The Autobiography of an ExColored Man
Analysis of Passing in James Weldon Johnson’s Novel
AN ANALYSIS OF THE DETRIMENT OF “PASSING” IN JAMES WELDON JOHNSON’S NOVEL, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-COLORED MAN
Is it rational for a black man to attempt to “pass” himself off as a white person? “Passing” is defined as a detrimental intermediary preventing the narrator’s ability to find his identity. The narrator is tossed between living as a black or white man. What causes people to struggle between two races? There are many detrimental elements that influence people, thus causing confusion in their identity and their choice between races.
In this novel, James Weldon Johnson uses black language, but he is not renowned to the black culture. The protagonist of “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” by James Weldon Johnson has characteristics and habits of a white man. He is a black man, yet his skin is fair. He has adapted to the characteristics of the white man. He is an experienced musician whose social life evolves around white musicians, thus forsaking the black race.
The principal theme in the novel is the identity of race. It is associated with “blackness” in the music world. The protagonist holds tight to the American dream, which is sought by all men, and of all races. He has the hopes to move forward in his pursuit, unregulated by his color. However, he must “pass” as white in order to do this.
The protagonist became established in the white society by way of his music. It is in this society that he found comfort as an artist. Passing was a necessity for him. The novel took place in the 1900’s, which was a time of prejudice against blacks. Segregation was
at its peak. The novel displays the sympathetic conditions that race brought about and its effects.
When a black person is fair skinned, his chances for passing as white are higher than a darker skinned black person. The protagonist is a fair-skinned individual, thus capable of passing. The pressures of the prejudice asserted against blacks were too difficult for the protagonist to cope. Often times the prejudice attitudes against the black man forced fair-skinned blacks to “pass”, thus they didn’t have to survive the harshness against the black race.
“Passing” is basically becoming white. Although he is a black man both by birth and birthright, his complexion is light enough, therefore he can be seen as a white man. His skin color is a paradox within itself. It is what saves him and also what curses him, at the same time. The protagonist is light enough that he does not fit in with the majority of the other blacks. Similarly, he is not dark enough to appear to be a Negroid. This lightness of color saves him because he is able to blend in with the other whites. This ability enables him to escape the harsh treatment blacks faced. Paradoxically, his skin color is also a curse, as blending with the whites causes him to lose his heritage.
Because he “passes” and denies his heritage, he is therefore unable to find his identity. He is black, yet his skin appears white. Is he black or white? This is the inner battle and identity crisis he struggles with. Passing, although it is helpful in some ways is overall destructive. It creates a man without an identity. Passing sets standards, which say one cannot be both, black and white. By passing he has denied himself of his entire culture; he has become too involved with the white culture to be a part of his own.
In the first chapter, the protagonist feels somewhat like a criminal in his secret.
This however was because of the codes set by society in 1912. Segregation was a norm for this time. Blacks were unequal and inferior to people of lighter color: whites. The black boys and girls in the class were looked down upon. When the protagonist first used the word “nigger” his mother became tenacious that he should never use that word again.
In fact, the narrator grows up thinking that he is white until an incident in school. He didn’t know he was black until the principal asked all the white scholars to stand. When the narrator stood up with the white children, he was asked to sit down and to wait for the “others”. He did not understand. The white children jeered at him and said, “Oh you’re a nigger, too”(p7), the black children admitted, “we knew he was colored”. They all failed to realize that he was mixed. But during that time period, a person that had any Negro in his blood was considered to be one hundred percent black. As a young child he was unable to comprehend how he could be black when he looked white.
Everything changed for him once he found out that be was black. He now has recognition of differences between him and his mother. “I had thought of her in a childish way only as the most beautiful woman in the world; now I looked at her searching for defects”(p8). His once beautiful and perfect mother, he now views as different; these differences are defects. He also “became conscious” of the difference of his skin color and “recognized…the ivory whiteness of his skin” (p8) Difference has been opposed upon him, as well as “otherness”, as we saw by the statement his teacher made.
