the narrator the kind of reality he wishes to see. Music’s presence draws him to his wife and is the fuel for happiness in their marriage. In comparing the narrator’s life to his music, Johnson shows that it is life that fails him, not music. For example, he considers the evenings when his mother opened the piano as the “happiest hours of [his] childhood” (9) and wins the adoration of his father when he plays a Chopin waltz. The narrator also used music to express his boyhood feelings of love, remembering, “when I played the piano, it was to her” (30). In a benefit concert to honor his mother’s passing, it is his stirring performance of Beethoven’s Pathetique that allows him to raise enough money to attend college. Moreover, the narrator finds economic success by teaching a couple of music pupils at night and finds greater opportunities by playing privately for his millionaire friend while traveling throughout Europe. The narrator’s musical endeavors allow him to receive love and adoration from his parents and to express his passionate love for others. It also provides him with a stable income for the greater part of his life. Unfortunately, it is the circumstances of his life that negates all of the narrator’s musical success, from having his money stolen for college to the tragedy of his wife’s early passing. In this respect, Johnson leads the reader to sympathize with his protagonist’s bad luck. Although music cannot change the downward trajectory of the ex-colored man’s life, it does help him cope with many of his misfortunes. Music is the simple, unobjective outlet for the narrator; he can easily change the outcome of a piece like Chopin’s nocturne to suit his sentiments, even if he can’t change the events that caused them. Tragedy is an inevitable part of life. Whether or not a person is as musically inclined as the narrator, music still provides the kind of escape that human beings look for from the harsh realities of life. For the narrator, it allows society’s hard-lined stance on race to merge into shades of grey. Only through music can the narrator “go back into the very heart of the South” to revive “the old slave songs” (142-143) and play Beethoven’s Pathetique in a manner as he “could never play it again” (51). The idealization of art as a way for one to come to terms with his or her identity is of supreme importance in Johnson’s novel. The failed promise of the narrator’s life opposes music’s promise of hope. Music comprises the essence of the narrator’s identity and hope for the kind of life he wishes to live. The ex-colored man personally interprets a piece of music as it caters to his thoughts and always “play[s] [it] with feeling” (26). Music allows him to play so passionately that he cannot “keep the tears which form[s] in [his] eyes from rolling down [his] cheeks (27). As Walter Pater once wrote, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” If there were no musical instances in the novel, it would become clear how important it really is to the narrator’s trajectory.
Shedding the Veil: DuBois’ Double Consciousneess in Johnson and Locke
W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, seems to be speaking for a raceless society where the quality of one’s character was the sole basis for being judged. Yet this is not what Du Bois saw in his day and it is not what we see today. The idea of race is still much distorted in many peoples’ minds, and it leads them to misjudge historical and current phenomena. So it seems that not only was the color line the problem of the twentieth century, as Du Bois claimed, but also of the twenty-first. This is why James Weldon Johnson’s novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still such a relevant work. The novel demonstrates the true meaning of Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness, and it also shows the responses blacks may have to their current state “within the Veil”; further Johnson seems to support both Locke and Du Bois in their reasoning that the ultimate aim should be a society where double consciousness could not exist because the discourse becomes one of absolute equality. Before The Autobiography can be understood as a representation of double consciousness, the idea itself needs to be examined. As Adolph L. Reed Jr. argues in W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line, this is a crucial first step because the phrase “double consciousness” has been so widely used to represent other ideas that it can become misrepresented. He says, “sundry intellectuals misread Du Bois ahistorically and instead project their own thinking onto him” (92). But it must be remembered that this can be true with any author. In any case, later in Du Bois’ career while he was attending graduate school at Harvard and again in Germany, the academic issue of race became a “matter of culture and cultural history” instead of a pseudoscience that claims a fundamental difference between blacks and whites (124). He came to the same conclusion in his essay, Conservation of Races, which is that race is an inadequate construction, and that its foundation is socioeconomic and ideological, in other words, cultural. What is the idea of double consciousness then? It could be read as a struggle for blacks to settle opposing identities-one as an object of a social problem or simply different, and the other as a person equal in opportunity and potential. Johnson’s novel is able to demonstrate first the foundation of Du Bois’ double consciousness, which is that race is socially constructed, and he also shows the struggle in identity between the two states