James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex Colored Man
James Weldon Johnson, is an African American man best known for his contributions to music, as well as politics; however, in 1912 Johnson made the bold and appreciated jump to author publishing his seminal work The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, not as fiction but as an anonymous autobiography. In doing so, Johnson introduces a realistic narrative tracing the identity struggle for a bi-racial man in a racist society. “Certainly, Johnson’s text was revolutionary in its attempt to treat differences and divisions within the black race, as well as those between blacks and whites in America.” as posited by Donald C. Goellnicht in his article “Passing as autobiography: James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man who goes on to say that “ [Johnson] thus presented the issue of race in America as much more than a simple binary opposition, introducing into the discussion complicating factors such as class, geography, ethnicity, education, and gradations of color. He demonstrates that the subject positions of black Americans are not fixed by race alone, but are multiple and shifting” Ultimately, the narrator acts an antihero and chooses to live out the rest of his life as a Caucasian man, however before this the narrator struggles to find identity and belonging within both Caucasian and African American sectors.
Weldon, taking advantage of his anonymity and autobiographical genre, is able to introduce these issues through a nonbiased perspective that swoops in and out of, what Dubois would call the color veil, to illuminate uncomfortable truths, and the prevailing thoughts of race within both cultures. While times have changed, and the African American struggle with it, the country was overwhelmed with its concern” as to whether [African Americans] had sufficient intellect to master even the rudiments of learning; and today it is being fought out over his social recognition.”
Using experience as knowledge, the narrator decides that life as a colored man is difficult and unnecessary for a man of his stature. Despite the great progress made by the race combined with the great history that they claim, he became discouraged by the treatment of African Americans, the difficulty for them to gain recognition, the lack of respect, and a life of comfort as a colored man, he ultimately decides that “[he] would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that [he] would change [his] name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across [his] forehead.”(139). The decision is one that he comes to hesitantly, and affords him great luxuries, yet towards the end of the novel the narrator reveals that he has chosen the wrong path. Saying “…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.” Positioned as the narrators final sentiments it shows that the narrator’s identity is still unformed, and a mass of contradictions. He cannot truly pass as white and lives with the awareness that he is biracial. He cannot find any meaningful closure. He represents the tragedy of trying to live in two worlds at once, and choosing self-interest over self-awareness.
Johnson, James W. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.
Goellnicht, Donald C. “Passing as autobiography: James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” African American Review. Spring 1996. BNET. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2838/is_n1_v30/ai_18372101/?tag=content;col1. 10 December 2009.
Brianca Jay is a writer, tutor and literary analyst. She has upwards of 100 literary videos on youtube and has presented at several national conferences, with a host of publications across various literary journals. Feel free to connect with Brianca