The black man and the white man have different viewpoints of life. They are in juxtaposition, as they walk down the same road of life, but in different styles. The white man lazed in superiority, while the black man suffers, because he is distorted by the color of his skin. “It is difficult for a white man to learn what a colored man really thinks.”(p9) The narrator is thus “forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, nor even of a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man.”(p9) The black man could only look at things from the viewpoint of being colored. He was colored and this made all the difference.
The narrator passes as a white man on several occasions. In Europe he lives with a millionaire and passes as a white man. When he has the desire to return to the South and live as a black man again, the millionaire shuns the black culture. “This idea of you making a Negro out of yourself is nothing more than a sentiment: and you do not realize the fearful import of what you intend to do. What kind of Negro would you make now, especially in the South?” (p67) He asks the protagonist why he would want to leave a luxurious life to return and face nothing but burdens.
We also see the narrator’s struggle with his identity as he meets a white woman he hopes to take for his wife. He doesn’t know if he should tell her he is black. When he does she runs. I infer that if he had known the result of him revealing his true race would make her run, he would have “passed” once more. Although she ran they met up again and ended up marrying and having 2 children.
Shortly, after his wife died. He continued to live as a white man so his children would not have to go through the terror of racism. “My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am, and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise”. (p100) He misses his black heritage, but for the sake of his children he will hoard those feelings of
nostalgia and keep them in a burrow, tucked away where he can be free the desire to go back.
He realizes what he has lost by “passing”. “It is difficult for me to analyze my feelings concerning my present position in the world. 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”. (99) Here the narrator reveals his heart felt emotions and freely expresses them. He tells the reader that passing off as a white man has left him feeling like a coward.
He abandoned his race and chose to turn his back on his culture, his heritage and his birthright. Yet, he has at times longed for the black culture, which he refers to as his “mother’s people”, thus still disconnecting himself from them. Passing is destructive because he lacks a true identity and he still disconnects himself from his black heritage labeling black people as his “mother’s people” and not his. He considers himself “an ordinarily successful white nab who has made a little money”. Had he had been black, as he is in actuality, he would not have been as successful as he was. His whiteness gave him a chance to succeed.
He considers his life best lived successfully for both him and his children by being white. Although he has done this he is not at peace within himself, “I cannot repress the thought, that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.” (100) He will never be able to reverse what has been done. He will have to leave his black heritage in the past and continue moving forward
thus realizing that his identity is missing, and his children will never know their true identity. By selling his birthright he has practically sold his soul. He has sold out to all the black men that have fought for freedom and equality. “Passing” is definitely a detrimental intermediary preventing the narrator’s ability to find his identity. It is not rational or productive for a black man to “pass” himself off as a white person.
James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man: Literary Analysis
For decades blacks in America have been suppressed much like a flame being smothered in order to extinguish it, but unlike fire, the spirits and souls of blacks have never stopped burning. Blacks have been physically abused by society through lynchings, burnings, and other acts of violence and have been emotionally abused through slurs, organized protest such as ones held by the Ku Klux Klan, and other forms of racism. Although our forefathers stated when they declared our independence, “that all men are created equal,” and, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, blacks have found themselves denied the right to live, the right of liberty in its entirety, and have had their pursuit of happiness blocked. Blacks have found themselves having to fight for amendments in order to secure their civil liberties, although the constitution also claimed that all were created equal. Yet through the abuse and suppression, the black spirit has always found a way to triumph. In James Weldon Johnson’s novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, written anonymously, James Weldon writes of a bi-racial man who lives the horrible life of a black man. After changing races, he realizes that he was freer when he was black because his sprit and mind triumphed, but his realization came too late. James Weldon Johnson, a novelist, poet, and lyricist, wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in order to show how the black soul triumphs through the eyes of an individual who lives both sides.