of mind mentioned above. The moment of realization of the veil and of a double consciousness is often a monumental event that many authors have written about including Du Bois himself. He says, “I remember well when the shadow swept across me” (694). Johnson’s narrator too has a similar experience. As a young child the narrator identifies with his white peers and fights with “the niggers” until one day his teacher asks for all the white scholars to stand. The narrator stands and the teacher responds, “You sit down for the present and rise with the others” (808). This is when the narrator is made known of his other self, the one, because of social and cultural factors, is seen differently. The narrator says about this early experience: 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 domination, all-pervading idea. (810)This not only shows the importance of the event to the narrator as a young child, but also demonstrates very well the idea of double consciousness as Du Bois meant it. The underlying assumption in the novel is that “race” (either being identified as black or white) is seemingly arbitrary. This is shown in the many different times the narrator is able to switch groups quite freely. Obviously, if race were anything more than the way society sees you, this switching would not be quite so possible. In “The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity,” John Sheehy says, “The boy was in a peculiar situation: he could choose his race. This choice of course is not an uncomplicated one” (401). He goes on to argue that the narrator can be seen as “living on the color line” because of the extreme fluidity of his racial identity (406). In “Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” Robert E. Fleming argues that the fact that the narrator is nameless in the novel “underscores the major psychological problem of the novel; that is, in a very real sense the narrator doesn’t know who he is, and his autobiography records his futile search for identity” (121). This is true throughout the novel until the end. Sheehy argues that underneath the representation of race as a dichotomy, black and white, the narrator gives a subtle, subversive note when the narrator says, “I am glad that I am what I am.” This could be seen as the narrator overcoming the simple black/white mindset, and finally choosing an identity for himself that is neither black nor white. There are many different ways to react to the problem of the double consciousness. Du Bois points out that there are two extreme positions that can be taken. To Africanize America or to “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism” (695). Neither outcome is desirable; however, Du Bois makes it fairly clear what he thinks would be the best solution. This is when a man can “be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face (695). What is being avoided here is the further separation of the races and radicalization of either black or white stances on the issues of race relations. It can only be supposed that Du Bois saw a future in which people could work together toward common goals, but still resist the temptation of complete integration-a very similar position to Alain Locke’s. Locke also arguably believed that race was an artificial standard as he suggests in The New Negro. He writes that blacks see themselves through the “distorted perspective of a social problem” (985). This is at heart the issue of double consciousness, being seen, treated, and raised not as an equal but an anomaly. Locke also recognizes the fact that this is indeed a distorted perspective as Du Bois argued throughout his career after coming to the conclusion that race is a social construct. The goal then is a society in which race is recognized for what it is-an outdated, discursive lie that has no merit in society today. Of course that is not to say that race relations are unimportant, they are indeed. But they need to be seen for what they are historical social measures that are being perpetuated, unjustifiably today. Further, Johnson is able to help us understand this concept because of the nebulous “race” of the narrator. The response to the problem of double consciousness is also important factor seen in the story. The character’s response was to “pass,” i.e. allow society to take him as a white. So it can be seen then that the idea of race is socially manifested. But the response that all three authors seem to be advocating is the abolishment of racism that has deep social roots and can only be struck down through the very cultural means that built them up. Works CitedDu Bois, W. E. B. “The Souls of Black Folk”. 1903. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Gates et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004. 693-766. Fleeming, Robert E. “Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man”. Negro American Literature Forum. (1970): 120-124. JSTOR. Loyola University Library. 6 October 2006 < www.jstor.org>.Johnson, James Weldon. “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”. 1912. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Gates et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004. 803-883.Locke, Alain. “The New Negro”. 1925. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Gates et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004. 984-993. Reed, Adolph L. Jr. W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1997.Sheehy, John. “The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity”. African American Review. (1999): 401-415. JSTOR. Loyola University Library. 6 October 2006 < www.jstor.org>.
