Tuesday, September 10, 2013

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

A number of authors around the turn of the last century explored the complications of the race issue in America.  The question as to what constitutes race was not easily answered.  In Frederick Douglas' Up From Slavery,  he talks of a whole new race of people that were growing in number due to slave owners impregnating their slaves.  These children, Douglas contended, belonged to neither white nor black communities but were rejected by both.  He classified himself in this category because his own father, a slave owner, was white.

Nella Larsson, a prominent writer during the Harlem renaissance creates in her short story, Passing,  the tale a black woman who is light enough to be taken as white so decides to pass herself off as such.

    Even Mark Twain forced his readers to confront the problem in his novel, The Tragedy of Puddinhead Wilson.  In his story a slave girl has to care for both her own baby and that of her owner's because the man's wife died a week after she gave birth to their son.  The two baby boys are in fact half brothers, the man of the house having fathered them both.  We're given to understand that the slave, Roxana, is only about 1/32nd black herself so her son cannot be told apart from his half brother.  Roxana decides to switch the boys to give her son a chance at life and pretends the son born to her mistress is her own, and thus raises him as a slave.

I have always found these kind of stories fascinating and so it is with James Weldon Johnson's book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.  In Johnson's story, which is a work of fiction in spite of the title,  the protagonist, who is never named-nor is anyone else in the book-recalls his upbringing in the north around the turn of the last century, after leaving the south while still a small boy.  He lives with only his mother, his father being at first unknown to him.

At first he doesn't see any difference between himself and his classmates at school.  He observes that there are black children at his school and they are looked down upon, even the ones that prove themselves exceptionally intelligent.  He feels pity for them, but looks down on them as well.

 One day his teacher asks all the white students to stand up to be counted.  He stands up as well.  The teacher tells him to sit back down, that she is only counting the white children.  This is the first time he is made to understand that he is not white.  He rushes home for an explanation.  His mother tearfully informs him that she was a servant in a prominent gentleman's house in Georgia and became pregnant by him.  Even though she is fair-complexioned, she is counted among the black race and so is he.

This alters the whole course of his life and how he views himself.  Even though his white friends continue to befriend him, his attitude changes towards the black students as he realizes he is, in fact, counted among them.

He chooses to join his own race and live among them.  He goes to Atlanta to go to college, but after losing all his money at a porter house, he moves to St. Augustine, Florida and gets work in a cigar making factory.  His time in the south allows him to make observations about the different classes of black people.  While he admits there is a criminal element in a certain segment of black society, he also observes that there is a respectable working class group and also a wealthy, highly educated community of black people as well.

The white people, according to him, refuse to acknowledge any sort of demographic among blacks, except the worst criminal class, a group that the other groups of blacks despise as well.

He makes a lot of money working in the cigar factory so he decides to take his savings and move to New York City.  There he becomes involved in the world of gambling and rag time music.  A world where white and black people mingle.  He eventually meets up with a white millionaire who takes him as a companion across Europe. 

 After spending a number of years in Europe he becomes overwhelmed with the desire to immerse himself in the black culture of the deep south so he leaves his friend and moves to Alabama.  Here he endeavors to preserve and celebrate black culture by collecting and publishing the stories, songs and poetry of the Southern black.

While living in Alabama, he witnesses a brutal lynching that resolves him to leave the south and his race forever.  He becomes determined to pass himself off as a white man for the remainder of his life.  He returns to the North where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful white woman.  She falls in love with him as well, but before he proposes he feels he must inform her of his actual race.  This takes a lot of courage on his part and when he finally confesses she breaks down and sobs.

This all seems very strange to us living a hundred years after the book was written.  I can't imagine living in a reality that learning that somebody was part 100th-something of a different race it would be such a trauma and impediment to my marrying them.

That is what I find to be valuable about this book.  It opens to us the attitudes towards the racial groups of a time past.  I have thought quite a bit about this, how someone can be so repulsed by someone for no other reason than the color of their skin.  Not even the color of his skin but the "race" he's supposedly from even though he's more white than black and his culture is for all practical purposes white as well.  It's easy to chalk it all up to how a person is raised and I know that has a lot to do with it, especially if one never questions the values they were imbued with while growing up.

But at the same time I know people who were raised in households that were as racist as the worst of them but did not allow themselves to be a product of their environment.  My father is one of them.  My dad was born and raised in the deep south but never in my entire life under his roof did I hear him utter a single racial slur.

Johnson originally published his book anonymously in 1912 for fear of public reaction.  Later in the 1920's at the height of the Harlem Renaissance his book was republished with his name.  

While written from a black person's point of view, his intended audience was white people.  No doubt he was trying to call attention to the absurdity of race distinction and the prejudices that produced it.

He is one of the founding fathers of the NAACP and wrote a number of poetry and songs, including God's Trombones and the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.  Fluent in Spanish and French, he became the first African American, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, to become a U.S. consulate to Venezuela and Nicaragua.

James Weldon Johnson


  1. Fascinating review Sharon.

    These books and stories tend to be very eye opening and enlightening. Agreed that they really illustrate a seemingly odd way of thinking.

    I would add to your list of similar books on the subject Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" which is a man who is born black. He is very light skinned and decides to live life as white man.

  2. Because it was all that different 100 years ago? More recently than that (1950) my mother felt compelled to confess her "background" to my father before they married. He married her anyway, but this was an issue. In the 1990s, she made the comment "You wouldn't believe how much of that still goes on..." (That the people at the top of the pyramid are blissfully unaware of)

  3. Capplor: I know prejudice exists-and I might add it exists on both sides of the fence- but where I work and where I taught in public school biracial children are not an uncommon sight. In fact, it's so common that two my of black students once asked if I was "part white" -as they put it.

    There will always be racism, but it is nothing compared to what it was one hundred years ago.

    I might also add that your mother got married over half a century ago. That's not exactly yesterday.

    Still, our world is far more segregated than it needs to be. Thank you for your comment Capplor and have a good day.

  4. A fascinating book which is still relevant today.

    I must look up the Twain book you mentioned.


    1. Zohar: Twain's is the best. Of course he's a brilliant writer. HIs account shows the tragedy while never compromising his hilarious wit.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.