James Weldon Johnson’s life models the triumph expressed in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. He was born James William Johnson, which he later changed to Weldon in 1913, in Jacksonville, Florida during the year 1871 (Nelson). He lived a rough childhood being fathered by a waiter, who shared the same name, and a mothered by a woman named Helen who taught at the segregated elementary school he attended until eight grade (Nelson). Since there were no high schools for blacks, Johnson’s parents were obligated to send Johnson to Atlanta for high school and college if he wished to continue his education (Nelson). Once in school Johnson’s life began to excel as he graduated at the top of the class in high school, wrote over 30 poems and college, and was invited to speak at the graduation for Atlanta University (Nelson). After graduation, Johnson began to accomplish a long line of first for African-Americans. After years of studying law as he taught at Stanton Elementary, the school his mother had taught at, Johnson became the first black to be admitted to the Florida Bar in 1897 (Nelson). He began to practice law with a friend he met during his studies who had once passed as white and this person later became the basis for the novel (Nelson). In 1985 Johnson began “The Daily American”, the first Negro newspaper, and although the paper only lasted a year, he was able to voice his opinion over several racial issues (Nelson). In 1900, Johnson wrote the work he is best known for in African-American society which was set to music be his brother John Rosamond Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (Nelson). This piece, which has come to be accepted as the black national anthem, was not the only time his brother and he teamed up as lyricist and composer; they composed over 200 songs for Broadway musicals including “Sleeping Beauty” and “Humpty Dumpty. (Nelson)” After his time as a lyricist, Johnson became a Diplomat for America to many countries including Venezuela in 1906, Nicaragua in 1909, and the Azores in 1912 (Nelson). 1912 is also the year he wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which didn’t flourish until the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s (Nelson). In 1916, he began a fifteen year commitment to the NAACP where he became the first black secretary, sparked the drive behind the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1921, and also lead the fight against the lily-white primary, which made it illegal for Blacks to be denied participation in the southern primary elections (Nelson). In 1930 Johnson became the professor of Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he taught until he died on from a train crashing into his car on June 26, 1938 (Nelson). Although Johnson realized over the course of his life that “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered” (Diesman) and ” We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered” (Diesman, he still managed to inspire millions of African-Americans to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (Diesman)
In the novel, there is a bi-racial child who lives a better than normal life with a white father, whom he is not aware of. The only memories he has of this man are of playing with his watch and receiving a gold ten-dollar piece with a hole in it. He takes piano lessons and excels greatly in it and is considered a child prodigy by some. He is a great scholar and raised very formally. His first problems in life occur in public school. A teacher requests that all the white children stand, and being raised white the child stands, however, the teacher promptly orders the child to sit down. From here on out the child’s life begins to fall. His classmates stop talking to him and he is left with two colored friends, Red and Shiny. He does manage to fall in love with a violinist he accompanies, but he also receives his first heartbreak when he finds he has no chance with her. Toward the end of his secondary school, his mother becomes deathly ill. While dying she reveals his past, the fact she is black and was impregnated by a wealthy, white landowner who dearly cared for him. He spends all the money he has saved for college on her medical bills and is even forced to sell their house during her sick term. He cannot attend college and moves to Atlanta with 400 dollars and rents a room in a boarding house with 3 other roommates. When he wakes, he hides his money in a trunk before he exits to tour the city. Upon his return, he finds his money stolen and one of the boarders checked out. He must now find job and moves to Jacksonville where the only job he can obtain is a cigar maker. The Hispanics here take him under their wing and teach him Spanish, which eventually leads him to a higher position, the reader. His factory is shut down, and with all hopes of college being destroyed, he moves to New York where he lives the club life where he uses his piano skills in ragtime. He excels greatly as a musician but is equally ruined by his addiction to craps. Realizing his talent yet trouble, a white man hires the “ex-colored man” and brings him to Europe. He falls in love a second time, but is heart-broken once more because she is shot in the neck. He moves back to the American south in order to pursue a career as a composer but during his travels he sees a black man burned by a white lynch mob. He can no longer stand the black race and not because of fear, but because the mishaps that occur to them by others with impunity. He grows a beard, lightens his skin, and starts a new life as a white man. He moves to New York and must completely start over his life. It is not as easy as the first time he made a life in New York because he does not have the same connections he had before, but he works hard, saves money, and moves up in social ranking easily. He meets a girl and this time he is successful in love, however, he tells her of his past, the fact that he was once black, and she leaves saying that she needs time to think. When she returns, she says she can live with it because she loves him and they marry and have two children. She dies after the second. While raising his two children he thinks of his life and people in it. He then realizes he wants to go back to being black because he could be his true self then, but can’t for the sake of his children.
