The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man {reading notes}

{ exclusive feature}

"My boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education and by tastes a white man. Now why do you want to throw your life away amidst the poverty and ignorance, in the hopeless struggle, of the black people of the United States?"

I came back to this novel by James Weldon Johnson prepared to treat it the same way I did when it was first assigned to me in an African American Lit class some years ago. After reading the first 1/3 of it I got bored and tossed it aside thinking "This is one of those Negro/Drinking Gourd novels that are supposed to teach the white man all about po' us!" I was just starting to get into BAM poets at the time...

At any rate, upon a second reading, supplemented by some critical work by other authors on the book, I developed a greater appreciation for Johnson's only novel. I learned that he wrote the book while working as a US diplomat in Nicaragua and that it was published anonymously in 1912. The second fact led many readers to believe that it was in fact a true story which made the book somewhat scandalous and paved the way for a second printing (with the author's real name attached) in 1927--at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

Of course, one look at Johnson and we know that the novel is not about him. It's actually believed to be based on one of Johnson's college friends from Atlanta University named Judson Douglass Wetmore who went on to pass for white at the School of Law at the University of Michigan. Johnson on the other hand was the classic "race man" having worked with his brother writing black songs for Broadway musicals, serving as the secretary for the NAACP for a decade, penning the black national anthem, and even teaching at Fisk University where John Hope Franklin was one of his students.

The biggest contribution of the novel however is that it marks a watershed moment in black writing. Before its publication, black literature was mainly the stuff of slave narratives, or else writing that had to present a strict and stereotyped image of its black characters. The Autobiography is perhaps the first black novel to present readers with a flawed and psychologically complex black protagonist. While the book does have its moments of Souls-of-Black-Folk-preachiness and regurgitation, it also shows us a black character who muses on love, is an expert sociological observer, and fluent in like three languages. Most importantly, he reflects on the despair of his condition; feeling the need to pass in order to save himself from what he perceives as the wretched existence of black life in America while wishing to use his talents as a musician to bring glory to the (black) race.

Not the greatest novel, but it paved the way for Zora, Ellison and others.