The Consequences of the Faded Color Line in
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. contends “race” is not itself a natural entity, rather a synthetic construct used to degrade certain peoples. He implores society to move forward free from the shackles of categorization, liberating itself from a false reality. While this commentary holds significant merit and noble intention, its excessively utopian core fails to take into account the great inability of society’s members to overcome its long-held values and beliefs. Undeniably, humanity sees through a shaded lens, and, though the race schism may be of artificial rather than biological origins, it very much has and still shapes the world we live in. In no work is the color line so uniquely scaled as it is in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man. The subject of the story is the benefactor of a societal anomaly: he is able to oscillate and transcend the color barrier, somewhat shielding himself from the biased operation of the white faction and the intense oppression encasing the black one. Coupled with this trait is a wholly methodical and presumptuous personality pervasive throughout the text. In lieu of these facilities, the Ex-colored Man receives only a fleeting taste of both worlds; he is never fully assimilated into either realm. The notable absence of emotion prevents an affective connection with a category that further inhibits the traditional association with race. The narrator then loses total sight of the color line as his presuming nature disconnects him from racial networks. As a result, it takes but one dramatic encounter to dye the subject’s faint sense of the color line and amplify its presence. The Ex-Colored Man’s passing glimpse into white and black domains mold presumptions that are torn down in just one instant, leaving him with eternal regret for a lack of societal experience. Indeed, the absence of a racial identity bars the man from the existence he longed to appreciate. Rather than growing as an active, acculturated member of society, the Ex-Colored Man seems to develop more as a presumptuous commentator. He does not hesitate to reveal his vision of racial America, continually asserting his beliefs involving white and black dynamics. Early in the story, the speaker confidently puts forth “I believe it to be a fact that the coloured people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them” (403). The subtle labeling of “colored people” and white people” coupled with the absence of a collective “we” corroborates his individualistic persona, one deficient of a racial identification. Though externally shaping him as an unbiased (a traditionally positive attribute) individual, the narrator’s presumptions eventually impede him from cultivating a definite ethnic association. He pedantically asserts “…This ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of an Indian” (423), degrading much of his own potential character. By awarding even some credit for the providence of a race to so trivial a source as laughter not only devalues black autonomy and intelligibility but also isolates the Ex-Colored Man from that group. It becomes impossible to develop a strong black self because he himself devalues their existence, going so far as to brand them “creatures” (477). Overtly positive assertions, too, alienate the speaker. He states “It is a struggle; for though the black man fights passively, he nevertheless fights…he bears the fury of the storm as does the willow tree” (434)-an edict that seems to convey some sense of self-until it is juxtaposed with a white contention: “…For though the white man of the South may be too proud to admit it, he is, nevertheless, using in the contest his best energies; he is devoting to it the greater part of his thought and much of his endeavor” (434). The prototypical activism of the first statement fades into ambivalence as he adds a vaguely positive reference to prevalent white oppression. The branding of the immense racial struggle as a “contest” further shows his uncertainty and desperate impartiality; he cannot commit to either side so long as he funnels his perceptions into generalizations of both white and black spheres. The narrator is strikingly devoid of sentiment; he evaluates even the most epic of incidences in a numb, analytical fashion. Because of this, he handicaps himself, abating the acculturation necessary for an enriching societal experience. His detachment grows from an underlying selfishness that provides for an almost economic existence. As early as grade school, he admits “I felt that ‘Red Head’-as I involuntarily called him-and I were to be friends. I do not doubt that this feeling was strengthened by the fact that I had been quick enough to see that a big, strong boy was a friend to be desired at a public school…” (397). Racial identification is not yet an issue of great salience for the youth, rather peer association serves as the first marker of self-definition. Even as a child, the Ex-Colored Man seeks to develop a symbiotic relationship. He vies to improve his own situation rather than value the bond at its purest level, foreshadowing similar activity even after the racial construct is introduced to the boy. This is not to say the speaker is an altogether callous and disinterested being, on the contrary, he displays a deep love for his mother and, later, his wife. These women, however, are not the subject’s source of identification. His lasting grief does not stem from those relationships (despite their tragic ends), instead it grows from a longing for social functionality in the racial sense. As a male, the Ex-Colored Man would have traditionally drawn many roles from his father, but he divulges that “Somehow I could not arouse any considerable feeling of need for a father” (410). The parent attempts to reach out to his son, though it proves to be in vain. The boy retracts inward, and displays the budding self-interested and materialistic attitude that will mature later in the piece by recalling “I thought, almost remorsefully, of how I had left my father; but, even so, there momentarily crossed my mind a feeling