Many in a society say the eyes a black man sees the world through and those of whites are extremely different. In Johnson’s work, he ingeniously creates a tale of a man, the narrator, who is given the rare opportunity to see through both. Previous to his realization of being black, the narrator felt confident about himself and had a sense of order within his heart. Then he was told he was black and “from that time [he] looked out with other eyes.” In that instant, chaos fell over him like ants over a destroying mound frantically trying to build back their sanctuary from the world. His “thoughts were coloured”, his “words dictated”, his “actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until [he] finally realized it in a great, tangible fact. And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every colored man in the United States. He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a coloured man.” Being black he is forced to lose his optimism and become more pessimistic about life. His loses friends as he realizes whites were friends with his class and color while the blacks stayed true to him and nurtured his decaying heart. He loses respect for his runaway father as he realizes he was abandoned because of his color while his mother cared for him for more of a reason than “a mother’s instinct.” He understands that despite his intelligence and qualifications, he couldn’t obtain a better job than a factory worker or underground musician. Common in all his experiences where the spirits of those around him. Blacks, although seeing the world in the same eyes as the narrator, always seemed to be full of life, have a high morale, and feed as well as receive the glory of those around them. Although they all weathered they same storm, he failed to see the to see the rain for it’s beauty and inspiration like the others around him, instead, he saw the lack of sunlight and the gray that stood between him and it’s freedom.
Once the narrator has the chance to experience life through another set of eyes, he realizes that it is not quite what he wanted. Granted that as a white man, the narrator was able to earn a decent living more easily and move further up the social class more quickly, however, he isn’t given the seem individual freedom as a white man. Music is the smallest yet most easily seen example. As a black man playing ragtime, the narrator is free from the notes on a page and is able to play any variation of melody or harmony he pleases. This is a method of expressing whatever may be on his mind or in as heart, on the other hand, as a white man he is forced to a strict set of rules and technique while he plays piano. No matter what he feels or thinks, he must play the piece so that it is stylistically correct. Another way that narrator is denied individual freedom is through language. As a black man, friends and family had no care of what he said or how he said it. As a white man, the narrator often found himself holding his tongue toward different issues and also found himself screening the words he used and the way he said them.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator has own epiphany as he realizes that he no longer satisfied with his life as a white man. He realizes that he misses the individual freedom and the unity of the race as a whole. Although he underwent so many troubles as a black man, he failed to see what really mattered. If he would have took the time and looked at the people surrounding him and the reasons for which they smiled, he would have stood in the same triumph as them. All the people of the race had suffered just like him, however, they all had a unity and understanding between each other that is extremely uncommon among others. Once he had the chance to live the life of a white man, he understood there was something missing, that “there was a link that is absent in the chain now.” After years of looking for happiness, he finally realized that it was in the hearts and good souls of blacks, but it is too late for him to go back. He wants to protect his children from the discrimination of the race, but he also understands that being raised in the black world would build a stronger sense of character within his children. The narrator had finally saw that rain really is a beautiful thing.
Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man: Critical Analysis of Parental Judgment
Draft question: What parental judgment goes on to informing the children?
