Academic journal article African American Review

Passing as Autobiography: James Weldon Johnson's 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Passing as Autobiography: James Weldon Johnson's 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.'

Article excerpt

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man - the narrative of a fair-skinned mulatto man who, after many difficulties on both sides of the color-line and much agonizing over "the Negro problem" in America, chooses to pass for white - was published anonymously in 1912, leading to speculation about the identity of its author. Accepted by most readers and reviewers as authentic autobiography, this text was, in fact, a fiction written by James Weldon Johnson, himself a black man who had already gained a reputation as a musician and song writer in New York and was at the time the U.S. Consul, the government's representative, in Corinto, Nicaragua.(1) Although a number of readers in New York intellectual circles guessed the book's author shortly after its initial release by the small Boston firm of Sherman, French, and Company, Johnson's authorship was only publicly revealed when the novel was reissued by Alfred A. Knopf, with an introduction by Carl Van Vechten, in 1927 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. By this time black creative literature was very much in vogue, and Johnson himself had gained considerable fame as the first black leader of the NAACP. By 1927 he was also a prominent editor of African American poetry - The Book of American Negro Poetry, a landmark work, had appeared in 1922 - and a significant poet in his own right - God's Trombones, a set of sermons in free verse, was also published in 1927.

Criticism of Ex-Coloured Man since 1927 has traditionally focused on the issue of whether the text is autobiographical fiction, a question raised in all its complexity, but left hanging in ambiguity, by Van Vechten in his introduction to the Knopf edition: "The Autobiography, of course, in the matter of specific incident, has little enough to do with Mr. Johnson's own life, but it is imbued with his own personality and feeling, his views of the subjects discussed, so that to a person who has no previous knowledge of the author's own history, it reads like real autobiography" (v-vi). It was not until the appearance of Joseph Skerrett's 1980 article on the ironic detachment between Johnson as author and his unnamed narrator, the Ex-Coloured Man, that the question of the text as autobiographical fiction was definitively answered in the negative.(2) Skerrett interprets the narrator as Johnson's "anti-self" or alter-ego, a figure based on a life-long friend identified by Johnson only as D, but revealed in Eugene Levy's biography of Johnson as Judson Douglass Westmore.(3) Skerrett's article is a brilliant piece of investigative criticism, for which we are in his debt, because he has made it virtually impossible to identify Johnson with the Ex-Coloured Man at the level of biography. But further complications remain to be explored: We underestimate the complexity of the text when we pose the question of the narrator's position as an either/or proposition - either the anonymous narrator is to be taken as the autobiographical mouthpiece of Johnson's conservative views on race and class, or he is to be read as the butt of Johnson's irony, a view that identities Johnson as politically more liberal.(4) There are a number of levels of irony at play here: The narrator is frequently self-consciously ironic in his treatment of significant issues concerning himself and his race, and thus appears to be a subject of considerable self-knowledge; but at other times he is blind to the narrowness and bigotry of his own perspective and thus becomes the object of Johnson's, and our, ironic gaze.

An important part of establishing the text as complexly ironic is an examination of the crucial, but largely ignored, question of why a novel about a black man who passes for white would itself pass as a genre it was not: autobiography. The decision to engage in this generic passing - parallel to the Ex-Coloured Man's genetic passing - was one that Johnson took after a good deal of deliberation, at least according to the account he gives in his own autobiography, Along This Way, published in 1933, in part to prove that he was not the protagonist of his novel. …

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