of disappointment the piano was not a grand” (413). As an adult, the narrator brings into question his own attitude regarding his assimilation, pondering “Was it more a desire to help those I considered my people, or more a desire to distinguish myself…This is a question I have never definitely answered” (474). The answer does seem to appear quite overtly, however, as he concludes “…I should have greater chances of attracting attention as a coloured composer than as a white one” (474). As evidenced here, the Ex-Colored Man uses racial identification as a tool to better his material standing, thus displacing ethnicity from his definition of self. This paradigm progresses into a deep ambivalence for racial interactions. In the face of blatant prejudice, the speaker recalls “I was sick at heart. Yet I must confess that underneath it all I felt a certain sort of admiration for the man who could not be swayed from what he held as his principles” (484). The Ex-Colored Man can feel only ephemeral empathy for his black roots and merely a “sort of admiration” for the white bigot; his objectivity has fully severed his ties with both factions. Subsequently–in the ultimate display of racial tension and division-a lynching-the subject retracts just as he did in boyhood. He systematically dissects the atrocity, struggling to recount how “I was looking at a scorched post, a smouldering fire, blackened bones, charred fragments sifting down through coils of chain…” (497); the connection to the victim is never forged. He leaves town, unable to side with a “…Race that could be so dealt with…” (497) or the lynch mob itself. Because of his demeanor, he lacks the ire to defend one race and the effrontery to join in another. The Ex-Colored Man’s starkly rational and unemotional nature prevents him from socially assimilating from boyhood through his adult years, culminating in a disembodied fugue that leaves him with a want for that racial identification. The subject in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is haunted by, in the end, “…Remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent…” (511)-a lugubrious fate for a man once blessed with a keen mind and incalculable aspiration. During his youth, this ambition fuels an individualistic and wholly selfish attitude that, coupled with a dry, emotionless quintessence leads to an indeterminable sense of self. The Ex-Colored Man fails to attach himself to a race-a decision most have no say in-amounting to his ultimate and final feelings of despair. By way of increasingly presumptuous qualities, he alienates himself from the entire racial spectrum, producing profoundly ambivalent feelings that are indeed more evident than any other sentiment he is able to manifest. The shackling flaws of the Ex-Colored Man are not so inhibiting in the society Gates, Jr. promotes-the ideal, race-less world-undoubtedly, self-interest would be markedly positive. “Race” may and perhaps should not be a divisive category. Even if it is an artifice however, a ruse implanted in the fabric of humanity centuries ago, the fact remains it is elemental in modern socialization and acculturation. It is a definite reality that people today must be able to associate with a race as a dividing class on some level to achieve an enriching societal experience. The Ex-Colored Man, in a time when race is incredibly salient in the collective mind of American civilization, is left out of the racial equation. He longs to thrive in the world Gates would like to see, one in which he could “…Neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race…” (499), but he is left an ordinary, ethnically ambiguous man regretting an identity lost and a society that forced him to choose.
Comparing Problematic Societies: The Good Person of Szechwan vs Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Literature often presents itself in different themes and messages for audience members. These themes may be reoccurring or even opposing at times between different texts. The play The Good Person of Szchecwan by Bertolt Brecht and Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson are two texts that present both differences and similarities. One difference between the texts is that while a theme in Brecht’s play can be the lack of trust and good character among people, Johnson’s book shows the narrator building strong ties and relationships to people in his life. A similarity between the two writings is that both show the struggles people face with their identity. As a result, both writings give readers characters that are torn by their environment showing that people often face problems with the world they live in.
In The Good Person of Szechwan, Brecht shows audiences a town of people who lack trust and good character. The play shows three Gods come to Szechwan in need of shelter. No one in the town is willing to give shelter to the Gods due to their non-religious outlooks and selfish intentions with one man even stating “how should I know what kind of Gods you’ve got there? A fellow that lets people into his house likes to know what he’s getting… You must be trying to find a place for a nice bunch of crooks” (Brecht 7). Here the audience sees the skepticism within people living in Szechwan, even towards Gods. The people of the town also did not give food or donations to beggars because of their suspicion that the “beggar probably had money” and is not truly a beggar (Brecht 14). Furthermore, relatives and neighbors in the play look out for themselves before others and do not provide assistance if it puts them in any sort of deficit, for example, the unemployed who saw Wang’s hand get smashed but were unwilling to be witnesses for Wang’s compensation. The characters in the play keep personal distances unless the relationship is required to reach their own goals. Sun is a character in the play who tells Shen Te, the one person who is actually good, that he loves her and then continues to take her money. Sun advises Shen Te to sell her tobacco shop for his own expenses in order to become a pilot, all with the intent of moving away after he receives the money, leaving her with nothing.