Every human being should have the right to know the truth about their background in order to recognize their own identity. Although it is comprehendible that a parent only wants to protect his or her child from any harm, it is better to know sooner from the parent rather than anyone else. In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson demonstrates how the silence of a mother affected the protagonist early in his childhood for not knowing about his racial background. As well in Passing, Nella Larsen shows how the parents have a conflict between which is the best strategy, silence or acknowledgment, to raise their child with. Also, in Lost Boundaries, director Alfred L. Werker indicates how the community may play a role deciding whether the parents should express their identity or keep it a secret. Due to the poor parental judgment, children should not suffer the after consequences of the hidden ethnicity roots.
The narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, confronts a difficult time in his childhood due to the silence of his mother. He found out the truth about his racial background by a teacher. Ironically, his classmates also “knew he was colored” (Johnson 7). The narrator suffers a traumatic experience “which was years in healing” (8) and would “never [have] forgiven the woman who did it so cruelly” (8). The reader can see the child suffers the harsh consequences due to the wrong parental judgment. Subsequently, the narrator confronts his mother about the discovery of his mixed race. He wants his mother to answer his question, “am I a nigger?” (8). The question demonstrates how the lack of information from his mother made him insult himself using the word “nigger”. Moreover, the narrator believes African Americans are inferior to any other race. After he used to believe his mother was “the most beautiful women in the world” (8), he critically analyzes her physical characteristics “searching for defects” (8) as if being from an African American descent was an indecent thing to be. Evidently, keeping the truth hidden is not the best parental strategy. Although the parent may believe that by not telling him about his racial background she is protecting him from discrimation, in reality she is preventing him from discovering his own identity. Between the families, there may be disagreements between which is the best strategy to raise their children with.
Nella Larsen illustrates the conflict between the parents whether to tell their children about their racial background or to keep it hidden. Irene, the mother of two children, has a different approach to the situation versus her husband Brian. She believes that by keeping their “race problem” (Larsen 83) away from their children they would be able “to be happy and free” (83). Unfortunately that is not the case since “somebody called Junior a dirty nigger” (83). Her children will encounter people with a different mindset not caring if the children get emotionally hurt. She would rather have her children learn “about such horrible things when they’re older” (83) even thought she realizes they encounter those situations in the present. Meanwhile, Brian believes the best tactic to the situation is for them to “find out what sort of thing they’re up against as soon as possible…[to be] better prepared” (83). This way, the children will be aware of the what they will encounter in the future based on their race. The community will have an input whether it is positive or negatively but it is up to the adults to take control of the situation.
Director Alfred L. Werker denotes the function of the community on how it affects the parental judgment. The film emphasizes the role of people passing as white: a person who is hiding their ethnicity in order to be treated like a white person. Scott and Marcia, who were Southern Negros, were forced to pass as a white family due to the conditions of the community that they were living in. Also, they wanted to provide their children with a better opportunity in life free of discrimination. For this reason they were not able to tell their children about their racial background. Although both of their children were grown and mature, the news of being partly African American affected them deeply. Their children were the only ones truly suffering the consequences of not knowing their ethnicity since it affected their social lives. Feeling confused about their identity, they did not allow this circumstance to distance their relationship between their parents.
Parents should be able to freely express their racial background to their children without taking society into consideration. It is a matter of self-dignity to make their children aware of their own ethnicity. Children should have the opportunity to decide whether to embrace their mixed race or ignore the circumstance. The best parental strategy to raise their children with is to let them know of their ethnicity early in their lives.
The Use Of The Mirror And Diction Techniques In The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man By James Weldon Johnson
In the book titled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson, the topic of race and identity are discussed through the experience of a biracial American. When this man, the protagonist, is introduced the concept of race does not seem to affect his day to day life until a moment when he is grouped together with the coloured children. This occurrence is then followed by a scene when the protagonist examines himself in detail for the first time. This scene is a pivotal moment in the protagonist’s life because it ignites his curiosity and determination to understand his identity. This moment also completely shifts his view of himself, the people around him and the society in which he lives. Therefore, I will argue that the mirror scene is the catalyst for the protagonist’s self-conception due to the way it completely shifts and molds his understanding of his identity.
