Friday, June 29, 2007

Whatcha Readin'? Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

I just finished a fascinating book yesterday that I'd never heard of before, and I feel like telling you about it. It's called Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, and the first thing you need to know is that it isn't "real" autobiography. This seems patently obvious when you read the thing, but when I decided to post about it, I Googled the title and it appears that much very serious scholarship has been dedicated to discovering and explaining why the book was written as it was. I don't disagree with the scholars I read, although it does seem like their conclusions are pretty straightforward stuff.

Anyway, the book was published anonymously in 1912 (The edition I read was the reprint from 1970 and acknowledged openly in an introduction that the book was fictional--it also named Johnson as the author) and purported to be the story of a man born just after the Civil War to a young white Southern aristocrat and a former slave. The father moves the mother and child to Connecticut and the boy progresses to the middle grades in school before he finds out that he is one of the "negroes" in the class (I'll let you read the scene of discovery yourself--it actually mirrors a very old comedy routine, which only makes it nastier.)

I've read some autobiography from that period, like Frederick Douglass' account, but this one comes at things from a different angle. The protagonist has the option, right around the turn of the 20th century, of either using his considerable talents to bring credit to black people in America and thus help "build a race" . . . . . or, on account of his complexion, to pass as a white man and make a pile of money. Most good character-driven fiction comes from putting people into impossible positions like this and forcing them to make choices, and this one works.

The title is a grabber, to be sure. I'd never heard of this book or of Johnson, but I happened to notice the title as I wandered around the public library. If you read it in public, be prepared to discuss it with everyone you meet. I had a very good discussion my dentist between the time she expressed shock at the title and the time I couldn't talk anymore.

Aside from the racial questions he tries to address (always a big deal for an American audience whether it's 1912, 1970 or 2007) the most intriguing part of the narrative is the continuous thread of music--and this is something I haven't read any of the scholars addressing. Johnson was well-known as a composer and musician in New York, and so is his fictional counterpart. As a boy, growing up in Connecticut, he is known as a musical prodigy playing classical music. After he discovers that he's one of the "negroes" at his integrated school, he continues to play that music--but when his mother dies and he makes his way south and then to New York, he discovers rag time music and it becomes his total passion. He believes rag time is one of the only genuine American artistic innovations (it was--it became jazz--but saying so in 1912 was a bold prediction for Johnson) and is proud that it was developed by black musicians. He notes, for instance, that in Paris he heard rag time called "American music" more often than not, while in America it was still widely unknown outside large cities. During this time, when he's trying to make his way as a "negro" but still make a success of himself, he makes a name as a musician by blending rag time and classical music concepts, reinterpreting classical music in rag time style.
Near the end of the narrative, he makes his Faustian deal and decides to "pass." He'll become a white man. What finally seals his fate and makes it impossible for him to go back is falling in love with a beautiful white woman with an amazing singing voice--whom he woos by playing Chopin and his own classical compositions. No more rag time.
Even as the tale ends, the complexity of the choices he's made never lets up. It never becomes simple. At the end, he manages to be happy and regretful at the same time, in a believable way. This is something a lot of authors have their characters say, but it doesn't always ring true. You'll believe it in this story.

Anyway, this is a good read whether you really want to think about all the social implications or not. If you read it, though, he's going to break your heart several times. Don't say I didn't warn you.


staghounds said...

Now try "All God's Dangers".

Don said...


FHB said...

Great review. Sounds like a Harlem Renaissance thing.

Don said...

The author was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance and headed the NAACP during the 1920's.

The events of the book predate the Harlem Renaissance, and it was published in 1912. One of the interesting things about the book is his predictions of where ragtime music and "negro poetry" would lead.