In the second installment of the American Dreams series, Nathaniel Rich reads a seminal African-American novel about crossing the color line, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson. On its 100th anniversary Johnson's novel deserves recognition for its rich American themes and influence in the next generation of African-American writers.
Set with the challenge of humanizing his race for white readers, James Weldon Johnson realized that it was not enough to create a hero who was shrewd, intelligent, and valiant. His hero also had to be a conceited ass.
The anonymous narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man has never encountered a skill or trade that he cannot instantly master. As a 12-year-old he discovers, after several piano lessons, that he is not merely an “infant prodigy,” but “a true artist.” Later, thanks to this “natural talent,” he becomes “a remarkable player of rag-time,” “indeed…the best rag-time player in New York”—a distinction that would place him ahead of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. Language comes to him as easily as music. After spending a year at a cigar factory, he can speak Spanish “like a native”—“In fact, it was my pride that I spoke better Spanish than many of the Cuban workmen.” In Paris, after “an astonishingly short time,” he acquires “a more than ordinary command of French”; a few months in Berlin and he’s fluent in German. The narrator enjoys flagrant successes in love (“I say, without any egotistic pride, that among my admirers were several of the best-looking women”) and money (“Concerning the position which I now hold I shall say nothing except that it pays extremely well”). There is nothing the man can’t do, in the post-Reconstruction South—except, of course, be seen on the street with a white woman, eat at a white restaurant, or be acknowledged in public by his white father.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is the first African-American novel written entirely in the first person, but Johnson did not have literary innovation in mind. He sincerely hoped that the book would pass as nonfiction. For this reason Johnson had to publish the book anonymously, since by 1912 he was already a hugely successful popular songwriter, Broadway celebrity, and the U.S. consul to Nicaragua. A cigar was named after him.
Johnson’s publishers hailed the Autobiography as the first “composite and proportionate presentation of the entire race, embracing all of its various groups and elements, showing their relations with each other and to the whites.” This is a lofty undertaking, but in only 211 pages, Johnson does his best to make good on it. The novel takes the form of a travelogue, with the narrator’s light complexion serving as a passport that allows him to slip freely across color lines. He tours black nightclubs and gambling parlors near Times Square, a white millionaire’s Fifth Avenue apartment, poor black farming towns in central Georgia, and expat cafés in Paris and Berlin. Since he doesn’t linger very long in any place, the people he meets are never more than specters, or types: “the millionaire,” “the Pullman porter, “the Texan,” “the colored preacher.” It’s only the narrator himself who, in his flaws and contradictions, seems human.
But this is the point. Johnson vows, at the beginning of the novel, to initiate his readers into the “freemasonry of the race.” One way he accomplishes this is to reveal the profound variety and complexity of black experience in America. Racism, like any form of bigotry, is a crude simplification, reducing an entire race into a slim range of undesirable qualities. It is, as Johnson writes, a “dwarfing, warping, distorting influence” that forces all of one’s activities to “run through the narrow neck of this one funnel.” As Johnson’s narrator flits between worlds, finding easy acceptance wherever he goes, he lays bare the arbitrariness of the old racial categories. Often in these scenes—such as one in which a Southern cotton planter is flummoxed by the contradictions inherent in his own racist diatribes—Johnson’s tone shifts to mockery, a sharper knife than moral indignation.
There can be no single picture of African-Americans, just as there can be no single picture of America.
Had this been the Autobiography’s only mode, Johnson would be considered today a valuable satirist and social historian of his time. But Johnson did more than that—he changed the course of American fiction. He did so by revealing the power of literature, of words, to divide a people. It is through a novel, after all, that the narrator has his first glimmer of racial consciousness. He is still in grammar school when he reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “It opened my eyes as to who and what I was and what my country considered me; in fact, it gave me my bearing.” The narrator returns to fiction whenever he struggles to make sense of his fractured identity. He tends not to like what he finds there:
…log cabins and plantations and dialect-speaking “darkies” are perhaps better known in American literature than any other single picture of our national life. Indeed, they form an ideal and exclusive literary concept of the American Negro to such an extent that it is almost impossible to get the reading public to recognize him in any other setting…
The Autobiography is Johnson’s argument that no such thing as the “ideal and exclusive literary concept of the American Negro” exists. There can be no single picture of African Americans, just as there can be no single picture of America. This is a liberating idea, and one reason why Johnson’s novel inspired a new generation—Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes, among them—to write autobiographical fiction that broadly expanded the variety of black experience depicted in literature.
In the novel’s final paragraph Johnson reveals that his narrator has decided at last to become “an ordinarily successful white man,” rather than submit himself, and his even paler-skinned children, to the indignities of racial discrimination. Here at last his vanity blisters, and flakes off. He admits that he is haunted by his decision to pass as white, for it prevents him from joining “that small but gallant band of coloured men who are publicly fighting the cause of their race.” (This is a band of men that includes, presumably, James Weldon Johnson.) The narrator’s only consolation is the memoir that he has written. It’s our consolation too. For just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave the narrator his bearing, the Autobiography helped the nation to find its own.
Other notable novels published in 1912:
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Financier by Theodore Dreiser
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
Stover at Yale by Owen Johnson
The Reef by Edith Wharton
Bestselling novel of the year: The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2012. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.