Comparatively, the book Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man shows the narrator in several close relationships based on love and trust. For example, one character is a boy named Red who was a failing student in the same school as the narrator. The two quickly formed a friendship of “faithfulness” after the narrator helped Red with a word in a spelling bee (Johnson 7). The two remained close as the narrator continued to help Red do well in order for them to stay in the same grade level. Right away the audience can see this pure and selfless relationship the narrator has at such a young age. The relationship cements the good intentions the narrator has throughout the book and is the beginning of a list of meaningful relationships the narrator builds further down in his life. In The Good Person of Szechwan, readers often notice a display of selfishness and hate among characters, even those that ought to be good such as the townspeople and the Gods or Shen Te and her lover Sun. However, in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the readers witness relationships that, against all common sense, are good and loving. For example, the narrator notes that his mother speaks of his father, the man who left her and her son, with only compassion and kind words. She defended his actions and remained faithful to his memory although he kept his distance and rarely made the effort to see the two. Another rarity readers see in Brecht’s play that can be seen in Johnson’s book is assistance and support among characters. A character referred to by the narrator as, “the millionaire,” is one of the many people with whom the narrator creates a close bond with (Johnson 118). The millionaire often paid the narrator in large tips for his musical talents before giving him an even higher paid private job. Soon enough the two become extremely friendly with the millionaire offering the narrator a chance to leave with him for the chance to live in Europe. The millionaire does this after seeing the narrator in a disturbed state from having seen a beautiful woman being shot in the throat by her African American companion. Here we see a character looking out for the narrator’s best interest and helping him escape what can be considered as a life changing and scarring experience. People helping people in their time of need is a kind act that is nowhere to be seen in Brecht’s play apart from Shen Te’s good deeds. In Brecht’s play, the audience sees the character Shen Te have problems with her own identity and who she has to be in order to be good versus who she must be in order to thrive economically. In order to stay well fed or financially stable, the characters in the play are ruthless. Their morals are blurred with the mentality that survival is their purpose in life and religion or being good just gets in the way of that. Shen Te is a kind and sympathetic woman in the play. The people of Szechwan know this and therefore, take advantage of her goodness and exploit her decency. Soon enough Shen Te creates an alter ego, known to the people as her cousin Shui Ta, who is bold and brash in his ways. At first Shen Te keeps his appearance as minimal as possible only using him for emergency situations. However, eventually she keeps Shui Ta around for six months and in doing so, her business flourishes as she becomes highly respected and feared among the people. Shui Ta has a heavy hand on his workers and business associates and favors logic over what is right or wrong. Shen Te could never put others through hardship for her own comfort and knows that doing that is what makes a person bad. She wants to be good but in doing so, also wants to be successful money-wise. The struggle to either be good and suffer or be bad and live well ensues as Shen Te remains unsure as to which identity is the better choice. Similar to Brecht’s play, Johnson’s book shows the narrator having trouble with his identity and who he wants to be in terms of black or white. Being mixed race, with his mother being black and his father being white, the narrator often struggled to figure out what race he ought to be. Throughout the book he meets kind and soulful African Americans and sees the beautiful side of his mother’s heritage. Nonetheless he also comes into contact with violent and bitter African American people whose actions he cannot justify. He also sees the maltreatment of African American people which horrifies him. Similar to Shen Te’s identity crisis, the narrator tries to become the identity that will provide the best possible outcome for himself. His identity is lost somewhere along the lines of being either black or white with a thick line separating the two. Ultimately he chooses to be white and was glad to do so for the sake of his children. Nonetheless, the narrator states that although he thinks he made the right choice for his kids and for a beneficial life, he feels he abandoned his roots and his African American identity.
The conclusion that The Good Person of Szechwan and Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man come to is that people tend to face difficulties in dealing with the world around them. While Shen Te was pregnant she imagined her child coming into the world and soon enough realized that this world was not good enough for a child. Shen Te becoming Shui Ta and finally coming clean to the people gave them the image that those who are good cannot stay good in this world. The Gods in the play struggled to find a single good person and when they did, even she committed crimes against people for her own profitability. Shen Te is an optimistic character who sees the good in everyone, but even she struggled to stay good for people who manipulated and used her. In Johnson’s book, the narrator sees the racial bias and hardship African Americans must go through. For this reason, he claims that he chose to be white for an easy going life and so his kids may avoid the difficulty they’d have to go through if they embraced their African American heritage. He sees how cruel the world can be to a black man and for that reason he sheltered that part of him and kept it hidden, even from the love of his life before eventually telling her the truth. Both characters have difficulty in accepting the corrupt world around them.
As shown above, readers can see the contrasts and similarities that come from themes and concepts of two different texts. On one hand, Brecht’s play shows characters who are cold and untrusting. They are brutal in their ways and show no compassion for anyone other than their own cause. On the other hand, Johnson’s book shows a myriad of people the narrator meets throughout his life with whom he creates affectionate bonds. That said, both writings show a reoccurring theme of identity diffusion and indecisiveness based on who the character think they should be or how they should live their lives. In the end, both The Good Person of Szechwan and Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man give readers characters that have a hard time accepting the world they live in.