Academic journal article African American Review

Chronopolitics and Race, Rag-Time and Symphonic Time in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Academic journal article African American Review

Chronopolitics and Race, Rag-Time and Symphonic Time in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Article excerpt

At the center of James Weldon Johnson's 1912 novel lies the relationship between the nameless narrator and the equally nameless "patron" who pays the narrator to serve as a living phonograph. (1) The patron hires the narrator to accompany him throughout Europe, where the narrator's only duty is to be available to perform ragtime for the patron whenever he demands. (2) Indeed, during their time in Europe, the patron falls into the habit of waking the narrator up in the middle of the night to perform for him. Unsurprisingly, the narrator finds this habit more than a little burdensome; in recalling his struggle with fatigue during these sessions, the narrator describes the patron as "a grim, mute, but relentless tyrant, possessing over me a supernatural power which he used to drive me on mercilessly to exhaustion" (121). Johnson's language here suggests a sharp similarity between the position of the patron and the position of 18th- and 19th-century slave masters. Certainly the patron's lack of hesitation in waking the narrator in the middle of the night to perform for him shows an attitude toward the narrator's time that is reminiscent of slave owners" attitudes towards slaves' time. As one slave owner phrased it: "I have ever maintained the doctrine that my Negroes have no time whatever; that they are always liable to my call without questioning for a moment the propriety of it; and I adhere to this on the grounds of expediency and right" (Mullin 255).

What stands out in Johnson's scene of nocturnal ragtime performance is the importance of the category of time. The patron tyrannizes the narrator's time; moreover, his use of the narrator's ragtime reveals the extent to which the patron himself feels tyrannized by time. According to the narrator, the patron views ragtime as "a means of disposing of the thing which seemed to sum up all in life that he dreaded--time." "To escape, to bridge over, to blot out" time: thus the patron attempts to use the narrator's music (143). (Eventually, the patron does succeed in blotting out time, but only by ending his own life.) The narrator's time is at the service of the patron, the patron attempts to use it to escape the force of time, and sounding in the narrator's ragtime is a form of time cunningly aware of the patron's power and predicament, and slyly resistant to both. Music is the most eminently temporal of forms, and it is my contention that Johnson uses music in The Autobiography to critique the role of time in the racial formations and expectations of the early twentieth century. Music is central to Johnson's novel and to its narrator as he attempts to negotiate the racialized landscape of his era. A key part of the narrator's movement from his childhood with his black mother to his existence as a "white" real estate speculator is his passage from improvising ragtime performer to classical composer, a marker of his shift in allegiance from one conception of time to another.

Specifically, Johnson uses the counterpoint between two different musical traditions (ragtime and classical music) to meditate on the political valence of two different forms of time. If art is, as Albert Murray asserts, "the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement of the rituals that re-enact the primary survival technology.., of a given people in a given time, place, and circumstance" (111) and if, as Emile Durkheim writes, "the foundation of the category of time is the rhythm of social life" (20), then each form of music should give shape to quite different temporal conceptions. Ragtime and classical music each embody distinct modes of time-consciousness and of temporal being-in-the-world.

In The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, classical music stands for a conception of time that revolves around necessity, calculability, and the expected. This progressive, sublimating time imagines temporal movement as movement away from embodiment, a correlative of a movement through social space organized in such a way as to present no impediment to the will of subjects figured as white or to the prerogatives of capital. …

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