The author conveys this realization through his interaction with his mirror and the diction used to describe his appearance. In literature, mirrors are often used to symbolize illumination and wisdom since they reflect light as well as the world around them. They are also often seen as reflecting truth. This is one way the mirror is used in this scene. When the protagonist comes home he grabs the mirror so that he can examine himself, but he admits that he is afraid to look at first. This fear manifests due to the mirror being a place that holds and reflect truth. The mirror is going to reflect his image without bias or manipulation therefore it is going to shatter his preconceived idea of being white. When examining himself he admittedly appears whiter, but he is aware that there is something “strangely fascinating” about him image. The mirror exposed this difference in his features, that reflect his ethnically diverse heritage, that he had not noticed. This realization effectively changes the protagonist view and understanding of himself resulting in him questioning his race, and by extension his identity, with his mother.
The mirror is acting as a channel for the truth, but it also symbolizes the bridging of the conscious and unconscious mind. Well the protagonist is looking in the mirror he expresses that before this self examination in the mirror he was not aware of his appearance apart from what his mothers’ customers said about him. The mirror provided him with a way to become “conscious of it, and recognize it”, meaning himself and his physical appearance. The mirror in this scene awakened his conscious so that he could view himself in a different way. The switch in consciousness through the self examination in the mirror changed his perception of himself causing him to question his physical appearance and his social image with his mother. The mirror provides a method in which to view himself with clarity, this in turn ignites his interest in his self-conception and social image. The mirror is a powerful tool used to change the protagonists view of himself and works as a method to start his journey to navigating a biracial existence in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Another method the author uses to highlight the shift in self-conception is in that language used when he is describing himself. Diction or word choice can be an effective way to emphasize meaning, ideas, or themes to the audience without outright stating them. In addition, this can be especially effective when trying to create a tone, image or evoke a certain emotion in the reader. In this scene with the mirror the protagonist takes time to describe himself in detail sharing with the audience his facial features. When he describes his skin, he makes a point to say that it is ivory white giving the reader a distinct image of an off-white tone.
By comparing his skin to the colour of ivory that is not only beautiful off white, but a luxurious item brings an air of prestige to the description. This description invokes this kind of understanding due to the history and status associated with white skin. This is contrasted with his observation of his dark features; these features include his “liquid dark eyes”, “long black lashes” and “glossy dark hair” (Johnson 8). None of the descriptions regarding his “dark” characteristics are paired with any terms or items that would indicate status. They are simply stated with no terms of endearment. This in contrast shows that lighter features or whiter features are desirable and have a status associated with them and that dark features are understated. Furthermore, it shows the divide between whiteness and blackness within the protagonists’ identity. His blackness is hidden due to the lack pf physical representation in his features. By having his blackness under stated it also reflects the way in which he previously saw himself and the shift in that view after he saw himself in the mirror; and then realised that his features where “strangely fascinating”, acknowledging the blackness in his features that he is now conscious of. This use of language shows the shift in his understanding of his identity from a state of misunderstanding to an informed state now that he has more knowledge and understanding of his mixed ethnicity.
Throughout this paper I have draw upon the tools used by the author, such as the mirror and diction, to prove that the mirror scene works as the catalyst for the protagonist’s shift in self-conception. The authors ability to use the mirror as a method for the protagonists to see himself and change his understanding of his identity through physically seeing himself; allows the readers to understand the contrast of his understanding of his identity before and after the mirror. Furthermore, the use of language to highlight and understate certain elements of his appearance allows for the conflict between his former white self and his enlighten biracial self to show the transition from uninformed to informed.
This story and scene is still relevant to discussion about race but also to individuals that are biracial and experience moments like this in their lives. It provides a unique look at what it means to be biracial and the struggle that racial identity can pose when you are both and neither at the same time.
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>.