William Johnson's Diary: The Text and the Man Behind It

By Andrews, William L. | Southern Quarterly, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

William Johnson's Diary: The Text and the Man Behind It


Andrews, William L., Southern Quarterly


William Johnson, businessman, slaveholder, and free man of color in antebellum Natchez, kept an intensely private diary for almost sixteen years, from 1835 until his death in 1851. Today we recognize this massive record as the longest and most detailed personal narrative by an African American during the antebellum era in the United States. Yet for almost a century no one knew William Johnson wrote anything at all.

Out of ordinary account books in which he tallied the daily expenditures and income of his early business ventures, Johnson's diary evolved into an extraordinary record of social, economic, and political life in his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi. Largely self-educated, Johnson wrote as a self-appointed unofficial local historian. Everything from the mundane - the diarist's search for a lost cow - to the momentous - the visit of former President Andrew Jackson to Natchez - whetted Johnson's voracious pen. That is what made him so interesting to the historians William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adam Davis, who researched and edited his diary for publication in 1951 after it was discovered in the attic of his house in 1938.1

When I first read the diary in the 1980s, however, what struck me most pointedly was not Johnson's appetite for local history, impressive though that was. What fascinated me, and led me to urge the diary's original publishers to bring it back into print, was Johnson the private annalist, the man whose perspective on the world around him, when he was willing to disclose it, gives us a rare glimpse into the mind and heart of a free man of color in a slave society. For those who may know little about the man, I want to introduce the tone and temper of William Johnson as reflected in his diary. I cannot promise a full portrait of this man, however, much as I would like to. A central obstacle to our knowing William Johnson as personally as we would like is his diary itself. Although we might expect the diary to be a window into this man's heart, if not his soul, when we peek into Johnson's diary we soon discover that his window is heavily curtained. Only occasionally does the diarist open the drapery of his privacy wide enough to permit a look inside at the interior of the man himself.

Because of the guardedness of Johnson's diary, because of what he only hints at rather than stating directly, what I have to offer in these remarks is what we might call an etching of William Johnson, not a full portrait in oils. I will call attention to some of the rare personal statements in Johnson's diary to suggest the thought and character of this remarkable man. But please keep this in mind: if Paul Laurence Dunbar had been alive in the 184Os to write his classic poem, "We Wear the Mask," he could easily and appropriately have dedicated it to William Johnson. Johnson wore the mask not only in his dealings with white Mississippians - he even wore the mask when addressing his diary. At least he did most of the time. But there were moments when he let the mask drop, or at least shift a bit. At these moments, we can perceive this shadowy man and his muffled but still self-revealing voice - the voice of a quasi-free man of color in a white supremacist society.

Nothing like William Johnson's diary exists in the history of antebellum southern or African American letters. Yet this truly singular experiment in the history of African American life-writing is still largely unknown today outside of a relatively small circle of scholars. In the preCivil Rights era in which Johnson's diary was first published, it no doubt seemed appropriate to present this African American narrative foremost as a sourcebook of local history, the intimate biography of a town - William Johnson's Natchez - rather than as the private autobiography of a black man. Today, however, during a period of unprecedented interest in African American expressive culture, not to mention heightening attention to the diverse forms of American life-writing, it is appropriate to emphasize Johnson the personal annalist, not just the local historian. …

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